10 Fascinating Tribes with a Headhunting History

Headhunting is a savage (and thankfully historic) custom that was once carried out in many parts of the world for a wide variety of reasons. Some tribes even continued with the practice until the mid-20th century [Source]. For those who practiced it, chopping off a person’s head wasn’t just about violence or revenge. Headhunting played a significant role in their social and religious lives; the severed heads often gracing auspicious ceremonies and rituals.

You’ve probably heard of the famous shrunken heads made by Amazonian headhunting tribes or of the Maori tribe’s tattooed heads. In addition to these more-well-known communities, there are plenty of tribes for whom headhunting is a meaningful and iconic part of their cultural history. Here are some fascinating communities from around the world who share a common past of headhunting:

10. The Marind-anim

 [Image: Men of the Marind tribe]

The Papua province of Indonesia is inhabited by a once formidable tribe known as the Marind-anim or the Marind people, famous for their headhunting history. To the Marind-anim, severing of enemy heads symbolized the taking of an individual’s life-power, as the head was considered to hold spiritual power [Source].  Every year, they would organize their headhunting expeditions and set out in large parties to take enemy heads [Source].

Headhunting was an enjoyable sport to the Marind people, providing them the opportunity to indulge in cannibal feasts. It also played an important role in the naming ritual of children from the tribe. According to their custom, each child was given the name of a beheaded person. It was also crucial that these heads or skulls were preserved until the death of the people named after them.

9.  The Montenegrins

[Image: Montenegrin men]

The Montenegrins or the South Slavic people are a European tribal people with a colorful history of blood feuds and headhunting. Mostly active in the 18th and 19th centuries [Source], the Montenegrin headhunting practice played a minor role in raids and warfare. At the same time, they indulged in large-scale raids that resulted in them taking many heads. The victims in such raids were usually Moslems living at a considerable distance [Source].

The intention behind taking an enemy head for the Montenegrins was to prove their bravery and also to shame the enemy. They used a special knife called hanzhar to carry out this savage act. There was an unspoken rule among them that if two tribesmen wounded the same person, the man who took the first blood could legally claim the head [Source]. Sometimes, however, there were disputes over the heads, which often resulted in the claimants fighting to their death.

8. Taiwanese aborigines
[Image: A man belonging to a Taiwanese aboriginal tribe]

Although divided into nine tribes, the Taiwanese aborigines shared common cultural traits and practices such as shamanism and pantheism. Except among the Yami tribe, headhunting was carried out by all the aboriginal tribes. While some of the tribes practiced it for resisting external forces, some used it as a method of worshiping their ancestral spirits [Source].

The process of preserving these severed heads differed from tribe to tribe. The Tsou tribe, for instance, stored the severed heads of their enemies in the men’s meeting huts known as kuba [Source]. Before the colonization of Taiwan by Japan [Source], human heads played an important role in auspicious occasions for the aborigines. From funerals to weddings, no ceremony could take place without a human head.

7. The Igbo people

[Image: the Igbo people]

 As one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa [Source], the Igbo people have their fair share of headhunting history. Headhunting or mgbruru-ishi was commonly practiced by the Eastern Igbo communities [Source]. It was a necessary rite of passage for young men who wished to be a part of the prestigious ufiem club. Providing a human head trophy, according to them, was an act that proved their bravery and manhood.

Despite this atrocious custom, blood-shed was severely abhorred in Igbo culture and headhunting was considered as a serious abomination against Nne Ala/Ani –the Earth goddess [Source]. Due to this belief, headhunting communities required of headhunters to go through a vigorous cleansing ritual before being readmitted in the community.

6. The Wa tribe

[Image: A depiction of the Wa people]

Mostly inhabiting northern Burma (Myanmar), the Wa people were divided into the ‘Wet Heads’ and the ‘Dry Heads’ [Source]. Head-taking, for the former group, involved the actual killing of other human beings whose heads were then chopped off. The latter group, however, either purchased skulls from the Wet Heads or obtained them by opening graves.

Both groups of Wa people believed that fresh-cut human heads were necessary for appeasing the grain god [Source] and having a good harvest [Source]. The severed heads were stored in wooden drum houses and then hung out on stakes every year during the harvest festival.

5. The Mizos

[Image: Mizo women performing the traditional Cheraw dance]

Native to the north-eastern regions of India, the Mizo people are an ethnic group made up of various clans such as the Hmar, Ralte, Lusei, Pawi, etc. This warrior tribe raided neighboring villages mainly for loot and slaves but also took the heads of their enemies back home with them [Source]. These heads were then hung on trees or atop bamboo posts as trophies at the village entry [Source].  

For the Mizo warrior, the act of bringing home an enemy’s head was a way to prove his achievement. Head-taking was done for a number of reasons among this tribe. While the head was considered as the seat of the soul, the Mizos never took enemy heads for the sake of it. They did it not only to prove their prowess over enemies but also to appease evil spirits and attain paradise or pialral after death [Source]. Moreover, successful headhunters had a better chance of finding prospective brides and earning the respect of the bride’s family.

Back in 1871, the Mizos carried out an attack on the Alexandrapore tea gardens in the nearby district of Cachar [Source]. During this raid, they kidnapped a 6-year-old Scottish girl by the name of Mary Winchester after killing her father and almost dividing his head into two. Despite this apparent savagery, Mary Winchester was safely returned to the British government in 1872 after almost a year of captivity.

4. The Nagas

[Image: A group of Naga men]

Like the Mizos, the Nagas are also an ethnic group inhabiting North-East India and are among the most popular former headhunting tribes in India. The last-known record of headhunting activities among this tribe was in 1969 [Source]. Headhunting was a part of a fertility rite for the Nagas, who believed it to be a method of bringing prosperity to the village and getting a good harvest [Source].The head of an enemy was a trophy symbolizing the success of a warrior and the more heads a man took, the higher his social status.

Successful warriors were entitled to wear a headhunting insignia along with special ornaments and attire [Source]. Among the Konyak Nagas, headhunters had the privilege of getting special tattoos. For a Naga warrior, his ability to bring home enemy heads improved his chances of finding a prospective bride.

3. The Sumba people

[Image: A Sumanese woman]

The Sumba people inhabit the Indonesian island of Sumba. Despite living on the same island, there were variations in the meaning and practice of headhunting for people living in different parts of the island. For instance, the Eastern Sumbanese considered heads as tokens of conquest in territorial battles between nobles. A trophy head symbolized sovereignty and was smoked and darkened to be stored in the attic [Source].

In the Western part of the island, headhunting was carried out as an act of vendetta between rivals. For these people, the head of an enemy was a representation of opposition and was considered as disgusting.

Both the Eastern and Western Sumbanese preserved the skulls of their enemies as an ancestral treasure. In the East, these skulls were hung from a skull tree during periods of hostility and then buried in the ground during peaceful times. The Western Sumbanese sometimes returned a skull to the victim’s family after serious negotiations. They would keep the hair to be used for “magical” concoctions [Source].

2. The Maori
[Image: A Maori man with warrior tattoos]

The Maori people of New Zealand are perhaps one of the most famous former headhunting tribes in the world. For them, collecting heads was intended to degrade their enemies [Source]. The Maori also preserved the heads of their ancestors but kept them hidden from public gaze while trophy heads were prominently displayed. They treated both types of heads using a series of methods such as boiling, smoking, and steaming. These processes helped in preserving the facial features.

The trophy heads were preserved with the skulls still intact while the brains, eyes, and tongue were removed [Source]. They then stuffed the skull and nostrils with flax before burying the head with hot stone to be cured dry. What’s interesting about the Maori headhunters is that they drew distinctive tattoos on the heads before preserving them. Known as mokomokai [Source], these elaborately-tattooed heads were highly sought after by European collectors in the early 19th century.  In fact, the Maori traded these “collectibles” for firearms with the Europeans.

[Image: The mokomokai bore intricate tattoo designs]

1. The Shuar
[Image: A Shuar man]

Famed for their association with headhunting, the Shuar people belong to the Jivaroan peoples of Amazon. Some of the shrunken heads made by this tribe still grace the showcases of museums like the Pitt Rivers Museum [Source]. These heads, also known as tsantsas, were made by removing all the muscle and flesh from a dead man’s skull. The skull was then repeatedly filled with hot pebbles and sand until it eventually shrunk to the size of a man’s fist [Source].


[Image: A shrunken head]

Like the Maori, they also traded these shrunken heads for guns with European traders. However, the initial headhunting tradition was much more meaningful. It was carried out as part of a complex cultural ritual and heads were never taken as “war trophies”. For the Shuar people, cutting off a human head was considered as a method of harnessing the power of their victim’s soul [Source]. The shrunken heads formed an important part of ritualistic ceremonies and auspicious events.


[Disclaimer: All images from Creative Commons; labeled for reuse or reuse with modification]

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