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Updated on May 5, 2010

Headhunting is the taking and preserving of human heads. The practice has been reported until present times from almost every major area of the world.

Reasons for the Practice

Headhunting is related in its function and significance to certain aspects of cannibalism and religious sacrifice. The underlying religious notion is a belief that the head contains a part of the soul or some divine and spiritual power that is both beneficial and dangerous to the human beings who possess it. An individual may attempt to acquire such power for himself by taking a head, usually as a means of marking the acquisition of higher status. The members of a village or other tribal community may take heads. The purpose is to augment the group's stock of mystical power, either for the physical or spiritual growth of its members or for the increased fertility of its crops.

Headhunting customs are usually part of a wide series of practices by which individuals and groups seek to come into a close personal relationship with an external source of spiritual power. In this light, headhunting may be regarded as a less extreme form of ritual cannibalism, by which part of the victim's spirituality is absorbed into the eater, and as a more extreme form of the various customs of taking souvenirs of battles and other dangerous exploits. It has been theorized that headhunting practices may have led to more ritualized forms of human sacrifice.


The most detailed reports of headhunting have come from Southeast Asia, where it was practiced until very recently. In Assam, now a state in northern India, heads were taken by parties of raiders and placed on special piles of stones in the raiders' village. It was thought that the victim's virtue would pass from the head into the stones; the head was then disposed of. In some areas, the head was buried face downward, while in others it was hung in a tree or displayed in a bachelors' hall.

In Melanesia, captured heads were in some areas preserved by mummification and in others were worn as masks. In New Zealand, the Maori dried heads so that the features and the elaborate tatooing remained recognizable. They were sometimes bought by Europeans.

In North American Indian societies, headhunting usually took the form of scalping, the remainder of the head not being taken. As in Assam, trophy taking was a necessary part of acquiring full adult status. In parts of South America, heads were shrunk in hot sand for preservation. As in New Zealand, outside traders often bought them. Most such heads now sold abroad, however, are not in fact human heads but those of monkeys.

Headhunting has been reported from parts of West Africa, especially northern Nigeria, where it was associated both with giving fertility to crops and with providing the taker of heads-with slaves in the afterlife.

In Europe, headhunting was practiced in the Balkans, especially in Montenegro, until' early in the 20th century. The Montenegrin head taker believed that he would acquire the soul matter of the victim, and carried the head by its hair in his belt as a sign of his prowess.


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