Dr. Susan Russell

 

 

HEAD-HUNTING IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

 

Slides of Northern Luzon Former Headhunting Peoples

 

Primary References:

1. Robert McKinley, 1976 "Human and Proud of It! A Structural Treatment of Headhunting Rites and the Social Definition of Enemies". IN: Studies in Borneo Societies: Social Process and Anthropological Explanation, ed. G. N. Appell. Special Report No. 12. DeKalb, IL: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University.

2. Michelle Z. Rosaldo, 1980 Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life. New York: Cambridge University Press.

3. Janet Hoskins, 1996 "The Heritage of Headhunting: History, Ideology, and Violence on Sumba, 1890-1990". IN: Headhunting and the Social Imagination in Southeast Asia, ed. Janet Hoskins. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Recommended Film: Bontoc Eulogy.

 

 

Lecture Notes:

Before 200-350 A.D., headhunting appears to have had a nearly continuous distribution in most of Southeast Asia and Melanesia. In the Philippines, for example, headhunting was widespread among both lowland and highland Filipinos when the Spanish arrived and established a colony in the archipelago in the mid-1500s. By the turn of the 20th century, headhunting was still practiced only by a minority of small ethnolinguistic groups (sometimes called ‘tribes’) in Burma (Myanmar), Assam in India, the northern Philippine mountains, highland Melanesia, and Kalimantan in Indonesia. Colonial rule in Southeast Asia had all but wiped the practice out by 1930.

While the anthropological literature on headhunting is vast, one can condense the interpretations into five major interpretive frameworks, each one echoing the prevailing theoretical trends in anthropology at the time they were written. These five views are summarized below (drawing in part on the references above):

1. Colonial View – European colonial powers from the 1500s to 1800s were not used to the ritualized violence associated with headhunting in Southeast Asia and understood little about its connection to indigenous cosmology, agricultural and human fertility and religious power. Instead, their own conceptions of morality and ‘proper’ ways to engage in violence accepted face-to-face combat as the ‘manly’ way to wage war or solve territorial battles. Southeast Asians, on the other hand, were perceived by European colonial administrators as bloodthirsty savages in dire need of ‘civilized’ influence. Headhunting was conducted in the region by stealth—a form of ‘surprise’ attack. As a result, headhunting victims often were innocent children and women as well as men since fulfilling the religious, emotional or vengeance goals of tribal Southeast Asians did not require one to distinguish one kind of victim as more worthy than another. In contrast, patriarchal European military men considered women and children unacceptable targets of warfare because they were considered ‘helpless’. Other differences included the way in which ‘heads’ were ritually displayed in public—an affront to European sensitivities about the dead.

These differences enabled Europeans to justify ‘differential’ policies of social and military control in areas where headhunting was endemic, compared to areas where it did not exist.

2. Religious View – Anthropologists and scholar-colonial administrators working in upland Burma and Assam were among the first to recognize that headhunting was not just about violence, revenge, or savagery. Ethnographers like J.P. Mills and Christoph von F rer-Haimendorf noted that cosmology among upland Southeast Asian groups had much to do with the practice of headhunting. By displaying a victim’s head in public and treating it through ritual purification, one could conceivably be recruiting the soul of the enemy into an ally. The spirit of such allies could then be considered part of your ancestral spirit group – and aid or support your ancestral spirits in the afterlife. Since the afterlife in what was known as the ‘skyworld’ resembled life on this earth, with spirits feasting, raiding, growing crops, etc., a beheaded victim’s spirit could also be considered as a recruit to your ancestors’ warrior or ‘army’ in the skyworld. At the very least, they could not become the enemies of your ancestors after death.

3. Structural/Cosmological View – Robert McKinley’s study of ethnographic documents on headhunting in Southeast Asia is the first major ‘regional’ synthesis. While acknowledging early interpretations such as (2) above, he makes several critical points on data from insular Southeast Asia. First, killing one’s enemies means ‘victory’, but acquiring human heads confers the mystical benefits. Second, the ceremonies surrounding the victim’s head are what enable its’ spirit to become a friend, guardian, and benefactor. Third, headhunting is not solely about violence: it is part of a sophisticated mythological, ritual and cosmological worldview (see McKinley, op. cit., pp. 95-97).

Following the structuralist approach of Claude Levi-Strauss, Robert McKinley notes that headhunting poses a contradiction for indigenous Southeast Asian cosmology. On the one hand, indigenous Southeast Asian cosmology was oriented toward an upstream-downstream geography that fit well with their preferred settlement locations along rivers. Their cosmology consisted of a basic three-layered world: the skyworld (the abode of spirits, culture heroes, and gods), this world (the realm of their village settlements and of true humans), and the underworld (the realm of spirits and deities responsible for, among other things, agricultural and human fertility). Gods, goddesses, culture heroes and spirits of various sorts moved between these realms. In myths, culture heroes go on ‘long journeys’ to visit exotic, dangerous places to acquire magical powers and knowledge, much like headhunters made dangerous journeys upstream or downstream to ‘foreign’ places to conduct their violent raids. Indigenous cosmology equated such journeys with travel into remote areas populated by ‘aliens’, enemies or spirits, in contrast to their own village world populated by humans. The contradiction was that in real travel and journeys, ‘other’ villages were populated by creatures that looked human and seemed to be thriving or living just like one’s own ‘people’, but by cosmological definition could not be. Hence, perhaps they were perceived as ‘semi-human’. The rituals of headhunting and the focus on taking the head of someone from another village, according to structural analysis, helped resolve the contradiction in the following way.

By taking the head rather than some other part of the body back to one’s own village, warriors could incorporate the ‘enemy’ or ‘semi-human’ spirit into their own community of ‘humans’. Often, they gave the head a new name and treated it in ways that were friendly so as to persuade the spirit to join their community. The reason why the head (rather than some other part of the body) was chosen by Southeast Asians as the appropriate representational part of the victim is because the head contains the ‘face’. Faces are overt symbols of the individual as a social person. Furthermore, as noted in the rituals and myths of Southeast Asian tribal peoples who practiced headhunting until early in this century, the gods instructed them to take heads as a beneficent virtue that would enable them to increase the fertility of crops, humans, and to acquire other blessings from the ancestral and other sacred beings of the skyworld.

4. Emotions and the Life Cycle View – In 1968, Michelle Rosaldo began fieldwork among the Ilongot peoples of the northern Philippines. As anthropology graduate students from Harvard University, she and her husband Renato hoped to do a study of headhunting that would further the structuralist/religious views described above and provide new insights based on the fact that Ilongot had ceased headhunting only in early decades of the 20th century. Nine months into their fieldwork they realized that 65 of 70 adult men over the age of 20 years had taken at least one head. Surprised that headhunting was still of recent vintage, Michelle Rosaldo set out to find how such an otherwise ‘peaceful’ and friendly group of people could have engaged in such violent acts and how they explained it. In her conversations with Ilongot, she found no support for the explanations above. Ilongot did not say they hunted heads in order to recruit enemy souls into their ancestors’ armies in the skyworld, nor did they do it to turn ‘enemies’ into ‘friends’ and therefore resolve a structural/cosmological contradiction. In fact, they said they did not even bring the heads of their victims back to their home settlements. What they did say was that it was part of an emotional feeling: men said they took heads when they had a ‘heavy heart’ or felt angry or strong pressures.

Michelle Rosaldo returned to study the Ilongot in 1974, determined to study in more detail how personal and affective life is socially constructed and to understand how even common explanations (or ‘discourse’) requires an interpretive account. She focused on two indigenous Ilongot terms: liget (translated as ‘angry’ as opposed to passive, dull or fearful—hence ‘passion’ or creative energy); and beya (translated as ‘knowledge’, or that which controls one’s passion and emotions). Young men explained that headhunting gave them the right to gain the spirit of the beheaded victim, which then allowed them to wear hornbill earrings and have respect among their elders. It also enabled them to ask a woman to marry them. Her subsequent thorough investigations of the life cycle for men and women among Ilongot revealed that men have more passion than women as a result of their broader range of experiences and travel to distant places. In order to tame their passion, or ‘effectiveness’, taking another individual’s head quiets their spirit and restlessness, hence allowing knowledge and maturity to gain control and grow. The spirits of the victims remain with their killers and are harmless; they have nothing to do with fertility or prosperity. But the act of killing itself serves to excite envy and admiration among other youths, to increase one’s reputation among the elders, and enables one to attract a wife.

5. Ideological View – In many parts of contemporary Southeast Asia, headhunting is a part of the past preserved in narrative form. In some areas, headhunting rituals continue with a wooden substitute for a real human head, attempts to achieve the cosmological benefits of agricultural fertility outlined by Robert McKinley (above) without the violence long since outlawed by national laws. Among the Northern Kankana-ey of highland Luzon, for example, the dongtoy ritual is a headhunting rite still held every ten years or so (with a substitute head) in order to ensure the fertility of the rice crop.

Janet Hoskins conducted anthropological research on this topic in Sumba, Indonesia, and found that even on one island headhunting varied in practice and meaning. In East Sumba, headhunting reveals an ‘ideology of encompassment’, wherein heads were used as tokens of territorial conquest in battles between nobles. In West Sumba, headhunting rites display an ‘ideology of vendetta’ and were acts of revenge between equals. Today, the traditions of past headhunting also are constructed and understood in different ways in these two areas. In East Sumba, headhunting is a symbol of their history and their past; their defiance against colonial Dutch outsiders. In West Sumba, headhunting is a heritage that symbolizes and expresses local desires for some degree of autonomy vis-a-vis the modern nation of Indonesia. Hence, as a ritual and cosmological complex, headhunting has taken on different political meanings for different peoples, either as a symbol of popular resistance to outside control in the past (e.g., the heroic tradition of East Sumba), or as a symbol of contemporary desires and resistance to outside control today (West Sumba).

These five different views of headhunting are not irreconcilable, but speak to the very different experiences that Southeast Asian tribal peoples have had in different periods. As McKinley notes about headhunting in the past: "Although the headhunter on a raid was a treacherous and indiscriminate killer of men, women and children, there were at least some human as well as technological limits to the brutality of the system. His wars were waged in the mystical upstream and downstream regions against people who could provide links with the eternal powers of the gods and ancestors." The downfall, or limitation, was that "Outsiders could be fitted into this scheme only through violence."

In contemporary Southeast Asia, headhunting acquires a role which, as Hoskins (p.246) observes, "uses its rhetoric to raid the past for an imagery of fearless confrontations and enduring loyalties to traditional lands. These confrontations can now concern issues of local autonomy, and the preservation of tradition against the encroachments of church and state." And so while headhunting as a violent tradition and ritual or emotional complex has disappeared for the most part, it remains a vital part of the imagery of Southeast Asian peoples who practiced it until early in this century.

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