In Search of the Headhunting Tribes of Borneo

Shrunken smoked heads of slain enemies
Photo circa 1912: Charles Hose

Deep in the steamy jungle of Borneo, the bold English ethnologist hacked away with his machete to make headway through the dense vegetation. The short, sharp parang was designed to be drawn quickly, the better to strike for the neck. Yet while Charles Hose no doubt carried a blade during the many days and nights he spent living among the peoples of Borneo, this fanatical observer of the cultures of the huge Southeast Asian island was also armed with a subtler colonial weapon: the camera. Hose took many a well-aimed shot, and among his focus were Borneo’s headhunters. Still, he wasn’t the only snap-happy white chappie sporting britches and taking pictures; others, like the Dutch, were at it too.

Gallery inside a Kayan Dayak house with skulls and weapons lining the wall
Photo 1900-1930: Photographer unknown

In truth, Charles Hose was armed not just with a camera but with a pen. Stationed on Borneo as the Resident Magistrate during British Imperial rule there, this intrepid investigator recorded all he saw in his book, The Pagan Tribes of Borneo, published in 1912, and this included a discourse on headhunting:

“It is clear that the Ibans are the only tribe to which one can apply the epithet head-hunters with the usual connotation of the word, namely, that head-hunting is pursued as a form of sport,” write Hose, though he later states that these same people “are so passionately devoted to head-hunting that often they do not scruple to pursue it in an unsportsmanlike fashion.”

Ibu Dayak warrior headhunters from Longnawan, North Borneo
Photo circa 1927: Photographer unknown

Before we get lost in confusion over what does and does not constitute sporting headhunting, let’s just be clear that the Iban are a branch of Borneo’s indigenous Dayak peoples. This sub-group of natives became known as Sea Dayaks to Westerners during the colonial era under the dynasty of James Brooke (1803-1868), the Rajah of Sarawak, which is one of Borneo’s Malaysian states.

The violent exploits of the Sea Dayaks in the South China Sea are well documented, due in no small part to their aggressive culture of war against emerging Western trade interests in the 19th and 20th centuries. James Brooke and his Malays gave as good as they got, however, attacking and wiping out 800 of the scurvy pirates. The Ibans also became notorious for headhunting, even if their being branded as pioneers of the practice was unfortunate, and perhaps off the mark.

Dayak man in possession of two heads on strings
Photo 1900-1940: Photographer unknown

Charles Hose himself thought it “probable” that the Ibans “adopted the practice [of headhunting] some few generations ago only… in imitation of Kayans or other tribes among whom it had been established,” and that “the rapid growth of the practice among the Ibans was no doubt largely due to the influence of the Malays, who had been taught by Arabs and others the arts of piracy.”

Modern sources less prone to imparting blame tie in the beginnings of this grisly activity among the Ibans with their territorial and tribal expansionism. As their own areas became overpopulated, they were forced to intrude on lands belonging to other tribes – trespassing which could only lead to death at a time when brutal confrontation was the only means of survival.

Armed Dayaks busy with the scull of a head-hunted enemy, Central-Borneo
Photo 1894: Photographer unknown

Headhunting was also undoubtedly an important part of Dayak culture more widely. A tradition of retaliation for old headhunts kept the ritual alive until it was curtailed and then gradually stamped out by outside interference – namely, the reign of the Brooke Rajahs in Sarawak and the Dutch in Kalimantan Borneo – in the 100 years leading up to World War II.

Early on, Brooke Government reports describe war parties of Iban and Kenyah people – another group of tribes to whom headhunting was culturally important – in possession of captured enemy heads. Yet later on, with the exception of massed raids, the practice of headhunting was limited to individual retaliation attacks or occurred as the result of chance encounters.

Shaven-headed Dayak bearing a spear with a parang hanging from his side
Photo circa 1920: Photographer unknown

Even so, by Charles Hose’s time headhunting was evidently still enough of an issue for the ethnologist to devote sections of his book to the subject. Hose even went so far as to explore possible explanations for the habits and beliefs that may have underlain and supported this macabre ferocity, offering two possible theories:

“That the practice of taking the heads of fallen enemies arose by extension of the custom of taking the hair for the ornamentation of the shield and sword-hilt,” and that: “The origin of head-taking is that it arose out of the custom of slaying slaves on the death of a chief, in order that they might accompany and serve him on his journey to the other world.”

Medicine men of the Dusun-Dayaks in West Borneo
Photo: Photographer unknown

Without wishing to cast too much doubt on Hose’s discerning colonial eye, contemporary scholars have offered slightly different views on what headhunting meant to the people who practiced it. Within the complex polytheist and animist beliefs of the Dayaks, beheading one’s enemy was seen as the way of killing off for good the spirit of the person who had been slain.

The spiritual significance of the ceremony also lay in the belief that it ushered in the end of mourning for the community’s dead. The heads were put on display at traditional burial rites, where the bones of relatives were exhumed from the earth and cleaned before being put in burial vaults. Ideas of manhood were also bound up with the practice, and the taken heads were surely prized.

Dayak chief in full traditional war dress
Photo 1900-1940: Photographer unknown

Those who might sit snugly behind the idea that these barbaric practices lie far from Western civilised standards may want to think again. During WWII, Allied troops are known to have collected the skulls of dead Japanese as trophies. In 1944 Life published a photo of a young woman posing with a signed skull sent to her by her Navy boyfriend, an event that caused public outrage.

Under Allied direction, the Dayaks themselves retaliated against the Japanese with their brand of guerrilla warfare following ill treatment by the occupying forces. The gruesome tradition temporarily reared its head again as US airmen and Australian special operatives turned inland tribesmen into a thousand-man headhunting army which killed or captured some 1,500 Japanese soldiers.

War worker with Japanese skull sent by her Navy boyfriend
Photo, Life Magazine 1944: Photographer unknown

In far more recent times, beheading by Dayak people again resurfaced. Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, has been marred by brutal outbreaks of ethnic violence since the late 1990s. In 2001, over 500 Madurese immigrants were killed and tens of thousands forced to flee, with the bodies of some victims decapitated in rituals all too reminiscent of traditions past.

Conversion to Islam or Christianity and anti-headhunting legislation by the colonial powers may have supposed to suppress headhunting, but violent practices the world over often have a habit of reappearing when situations get ugly.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6