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Keywords:

  • political anthropology;
  • Taiwan;
  • headhunting;
  • Sejiq people

ABSTRACT

Memories of headhunting, and ritual re-enactments of those former violent practices, are still politically meaningful in contemporary Oceania and Southeast Asia. The case of the Sejiq of Taiwan illustrates how such practices were transformed and eventually terminated as a result of colonialism and the incorporation of formerly stateless peoples into new political institutions. Headhunting was once an expression of the sacred law of Gaya, as both a reinforcement of territorial boundaries and a way of settling legal disputes within communities. It expressed tensions in a ‘reverse dominance hierarchy’ by which some men tried to consolidate political power, but were usually deterred by a strong egalitarian ethos. During the period of Japanese administration (1895–1945), new technologies made headhunting more efficient, but it became more difficult for this formerly egalitarian people to avoid the political coercion of would-be leaders. Contradictions between headhunting as the implementation of Gaya and headhunting as a consolidation of political power — itself viewed as a violation of that Law — eventually led to the abandonment of headhunting. Local leaders found new ways to seek political power, including in the ritual re-enactment of the very same practices used by their ancestors, but continue to be resisted by ordinary people with an egalitarian ethos.