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An Osteological Study of Trophy Heads: Unveiling the Headhunting Practice in Borneo


  • Mercedes Okumura,

    1. Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia, Universidade de São Paulo, Cidade Universitária, São Paulo, Brazil
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  • Yun Ysi Siew

    Corresponding author
    1. Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
    • Correspondence to: Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Street, Cambridge, CB2 1QH, UK.


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Taking, modifying and displaying human body parts as trophies have been observed in several human groups since prehistoric times. Although there are many skeletal collections that present evidence for this practice, the existence of both skeletal material and written records referring to the same group is quite rare. Nevertheless, this is a case of 112 human skeletal remains collected by Charles Hose in Borneo in the late 19th century, which represents a unique opportunity to understand the vanished headhunting tradition and warfare practice in this area, as well as to compare the written records with the bioarchaeological evidence. Although Hose claims that all individuals collected by him were beheaded, our study shows that only 50.5% of the studied material show clear osteological signs of decapitation. Other practices which were part of the ritual of headhunting described by Hose could be observed, like widening of foramen magnum, burning of skulls, mandible tied to the cranium with a strip of rattan or cotton, as well as drilled perforations to suspend skulls in longhouses. Adult females and non-adults comprised more than one third of the total number where sex and age could be determined, showing that males were not the sole targets for trophy heads. Overall, this study on the trophy skulls from Borneo is valuable as it combines and compares ethnographic accounts and osteological data to provide us with a broader scenario of a vanished practice. It draws attention to some aspects that should be taken into account when working exclusively with either written records or skeletal materials, as both present limitations. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.