[Headhunting & the Social Imagination in Southeast Asia]

Anthropologica, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

[Headhunting & the Social Imagination in Southeast Asia]


The gruesome practice that has come to be known as headhunting has for a long time attracted both popular and anthropological attention. Southeast Asia is of course one of the classical loci of the custom. While acknowledging the work of Downs, McKinley, the Rosaldos, and other predecessors who have analyzed Southeast Asian headhunting comparatively or in particular ethnographic settings, the editor describes the present volume as the first collection of essays to address the topic in a specific regional context. The reference to Southeast Asia in the title is however misleading. Of the seven essays that follow the editor's introduction, all deal with Austronesian-speaking societies of Insular Southeast Asia (four in Indonesia, and one each in Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysian Borneo). No attention is given to mainland Southeast Asia and very little reference is made to the considerable literature on headhunting as practised among non-Austronesian upland groups inhabiting this region.

This is not to suggest that Insular Southeast Asia forms a distinct unity in regard to headhunting. Indeed the several cases explored in this volume show that it does hot, even in terms of the inclusive definition provided by the editor. Hoskins defines headhunting as "an organized, coherent form of violence in which the severed head is given a specific ritual meaning and the act of headtaking is consecrated and commemorated in some form" (p. 2). Taking heads of slain enemies as mere trophies (or proof of killing) would therefore not qualify. At the same time, the definition is sufficiently broad to collapse some previous distinctions. For example, headhunters need hot preserve or "collect" heads (as the by now ethnographically famous Ilongot, for example, do hot). Nor, evidently, does the acquisition of heads have to be a major purpose of violent encounters in which enemy heads are severed. All that is required is that the head somehow be ritually treated or employed. Yet because the definitional onus is shifted to the perennially problematic concept of "ritual," the boundaries of headhunting remain unclear, and some readers will still be left wondering what might and what might hot count as an instance.

Despite the emphasis placed on "ritual meaning," the contributors give surprisingly little attention to particular headhunting rituals or the symbolism of heads. In fact the only chapter that includes a comprehensive description of such rites is De Raedt's essay on the Buaya of northern Luzon, though the essays by Metcalf and George deal with aspects of headhunting ritual in particular cultural contexts. In contrast, most contributions devote much attention to narrative uses of the idea of headhunting. Kenneth George construes differing local interpretations of a headhunting song from Sulawesi as reflecting differences in the internal social condition of two local communities, while Allen Maxwell employs epic poetry to demonstrate the use of severed heads as symbols of subjugation in Brunei state formation and expansion. Focussing on the "victim's perspective," Tsing similarly explores "stories of headhunting," showing how men among the Meratus of Borneo -- always the targets rather than perpetrators of external violence -- employ tales of supposedly dangerous encounters with outsiders in order to depict themselves as brave survivors and thus lay claim to or maintain internal positions of leadership. Contrasting West and East Sumba, Hoskins's own contribution too deals with headhunting as a sort of rhetorical device. Drawing mostly on Kruyt's essay of 1922 and her own field materials from the western domain of Kodi, Hoskins argues that whereas eastern Sumbanese locate the practice in an expired historical past, people in western Sumba -- who have raised one headhunter to the status of an Indonesian national hero -- treat headhunting, or at least the possibility of its continued practice, as part of a living "heritage."

"Possibility" is the operative term throughout much of the volume insofar as emphasis is placed less on culturally ordained acts of severing heads than on the idea. …

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