Heads as Memorials and Status Symbols

Heather Bonney and Margaret Clegg

in The Bioarchaeology of the Human Head

Published by University Press of Florida

Published in print May 2011 | ISBN: 9780813035567
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780813041766 | DOI:
Heads as Memorials and Status Symbols

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This chapter utilizes ethnographic reports and physical studies of skulls from the Torres Strait Islands to differentiate a decorated skull of a relative from a head collected as a trophy. Ethnographic accounts of mortuary and headhunting practices included skulls of relatives naturally defleshed using termite mounds, as well as heads of men, women and children severed from their bodies using bamboo knives. Heads of relatives were kept as memorials and used in divination. However, heads from neighboring islanders within the Torres Strait Islands were collected during raids as trophies and status symbols, then naturally or manually defleshed and used as objects of trade between the islands. Physical studies found that skulls reported as relatives and trophies were both painted and decorated, although there was no evidence for decapitation on any of the crania or mandibles examined (the vertebrae were not present). There was, however, evidence of termite activity—independently supporting reports of termites used as natural defleshers.

Keywords: trophy skulls; ancestors; Torres Strait Islands; decorated skulls; memorials

Chapter.  4863 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Prehistoric Archaeology

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