Bizarre head hunting and Naga tribes of India[through the 19th century and as late as 1969. ]


Bizarre head hunting and Naga tribes of India

A Dayak headhunter,

Headhunting, as opposed to horse trading (political head counting for money!!) quite familiar among many  Indian politicians to get the majority members to form a government, existed across the globe from parts of Oceania, South and Southeast Asia, West and Central Africa, and Mesoamerica, as well as among certain tribes of the Celts, the West Germanic tribes, the Viking. It is the dreaded practice of removing and preserving a person’s head after killing. This inhuman and cruel custom did exist in  Montenegro, Croatia, and western parts of Herzegovina and to the end of the Middle Ages in Ireland and the Anglo-Scottish border region in Europe till the the 19th century.  In Europe this practice survived until the early 20th century in the Balkan Peninsula,

A Mississippian-era priest, with a ceremonial flint mace and a severed head. By Herb Roe, based on a repousse copper plate.

Headhunting has been practiced worldwide and may go back to Paleolithic times. Decapitated heads  buried separately from the bodies were found in deposits of the Late Paleolithic Azilian culture at Ofnet in Bavaria. In South America Shuar and Jivaro Indians live in the deeper part of  Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon. The had a custom of preserving the skin alone and to produce a shrunken head the size of an orange. Unfortunately  after  the arrival of certain groups of westerners,  head hunting among Indians increased; the reason being, the greedy 

A Jivaro shrunken head, located in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Photo courtesy of

people from Europe found a good market in head trophies  that could be sold as curios. They  traded them for firearms and ammunition and made a bundle selling these grotesque shruken-heads to Americans and others. The Ecuadorian and Peruvian governments later  banned the export of human heads  and consequently the shrunken Jivaro heads, once available for just a dollar, now command prices of thousands of dollars each.

Why did this gory practice exist in historic times?  why do people take heads and keep them as trophies? After all wild animals  kill for survival and not for pleasure. Why did men resort to violence, kill his own people, remove their heads and keep them as trophies? According to scholars, head hunting which is rooted in cannibalism  was a way of structuring, reinforcing, and defending hierarchical relationships between communities and individuals. The assumption was  based on  the belief of   existence  of  a more or less material soul matter on which all life depends. Life force or soul power could be harnessed through capture. Since the soul matter is confined to head, possession of it contributes to the fertility of the human population, livestock, and crops. That the head is the seat of soul was the primary concept of headhunting.  Some Anthropologists do not rule out ritual  killing, display of manhood and  cannibalism to make the enemies servile and submissive. In some headhunting communities, killing and taking the head of a person is a sign of bravery and it marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.

As far as  India is concerned headhunting was prevalent among the Naga tribes of  NE India and Myanmar(previously Burma). Headhunting never existed in rest of India. In the south of Vindhya mountain such a thing was uncommon. There are thousands of tribes living across India and violence was not part of their culture. In fact when John Sullivan, Collector of Coimbatore in the 1800s discovered Nilagiri hills (now in Tamil Nadu) and built a cottage there, the Toda tribes (one of the oldest tribes in India) not only gave him their land but also  were helpful to him through out his stay there.  

Head hunting days of old in nagaland,
A British India 1940 map showing Nagaland and Kohima City as part of

The Naga tribes of NE India are known to have practiced headhunting  for a long time and preserved the heads of enemies as trophies through the 19th century and as late as 1969.  They are a a mixed bag of several tribes inhabiting the North Eastern part of India and north-western Burma. The tribes have similar cultures and traditions, and form the majority ethnic group in Indian state of Nagaland, with significant presence in  Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and some small population in Assam.

Tribes  living south of the Brahmaputra River—Garos, Khasis, Nagas, and Kukis in Assam, India were  headhunters. Particularly the Mizo tribes were ferocious warriors.  Headhunting in Assam was generally  carried on by parties of raiders. Their forte was to take the enemies by surprise by using special  tactics to achieve their ends. Their habitat was also helpful to them because they lived in the wooded, thickly forested areas where they could pick up vantage points to make a surprise assault in a flash and they could chase the enemies by stalking in the dense plant and tree cover. The headhunters were invariably only after the head of a man, not his money or jewelry.

During the colonial period in 1800s and early 1900s the British owned tea estates in the upper reaches of the foot hills of the Himalayas in Assam and the Naga tribes and their ferocious raids on the British estates were a  big menace  under the East India company rule and later by the British crown.

The practice of headhunting that existed in the past reflects on the odd and bizarre behavior of certain human communities. For normal human beings, such stories may cause revulsion and rejection. As for researchers, such dreaded custom is a fodder for them to delve into the abysmal depth of mysterious human mind that does wonders on one hand and bizarre things on the other. In the 1700s and 1800s the expansion of colonial rule in many countries and the ubiquitous presence of  Christian preaches in the nooks and corners of the world and their watchful and curious eyes impacted on the gruesome practice which reduced drastically in the later years.  
Tit Bits:

 01. Headhunting existed among Austronesian people in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. of Melanesia, including New Guinea.

 02. A missionary found 10,000 skulls on Goaribari Island in 1901 in  New Guinea.

 03. There existed ”annual headhunting” rituals  among the Mappurondo religious minority,  an upland tribe in the southwest part of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The headcount included only coconuts – surrogate heads and not real human heads!!  Head hunting is associated with the fertility of the crops, marriage and with the victim’s obligation as a servant in the next world.

 04, The Wa tribe,the Burma-China border, were  until the 1970s, ferocious headhunters.

 05. In south America, tribes of the Jivaroan group including the Shuar in Eastern Ecuador and Northern Peru, along the rivers Chinchipe, Bobonaza, Morona, Upano, and Pastaza, main tributaries of the Amazon, practiced headhunting for a long time. The native Indians  collected the heads- skulls as trophies that were then shrunk (tsantsa) to the size of an orange, known locally as Tzan-Tzas. They believed they housed the soul of the person killed.

06. In some head hunting communities, a prospective bridegroom should have at least one head to his credit to qualify for marriage.

 07.The higher the number of trophies of heads one has, the greater is his reputation.



Naga head hunters and daring Christian missionaries (1800s) British India

First missionary to visit the Ngaland. scholar in Assamese
Hornbill Festival Nagaland 2015, India.

The Nagas of NE India, who are  closely related to the Chin and Kachin people of Burma, are one of the most recognized head hunting people in the modern world. The tribal community of Naga is a conglomeration of different groups.  Among them Noctes, Wanchos and Tirap were vicious head-hunters. They live predominantly in the mountains of Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh;  some other Naga tribes occupy territory in the contiguous adjoining states of Manipur, NE India and  across the border in Burma. Previously known as Naga Hills District during the Colonial period, now, it has become a small state called Nagaland with  the capital at Kohima. As of 2012, the state of Nagaland  officially recognizes 17 Naga tribes. and across the border in Burma.

E. W. Clark and his wife sailed from Boston ( Massachusetts , USA ) on October 20, 1868 under the Baptist Missionary Union as Missionaries and Printers.pioneering work in Nagaland,

Part of NE

Ursula Violet Graham Bower, one of the pioneer anthropologists in the Naga Hills between 1937–1946 considered Nagaland the “paradise of headhunters.  For the Naga tribes, head-taking was an important part of their culture. They believed the success of their crop, health, growth of their community and wealth of their village  could be safeguarded by sprinkling of blood from a stranger over the fields. The various kinds of tattoos displayed  by the tribes show their level of success in headhunting raids and their rank in the hierarchy.  Strange costumes and ornaments of hair, fur, shells, teeth, ivory, and monkeys’ skulls, etc  were worn by them   for harnessing  great power in their own right. Their status is recognized in the community based on their headhunting skill, distinctive  ornaments worn by them and the mithun feasts given by them. In the villages where the Noctes live there is a community space called ”Morung” or ”Pang”. It is actually a big storage space  or hut made of bamboo and canes where  the headhunters would display their trophies on the wooden shelves in an hierarchical order after their raids. Here they conduct prayer of peace and feast in remembrance of the dead. Women are  

Human skulls kept in the morung. Naga tribes NE

not allowed inside the Morung. It also serves as a dormitory for young men who guard the village.

In 1866 the  British Raj created the Naga Hills district  with  Its headquarters  at Samagutingand later  annexed the Lotha Naga region. Kohima in 1879 became the administrative center. The British Raj treated the Naga Hills District as a separate entity, because of its backwardness. The Naga District Tribal Council came into being in 1945 under the control of Governor of Assam.

During the East India British company rule and later under the Crown, the Nagas were a menace to them. Because of frequent attack on the tea estates, the British had difficulty in managing the tea plantations.

The credit goes to Protestant Christian missionaries from Britain who, in the nineteenth century were instrumental  in converting many among the Naga tribes to Christian faith. Initially the Nagas refused to change their life style and strange customs. Gradually they had begun dropping many tribal customs and traditions. The  English education and exposure to modern studies opened the new world for them. For generations they refused to drop their age old customs ans gruesome headhunting and become civilized.  Despite their uncivilized custom, they were not followers of any particular religion. Nor were they materialistic.
The first missionary  to reach the  Naga hills is believed to be one Rev. Miles Bronson, an American who made his first journey to Namsang, on January 7, 1839. He was the first white man  to visit this area. The gritty preacher learned their language, lived among them (1839-1841) and finally won their acceptance in the society. In the 1870s, Dr. & Mrs.E. W. Clark, American Missionaries  worked among the Ao people. With the help of a Mr. Godhula, an Assamese Christian, they established the first church, a Baptist one, in Molungkimong (Dekha Haimong Village) in 1872.

Over a period of time, Mulong became the center of missions  with the main purpose of civilizing and converting Nagas in to Christian faith.  Mulong was the first Christian village in Nagaland. Then in a later year Clark moved his mission center to Impur which is now known as Ao Baptist Arogo Mungdang.

As Clerk was not given permission to enter the Nagaland  on December 23, 1872 Clark organized the First Baptist Church at Molungkimong.  The site has an ancient Leechi tree, which is believed to have been planted by Dr. E. W. Clark, the first American Missionary. Slowly  the tribes people adopted  Christianity as their religion, but at the same time never gave up their  Naga identity, barring their  distinctions based on warring tribal villages. To day Nagaland is the only state where  more than 95% of the population are Christians, mostly Baptists.


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