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Headhunters of Borneo

Throughout history, communities and tribes have warred against each other but perhaps none have captivated the public’s imagination quite like the headhunters of Borneo. An inspiration to various movie scenes, the mention of Borneo evokes a fearsome image of tribal Dayak warriors carrying bloody severed heads.

While the term Dayak doesn’t have actually mean anything to the people it described, it’s used to describe any indigenous, non-Malay inhabitants of Borneo. With over 50 ethnic groups and over a hundred languages spread out over the third largest island in the world, Borneo is home to three different countries, Kalimantan of Indonesia, Sabah and Sarawak of Malaysia and the small country of Brunei.

Before the spread of Christianity and Islam, the Dayaks were animists. It is their belief that everything has a life force, not just people, but also plants and animals. The Sea Dayak tribe, or the Ibans, believe that human heads hold a significant amount of power. 

Combined with their aggressive reputation, the Ibans were notorious for slaughtering their enemies and cutting off their heads, allowing them to possess the life force, making the collector more powerful. The heads were also collected as trophies and even used as dowries for marriage. 

While the Ibans severed heads for trophies, the Murut tribe did it as a young boy’s rite of passage into manhood. Young Murut men frequently went on raids in groups to murder and sever the heads of anyone they encountered. Women and children were no exception. Men who fail to collect at least two heads were ostracised from the tribe. 

The Kadazan-Dusun tribe of Sabah, like the Ibans of Sarawak, followed a more spiritual but brutal approach. To preserve the spirit, the head needed to be removed from the body while the victim was still alive. The spirit would then safeguard their village against bad fortune and disasters. 

Regardless of the motive, headhunting was eradicated a century before the Second World War, but was revived among the tribes during the Japanese occupation and a failed Indonesian attempt to invade Sarawak in the 1960s.

Today, headhunting is no longer widely practiced, but if you ever seen small squiggly lines on the back of the hands of elderly Iban men, you’re probably talking to a former headhunter.

(photo credit by Sarawak Tourism Board • @Kin Hua Hii)

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