Why headhunting men’s cults develop in lowland riverine rainforest areas

There are many ways that a culture can develop, but some outcomes are more probable than others. Multiple factors make a given belief or cultural practice more likely to spread, such as those that have a salient psychological appeal to many people, or that offer them some utility or personal benefits—at least in the context in which they appear—or that can effectively be maintained by force by self-interested parties, or spread through coercion. Similarly, some environments make certain cultural practices more or less likely to appear, like greater polygyny across cultures being associated with greater female contribution to subsistence, and greater polyandry being associated with greater male contribution to subsistence. Considering two other topics I’ve written about previously, headhunting and men’s cults, I thought it would be interesting to see the ways they co-occur in the ethnographic record, and the environmental characteristics associated with them.

Across the South Coast of New Guinea, there was a ‘cultural package’ that was ubiquitous in the region, which included headhunting raids, sex rituals, male cult secrets, and competitive and exchange feasting. They also often had a ‘dual organization’ social system: anthropologist Bruce Knauft describes it this way in his book South Coast New Guinea Cultures (1993),

On the one hand, individual totem-clans or analogous units within a multi-clan longhouse typically maintained their own longhouse section and fertility shrine of trophies, sacrae, and carved ancestral embodiments. Such a group usually constituted a "single canoe" that could act with some autonomy in subsistence, trading, war-making, alliance, treachery, or relocation. On the other hand, these sub-groups - which can in some ways be glossed as fertility clans (Whitehead 1986) - typically coordinated their efforts with those of the longhouse or territorial group as a whole, which usually also shared a larger spiritual or even patronymic identity. In various forms, this tendency toward residential or political aggregation of diverse local groups characterized the social organization of all south coast societies, but was pronounced in language-culture areas that headhunted most frequently, that is, among Asmat, Marind, Kiwai, and Purari (Knauft 220).

In fact, Knauft also notes a really interesting environmental variable that seems to be associated with this kind of social organization around the world:

Though it would be easy to overstate the connection, lowland riverine rain forest areas such as the Sepik, the New Guinea south coast, parts of insular southeast Asia, and the Amazon basin all supported at least some groups that lived in sizable men's houses, developed elaborate dual organization, and practiced headhunting. Few other areas of the world are known to have exhibited this particular cluster of traits. All these propensities were largely or virtually absent in highland New Guinea (Knauft 220).

This is an intriguing pattern, but before it can be addressed a point must be made about the nature of headhunting. Headhunting, quite often, is an incredibly intimate act. Cutting someone’s head off, possessing it, treating it with chemicals, braiding its hair, or defleshing it, putting it on display, keeping it as a family heirloom—the relationship between headhunter and head is often a deeply personal one. When alive, the head itself has a profound and enduring psychological attraction, so the choice of victim can be considered quite important. As I wrote previously:

Many scholars have remarked on the impressive size and abilities of the human brain, but few have understood the otherworldly allure of the human head. The head is the focal point of social interaction in life – its center of attention is communicated through its eyes, meaning is conveyed by its facial expressions, and language is emitted from its mouth, heard by its ears and interpreted by its brain. In death, it may be no less important; often functioning as an object of veneration or a trophy to be secured by the enemies of its owner.

Now, let’s look at headhunting and its ritual significance among the Asmat hunter-gatherers of New Guinea:

The heads acquired are intended for the initiation of sons and younger brothers, nephews and cousins. At times it is hard for a hunter to decide who is to be favored. All the different sections of the village, grouped around the bachelors’ houses, have claims and those who have treated the others expect a feast in return. Often the claims of the different clans would lead to altercations and sometimes to bloodshed. On such occasions the corpses of the headhunting victims would be the subject of fights, would be taken and retaken by the different factions. It has happened that village unity has been permanently damaged by such fights.

A couple important elements here: first, the heads are a ‘currency’ which older males use to ‘pay’ for the initiation of their young male relatives into the men’s group. Second, multiple clans often cooperate on these headhunting expeditions, and thus fight over the spoils (though fights over the spoils can also reflect feasting dynamics, gifts owed, or existing social conflicts, so it’s more complex than just a direct fight over the head alone). Third, acquiring heads benefits the men who seize them, as well as their lineage through initiating their relatives. They also can benefit the wives of successful headhunters: “The beheaders of the victims are sometimes the wives of the headhunters. This is one way in which a greater warrior, tesumejipic, enables his wife also to become tesumaj, great.” Headhunting is also wrapped up in feuding dynamics between groups, with headhunts generating reciprocal revenge raids after each attack. Asmat religious beliefs associated with ceremonial cycles requiring heads also played a role in headhunting practices.

There is one final element worth emphasizing about Asmat headhunting, which is how it was connected to complex cultural beliefs about identity:  

The informants emphasized repeatedly that the initiate is smeared with the ash of the burnt hair and with the blood of the victim. This is explained by the fact that the initiate assumes the name of the victim. This identity between victim and initiate will later prove very useful. When meeting the initiate, even after many years, relatives of the murdered person will always call him by his assumed name, the victim’s name, and treat him as their relative. They dance and sing for him and give him presents. It is strictly forbidden to kill people from other villages who, because of their ritual names, are related to one’s village. These people are often chosen to be negotiators.

It’s worth repeating that the initiate given the name in these ceremonies did not kill the victim himself, but it was likely an older male relative of his that did so. The relatives of the victim embracing someone who is essentially their enemy is quite striking: though of course, they probably didn’t see it that way. The designation of the name meant that some aspect of the spirit of the headhunting victim was from then on associated with the initiate, making the relatives’ embrace of the individual from the enemy group perfectly sensible. While they may have sought revenge against the group and the individual who did the killing, the young man who received their dead relative’s name represented a piece of him living on, and thus warranted being treated as kin.

Now, using the broader pattern identified by Knauft, and the Asmat case study, let’s try to put together some of the socioecological factors at play in the general headhunting/men’s cult complex:

1) In an environment of chronic raiding, aggregating together into larger groups provides protection and offers advantages in intergroup conflict. Because of this, multiple semi-autonomous clans come together to cooperate, and work together in headhunting raids.

2) Among small-scale populations without the wheel or horses, travel over land is relatively slow, but waterways can offer rapid and distant journeys. For groups living near navigable rivers, and where people may use canoes to travel to fish or visit relatives, you can have extensive interactions between even relatively remote groups. Knauft writes that, “In coastal and riverine areas where major settlements were far apart but readily accessible, an approach-avoidance fascination with a distant enemy was ripe for cultural and symbolic elaboration in headhunting.”

3) When resources are clumped together spatially, they can be more easily monopolized by coalitions exercising force, and tend to be a prime source of conflict between groups. In the Asmat case, control of rich sago patches and desirable fishing grounds were an impetus for many political alliances as well as a significant source of conflict.

4) Points 1 and 3 intersect in Asmat foraging practices, where men would patrol and protect women while they worked. Anthropologist David Eyde writes that;

It used to be the case that an entire village or men's house group of a village would usually go to the sago or fishing areas together. Such an outing provided protection for the entire group. Good warriors would remain in canoes up and downstream from the area where the group was working. They would give warnings if the enemy approached. Other men accompanied the women into the forest to help with the work, but especially to protect them from ambush. In doing all this, old people and young children were sometimes left without adequate protection in the village, where they were prey to surprise attacks.

5) Sago patches are important to control because individual men and clans can gain prestige from hosting large feasts. The sago is extracted and processed largely by women, and men gain status (and reproductive benefits), by having multiple wives to work the sago for later feasting.

6) Where most of the substance is procured or produced by women, men are more likely to spend their time engaged in warfare. As F.W. Up De Graff wrote of the Jivaro in the Amazon, another lowland riverine rainforest society that engaged in headhunting; “The work is divided very unevenly between the sexes, the larger share falling to the lot of the women. They do the cooking, spinning, packing, and have the care of the plantations…The men are before everything else warriors--the protectors of their womenfolk from the raids of neighbours.”

7) Strong intergroup competition means groups that are more effective at inducing cooperation among males for purposes of collective violence are more likely to survive, and thrive, thus the men’s houses and rituals which are often used to induce solidarity and teach men valuable skills such as conduct in war. The dual organization system allows for wider cross-cutting alliances between clans to cooperate in war.

8) The chronic ‘frenemy’ dynamic between groups, of temporary alliances, conflict, revenge, and then self-identification of the enemy through headhunting and male initiates assuming the name of the dead (for more on name taboos across cultures, see here). This new identity can be useful in negotiating between hostile groups, potentially reducing enmity and forming new alliances advantageous in war. A similar dynamic can be seen, once again, among the Jivaro. Anthropologist Henning Siverts writes that,

Although they form a linguistic and cultural entity—an ethnic group—they do not constitute a TRIBE if we take tribe to mean a permanent political group or corporation. The Jivaro are rather an aggregate of neighborhoods called jivarias in Ecuador and caserios in Peru, whose members consider each other as ceremonial foes or temporary allies within an all-embracing kin- and affinal network. As headhunters they recognized only Jivaro heads as worth taking and shrinking into /¢an¢a/ to be displayed and celebrated at the great victory feast following a successful headhunting expedition. In other words, a Jivaro is a potential /¢an¢a/ while all others, including the white people are just foreigners.

To repeat and summarize, in this region 1) women procure most of the subsistence, 2) this allows men to spend more time pursuing status, particularly in the realm of warfare and headhunting, 3) heads are used to initiate younger male relatives into the men’s group, benefiting an individual man, his clan’s prestige, and potentially his wife or wives, 4) settlements placed next to rivers and the use of canoes allows greater contact between distant groups, for good and for ill, 5) settlement placement affects competition for forest resources like sago, and desirable fishing territory on rivers, 6) kin groups/clans form alliances for defense/war/resources/marriage/rituals, 7) alliances can be fragile, temporary, subject to treachery due to conflicts of interest between clans, and between individual clans and the larger social unit, 8) warfare is personal and endemic between clans and rival camps, leading to associated beliefs about headhunting and the nature of identity, which regulate and make sense of conflict, 9) men’s houses, male cult secrets and rituals which increase male solidarity likely increase success in war.

There’s still a lot more worth discussing on this topic, so I might build off this in a future post.