Charlatanism: realms of deception and religious theater

In so far as individuals can always be found who misuse their authority to promote their own selfish aims, the [Inuit], in this respect, exhibit nothing peculiarly distinguishing them from any other nation - Hinrich Rink, Danish Greenland, Its People and Its Products, 1877.

Many social scientists have noted that humans are a particularly cooperative and interdependent species. One under-emphasized consequence of being such a cooperative and socially dependent species, however, is that we are quite vulnerable to deception from others. Put another way, people can sometimes benefit greatly by deceiving each other—individually or cooperatively with allies—in strategic ways.

Perspectives of human sociality often emphasize large, group-level benefits of human cooperation. For example, anthropologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson describe an evolutionary history where “natural selection within groups favoured genes that gave rise to new, more pro-social motives. Moral systems enforced by systems of sanctions and rewards increased the reproductive success of individuals who functioned well in such environments, and this in turn led to the evolution of other regarding motives like empathy and social emotions like shame.” However, sometimes the individuals who “functioned well in such environments” were not necessarily the ones with the most “pro-social motives”, but those who could effectively manipulate others. Part of functioning well, and increasing one’s reproductive success, in the extremely social environments of human societies, can revolve around taking advantage of the empathy and shame and trust and general ignorance of others.  

Inuit shaman of Greenland known as angakkoq or angakkut, despite commonly being considered some of the most productive and intelligent individuals in their society, were often reported to have had little compulsion about taking advantage of the status accorded them. Many angakkut would tell people that their souls were damaged, and offer to repair them, in return for a gift. Some would also claim the right to sleep with any man’s wife, and anyone who denied them that would be threatened with an early death or other horrible tragedies. One example during the early 18th century was described by Norwegian missionary Niels Egede. Anthropologist Merete Demant Jakobsen recounts the episode, writing that,

A young woman has denied the angakkoq his right to sleep with her and has been told that she will give birth to a seal instead of having children that could have been angakkut. Niels Egede is called to her bedside and asked to feel her stomach: ‘I said that it was not my profession to feel the stomach of women, and that it was impossible that it could be true’. He then asks whether she had eaten anything unusual and is told she had eaten raw barley. He suggests that she should drink water and the woman is well next day and convinced that he is stronger than the angakkoq as he can make seals disappear.

In the early 20th century, one angakkuq named Maratsi was described by Danish botanist Christian Kruuse thusly: “He has a difficult personality and has committed murders, theft, threatening women who will not sleep with him with soul stealing, and so on.”

Of course, this aggressive and nakedly self-interested conduct can generate a great deal of resentment, as I discussed previously in my article on sorcery. Jakobsen writes that,

The ambiguity in attitude among the Greenlanders to their angakkoq seems to be characteristic of the many encounters that [Niels Egede’s missionary father] Poul Egede meticulously reports. On the one hand they are seen to have great respect for their angakkoq and his skills, whilst on the other they seem to take any chance to get back at him because of the fear he induces and the power he possesses.

Another 18th century missionary, David Crantz thought that due to their “superior intelligence”, angakkut should, “be deservedly considered as the physicians, philosophers, and moralists of Greenland,” while also noting that their “intercourse with the spiritual world is merely a pretence to deceive the simple, and that their frightful gesticulations are necessary to sustain their credit, and give weight to their prescriptions.” Jakobsen adds that for many of the ethnographers who went to Greenland from the 17th to the 20th century, “The angakkut are seen as intelligent manipulators of their stupid fellow countrymen who are credulous and easily persuaded by any trickster’s performance.” Jakobsen gives a description of one such performance,

The spectators assembled in one of the houses after dark and then the angakkoq is tied, his head between his legs and his hands behind his back and the drum next to him. The light is put out and, while the spectators sing a song that they claim was made by their ancestors, the shaman begins conjuring and conversing with toornaarsuk, the great spirit. ‘Here the masterly juggler knows how to play his trick, in changing the tone of his voice, and counterfeiting one different from his own, which makes the too credulous hearers believe, that this counterfeited voice is that of Torngarsuk [a sprit-being], who converses with the angekkok’. The shaman manages to work himself loose and is believed to ascend into heaven through the roof of the house to meet with the souls of the angakkut puullit, the chief angakkut. Hans Egede [Poul’s son and Neil’s brother], although giving a detailed description of the séance, carefully establishes his own detached attitude to the performance. He has no doubt about the conjuring and falsity of the shaman’s work.

“The helping spirit amô, called by the tied up angakkoq, enters a house during a séance. The drum is seen floating across the floor. Karale Andreassen, The National Museum of Denmark. From Ib Geertsen (1990): Kârale Andreassen. En østgrønlandsk kunstner, Atuakkiorfik, Nuuk.” From ‘Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing’ (1999) by Merete Demant Jakobsen†.

“The helping spirit amô, called by the tied up angakkoq, enters a house during a séance. The drum is seen floating across the floor. Karale Andreassen, The National Museum of Denmark. From Ib Geertsen (1990): Kârale Andreassen. En østgrønlandsk kunstner, Atuakkiorfik, Nuuk.” From ‘Shamanism: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches to the Mastery of Spirits and Healing’ (1999) by Merete Demant Jakobsen†.

Due to their skill in performances such as these, as well their role in healing and executing witches or other sorts of criminals, Danish geologist Hinrich Rink noted in the 19th century the dilemma faced by missionaries in trying to end the power of the angakkut,

One of the first reformatory steps was that of doing away with the angakoks. As a matter of course the high priests of paganism could not exist in friendly harmony with the propagators of the new faith. But here two peculiar circumstances have to be kept in view. In the first place, on account of the amalgamation of religious observances with the social customs and laws, totally subverting the authority of the angakoks was the same as abolishing the only institution that could be considered to represent appointed magistrates and law-givers. Secondly, the class of angakoks comprised the most eminent persons, both as regards intellectual abilities, personal courage, and dexterity in pursuing the national trade.

The kind of self-interested deception and spiritual manipulation used by the angakkuts is given a greater scale and scope in the numerous all-male secret societies we see in the ethnographic record. I described many of these societies in a previous article, noting of the Amazonian and New Guinea cases in particular, where,

Male cult members whirl their bullroarers and play their sacred flutes in private, hidden away from the uninitiated. The women and children are told that these sounds are the voices of their ancestors, and spirit beings. Among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea, men would wear full body costumes during cult ceremonials, while the women would be told they are materialized spirits. Men from neighboring villages were often asked to wear the costumes – and were given yams and sprouted coconuts in return – in order to prevent the women from suspecting it was males from their own community in the costumes.

Arapesh men’s ritual costume. From  The Voice of the Tambaran: Truth and Illusion in Ilahita Arapesh  (1980) by Donald Tuzin.

Arapesh men’s ritual costume. From The Voice of the Tambaran: Truth and Illusion in Ilahita Arapesh (1980) by Donald Tuzin.

As with many other societies with these sort of men’s cults, Ona hunter-gatherer men of Tierra del Fuego, would impersonate spirit-beings as a way to exercise social control over the women and children. The only European to be initiated into the Ona men’s cult, explorer Lucas Bridges offers a description of its origin and practices in his excellent book the Uttermost Part of the Earth (1948);

the men invented a new branch of Ona demonology: a collection of strange beings--drawn partly from their own imaginations and patly from folk-lore and ancient legends--who would take visible shape by being impersonated by members of the Lodge and thus scare the women away from the secret councils of the Hain [men's cult]. It was given out that these creatures hated women, but were well-disposed towards men, even supplying them with mysterious food during the often very protracted proceedings of the Lodge. Sometimes, however, these beings were short-tempered and hasty. Their irritability was manifested to the women of the encampment by the shouts and uncanny cries arising from the Hain, and, it might be, the scratched faces and bleeding noses with which the men returned home when some especially exciting session was over.

During Bridges’ own initiation into the men’s cult, cult members made loud shouts and yells while in the men’s lodge, and then cut themselves with glass and stone, and made their noses bleed using pointed sticks, to give the illusion to the women and children that they had to fight dangerous spirit-beings and protect Bridges from them during his initiation. Bridges also describes numerous examples of men impersonating spirit-beings and terrorizing the women and children. Bridges also floats the idea that at least some women might know what’s going on, but that they may pretend to be ignorant out of fear of being killed if they indicate they’re aware of the deception. Bridges also notes that the terror of the teen boy initiates before they become aware of the subterfuge is genuine, so the deception seems to have been remarkably successful in being maintained.

Of course, even with all of the violent coercion and deception of the men’s cults, as with the figure of the angakkut, we can point to some of the functions these kind of social roles and institutions play. As I wrote previously,

The presence of warfare and marriage exchanges with enemy groups offers some plausible functional explanations for the men’s cults. The men can plan their military excursions while in the men’s house, away from the ears of potential enemy sympathizers (their wives and the wives of the other males). The secret rituals and rites may help socialize young boys into becoming effective warriors. Herdt writes of the various functions of the men’s house: “These include military training, supervision and education of boys in the masculine realm, the transmission of cultural knowledge surrounding hunting magic and warrior folklore, the organization of hunting, some separation or recognition of the differences between men and women, the socially sanctioned use of ritual paraphernalia and musical instruments such as flutes and bullroarers, and so forth. These distinctive customs anchor the men’s world in the clubhouse throughout Melanesia.”

With the Inuit angakkuts and the men’s cults we are looking at the ways higher status males in particular used deception and religious justifications to dominate society, but spiritual manipulation has also been commonly used by lower status women in many societies to illicit important benefits, such as greater social standing and support. Anthropologist I.M. Lewis wrote of the way beliefs about spirit possession could used by women whose social position was insecure;

This sex-linked possession syndrome we are tracing seems to be equally prevalent in India and in South East Asia generally. In Utter Pradesh disaffiliated malevolent spirits, or ghosts, haunt the weak and vulnerable and those whose social circumstances are precarious. Thus the young bride 'best by homesickness, fearful that she may not be able to present sons to her husband and his family may label her woes a form of ghost possession'. And, 'if she has been ignored and subordinated, the spirit possession may take an even more dramatic and strident form as a compensation for the obscurity under which she has laboured'. Amongst the Havik Brahmins of Mysore, where as many as twenty per cent of all women are likely to experience peripheral possession at some point in their lives, the pattern is similar. Here it is again mainly insecure young brides (or older, infertile women) who are most exposed to this form of possession. More generally, women as a class are considered weak and vulnerable and thus easily overcome by spirits which, flatteringly, are believed to be attracted by their beauty. In possession, the spirit conveys 'its' demands, causing the husband and his family to mount an expensive ceremony designed to placate it and to persuade it to leave the sick host. Until waves have gained more secure positions in their families of marriage and have given birth to heirs, the illness is liable to recur, thus granting the sick woman all the attention and influence which she is otherwise denied.

Lewis adds that, “Women are, in effect, making a special virtue of adversity and affliction, and, often quite literally, capitalizing on their distress.” Ethnographer Gerhard Lindblom described women pretending to be possessed in order to get material goods from their husbands among the Kamba of East Africa, writing that,

Although the women are more superstitious than the men, it does happen that an intelligent and artful woman may make use of the spirits to get her own desires satisfied. For instance, she may for a long time have longed for a piece of many-coloured cloth, but her lord and mater has not been pleased to grant her desire. She pretends to be possessed, makes a terrible noise, and says that the spirit can only be appeased with a piece of cloth. To recover his lost domestic peace the otherwise dignified Kamba husband gives himself no rest till he has found the desired object, then the spirit disappears.

Lindblom also describes one such case where a married woman asked her husband to kill a fat buck for meat. The husband refused, as he had designated that animal for a religious offering the next time it was needed. Some days later the wife started twitching and uttering shrill cries, exhibiting symptoms that the Kamba consider to be the result of spirit possession. Her husband asked her what was the matter, and she conveyed that she was possessed by a spirit who wanted the buck meat. The husband went to hunt the buck, while the wife, elated at her success, began singing a lullaby to her child which contained lyrics mocking her husband for falling for her deception. Her husband happened to return earlier than expected and overheard her. Outraged, he ended their marriage and sent her back to her father.

That humans are particularly cooperative and reliant on each other to survive is undoubtedly true. Among individuals in every society—either on their own, or in coalitions with others—you’ll find people taking advantage of this fact.

The Momma's Boy Strategy: Why Bonobo Males Tend Not To Form Coalitions

Bonobos are unique compared to most primate species—and across mammals more generally—in being relatively female dominant. I’ve been working on a more comprehensive post about female power structures in mammals, but I figured I’d post something on bonobos in particular first.

Bonobos are moderately sexually dimorphic, with males being larger than the females. They live in multi-male/multi-female groups, mate polygynously, have high male reproductive skew, and have female-biased dispersal, where the females tend to leave their natal groups while the males often stay in the community they were born in. Many of these factors tend to contribute to relatively strong male dominance, but bonobos are more co-dominant, and comparatively female-dominant compared to most other mammals. What explains this?

One popular explanation is the existence of female coalitions which constrain male dominance. The data on violent encounters in captive populations shows females are more likely to group together and attack a male, but many of these cases seem to represent sustained violent bullying of a lower-status male. Primatologist Amy Parish writes that,

Keepers at several institutions report that attacks appear to be provoked by male bluff displays or by male "nervousness," including "annoying" submissive vocalizations. Some attacks have been associated with external tension, as when unfamiliar zoo staff appeared with a hand-reared bonobo infant (Parish and Hamilton 1995). Attacks often occur outside any obvious context, however.

At the LuiKotale field site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, female coalitions formed most often against individual males who were displaying aggression towards a female’s offspring, which may hint to some evolutionary history of infanticide by males, even though infanticide has not been observed among bonobos.  

The biggest question for me is: why don’t males form coalitions? While female coalitions may play some role in inhibiting male coalitions, I think there are two other main factors at work.

First, bonobos seem to have relaxed feeding competition compared to chimpanzees. Anthropologist Volker Sommer and his colleagues write that,

We found that chimpanzee diet is more diverse, whereas bonobos can rely on a few staple species for longer periods of time – which reflects the more seasonal climate at the chimpanzee site. Both species prefer fruit with elevated contents of water, sugar and fat, but chimpanzees have to cope with much higher levels of anti-feedants such as tannins. Moreover, only bonobos have access to a herb with low levels of fibre but high protein. In addition, chimpanzees invest more time and energy in the removal of seeds from fruit and in digestion. The costs of acquisition of high quality food are thus higher in chimpanzees than in bonobos. The greater constraints in terms of food availability and quality are reflected in greater levels of female-female competition as evidenced by consistently lower levels of gregariousness in chimpanzees measured through the size of nest groups.

Bonobo diets seem more likely to rely on abundantly available fallback foods, reducing competition for resources. So, this relaxed feeding competition seems to make it easier for female bonobos to form coalitions than female chimps, who have stronger female-female competition for food. Similarly, the ‘patchier’ distribution of high-quality foods in chimpanzee territories can lead the males to form coalitions and patrol the boundaries of their territory, to monopolize the best fruit patches where the females come to feed, and prevent rival males from accessing it. For bonobos, no such incentive seems to exist.

The second factor is the strong mother-son relationships bonobos form, and the key role this relationship plays in influencing reproductive success. Adult females and their sons spend more time close to each other, and more time grooming each other, than any other bonobo pair. Arguably this is the most important relationship in bonobo society.

Now, as with many other mammal species, bonobo males have linear dominance hierarchies, with the highest ranked male tending to win intrasexual fights with other males. The highest ranked male also tends to have the greatest reproductive success of any male in the group, fathering as much as 62% of the next generation. But importantly, mothers also play a key role in increasing her son’s reproductive success (and by extension her own) by helping her son get greater access to fertile females and have more mating opportunities. This is particularly important for middle and lower status males, who may not be able to successfully fight higher status males to move up in the dominance hierarchy. Primatologist Martin Surbeck and his colleagues write that,

Overall, higher ranking males were more frequently in proximity to oestrous females, but the mean number of oestrous females in proximity to mid- and low-ranking males increased when their mothers were in proximity. Except for the highest ranking male in the community, the mean number of oestrous females in proximity was higher when their mothers were also in proximity.

“Mean number of oestrous females in proximity of focal males in relation to absence (filled squares) or presence (open circles) of the male's mother. For all but the highest ranking male, the number of oestrous females in proximity was higher when the mother was also in proximity.” From ‘ Mothers matter! Maternal support, dominance status and mating success in male bonobos ( Pan paniscus ) ’

“Mean number of oestrous females in proximity of focal males in relation to absence (filled squares) or presence (open circles) of the male's mother. For all but the highest ranking male, the number of oestrous females in proximity was higher when the mother was also in proximity.” From ‘Mothers matter! Maternal support, dominance status and mating success in male bonobos (Pan paniscus)

Notably, there are examples of bonobo mothers helping their sons sexually coerce other females. Primatologist Klaree Boose writes that,

We observed 56 attempts of direct sexual coercion performed by two males with a combined success rate of 71.4%. Of the two males who engaged in direct sexual coercion behaviors, the son of the alpha female (Gander) participated in direct sexual coercion events significantly more than any other male. We also observed that all but two females were targets of direct sexual coercion, where only the alpha female and mother to Gander (Unga) and mother (Susie) of the previous alpha male (Donnie) did not receive any direct sexual coercionconflicts in which [Gander] was involved were almost always met with coalitionary aggressive support from his mother, the alpha female, who was frequently observed to engage in intense forms of retaliatory aggression including physical contact that would often result in the wounding of targets. All individuals in this group were highly deferent to the alpha female, and she received the least amount of aggression from males during the course of this study. Furthermore, females were found to be most receptive to her son’s solicitations for copulations. Evidence that mothers impact the relative dominance rank and subsequent mating success of their sons has been demonstrated in a wild population of bonobos (Surbeck et al. 2011). It is likely that this male’s relative dominance rank was effectively as high as his mother’s when she was present in the party and, therefore, reduced his likelihood of receiving retaliation for his attempts to directly sexually coerce a female. Our data that the success rate of direct sexual coercion attempts was dependent upon presence of the mother of the aggressor support this hypothesis. We also observed several instances of coalitionary sexual coercion (N=11) where the alpha female supported her son during his attempts to directly sexually coerce three separate females, including two parous adult females (Ana Neema and Lady), neither of whom were close associates of the alpha female.

Putting it all together, here is what I think is going on: there seems to be two fruitful reproductive strategies available to males—either through success in the linear male dominance hierarchy, winning conflicts with other males to increase access to fertile females, or through maintaining a strong bond with their (preferably high ranked) mother, which increases male access to fertile females. You might think that middle status males would join together to overthrow the disproportionately successful alpha, but consider the cost: they’d be reducing the time spent with their mothers, and by extension in the vicinity of oestrous females, to develop a same-sex coalition with no guarantee of success. There is a coordination problem in getting such an initiative started, with the costs of spending reduced time with the mother simply being too great.

For lower status males, here is where I think female coalitions might play a role in inhibiting male dominance, through preventing lower status males—who may not have their mother around, or whose mother is similarly low ranked—from developing effective alliances. I’m speculating based on limited information here, though.

Associated with this, I think the long period of pseudo-estrus found among bonobos, with more consistent non-conceptive sexual behavior, also plays an important role in reducing male dominance over females. Surbeck and his colleagues write that,

Results of the present study indicate that female bonobos derive a source of leverage from the reduced predictability of ovulation, possibly because male reproductive success becomes contingent on proceptive behaviors by estrous females. Bonobo females at LuiKotale were more likely to win a conflict when they were maximally tumescent [swollen].

It seems that the males may defer to fertile females, perhaps to stay in their good graces and have increased sexual access to them.

So, we might again think of the possible fitness strategies available to males: 1) win fights with other males and become the (intrasexual) alpha, or 2) have a higher ranked mother who gets them access to fertile females, or 3) if low ranked, be generally well-liked or inoffensive enough to the females to take advantage of mating opportunities without alienating them. Noting again the lack of feeding competition, none of these scenarios seem to lend themselves well to male coalitions.

The close mother-son bond in particular, in my view, contributes to the (relatively) more peaceful intersexual relationships between males and females among bonobos, even though some sexual coercion does seem to exist.

One final note: there is difficulty in comparing bonobos (or chimps) to humans, because of some of the unique constraints each species faces. For example, bonobos may sustain more peaceful intersexual relationships by virtue of more consistent sex due to prolonged pseudo-estrus, paternal uncertainty, and sperm competition reducing infanticide and direct male-male violent competition for sexual access. In humans, this strategy can have the opposite effect, where paternal uncertainty leads to ubiquitous social institutions that regulate female sexuality, and having multiple sexual relationships can lead to reduced male and kin investment into their highly altricial infants, increase the risk of infanticide, and lead to greater male-male conflict over sex.

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 subsistence 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.

Academic Resources

This page contains a list of primarily anthropological, but also general social science resources—books, papers, films, and other relevant materials—that I consider informative, or have otherwise enjoyed. I do not necessarily endorse everything in these—or any—works other than my own, but I consider everything on here worth checking out. Links are offered where materials are publicly available. This list will likely be expanded considerably in the future.

Book recommendations

I have broken these recommendations up into categories based on similarities these works share in terms of modes of analysis/theoretical framework and time.

Early Comparative (1890’s-1950’s)

The History of Human Marriage (1891) by Edward Westermarck

Slavery as an Industrial System (1900) by H.J. Nieboer

Primitive Secret Societies (1908) by Hutton Webster

Totemism and Exogamy [volumes I-IV] (1910) by James Frazer

Our Primitive Contemporaries (1934) by George Peter Murdock

Early Quantitative (1940’s-1970’s)

Social Structure (1949) by George Peter Murdock

The Status of Women in Preindustrial Societies (1978) by Martin King Whyte

Late Comparative (1970’s-Today)

Manhood in the Making (1990) by David Gilmore

Sick Societies (1992) by Robert B. Edgerton

The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers (1995) by Robert L. Kelly

Late Quantitative (1980’s-Today)

Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets (2001) by Lewis Binford


Apostolou, M. 2007. Sexual Selection Under Parental Choice: The Role of Parents in the Evolution of Human Mating. Evolution and Human Behavior.

Apostolou, M. 2010. Sexual selection under parental choice in agropastoral societies. Evolution and Human Behavior.

Glowacki, L. & Wrangham, R. 2013. The Role of Rewards in Motivating Participation in Simple Warfare. Human Nature.

Glowacki, L. & von Rueden. 2015. Leadership solves collective action problems in small-scale societies. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B.

Glowacki, L. & Wrangham, R. 2015. Warfare and reproductive success in a tribal population. PNAS.

Jaeggi, A.V. et al. 2016. Obstacles and catalysts of cooperation in humans, bonobos, and chimpanzees: behavioural reaction norms can help explain variation in sex roles, inequality, war and peace. Behaviour.

Knauft, B. 1987. Reconsidering Violence in Simple Human Societies. Current Anthropology.

Marlowe, F. 2003. The Mating System of Foragers in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample. Cross-Cultural Research.

Marlowe, F. 2005. Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology.

Rosaldo, M.Z. 1974. ‘Woman, Culture and Society: A Theoretical Overview’ in M.Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds) Woman, Culture and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sahlins, M. 1963. Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia. Comparative Studies in Society and History.

Singh, M. 2018. The cultural evolution of shamanism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Smuts, B. 1992. Male aggression against women: an evolutionary perspective. Human Nature.

Walker, R.S. et al. 2011. Evolutionary History of Hunter-Gatherer Marriage Practices. PLoS One

Wrangham, R. & Glowacki, L. 2012. Intergroup Aggression in Chimpanzees and War in Nomadic Hunter-Gatherers: Evaluating the Chimpanzee Model. Human Nature.

Cross-Cultural Volumes (1980’s-Today)

Rituals of Manhood (1982) edited by Gilbert Herdt

Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia: An Exploration of the Comparative Method (2001) edited by Thomas Gregor and Donald Tuzin

Human Behavioral Ecology/Sociobiology (1980’s-Today)

Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of Human History (1983) by Laura Betzig

Homicide (1988) by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson

The Origin of War: The Evolution of a Male-Coalitional Reproductive Strategy (1995) by J.M.G. van der Dennen.

Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behavior (2000) by Bobbi S. Low

Adaptation and Human Behavior (2000) edited by Lee Cronk, Napoleon Chagnon, and William Irons

Mammalian Behavioral Ecology/Primatology (1980’s-Today)

Primeval Kinship (2008) by Bernard Chapais

Mammal Societies (2016) by Tim Clutton-Brock

Chimpanzees and Human Evolution (2017) edited by Martin Mueller, Richard Wrangham, and David Pilbeam

General Social Science/History/Biography

The Campaigns of Napoleon (1966) by David G. Chandler

Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook (1968) by Edward Luttwak

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years (1994) by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Understanding Early Civilizations (2003) by Bruce Trigger.

Codes of the Underworld (2009) by Diego Gambetta

Ethnographic Films

The Hunters (1958) Part 1 and Part 2

Dead Birds (1963) —12 minute clip

—The book Gardens of War (1968) by Robert Gardner, the anthropologist who made the film, is also worth checking out.

A Man Called “Bee”: Studying the Yanomamo (1975)

Fictionalized ethnographic films

In The Land of the Headhunters (1914)

Nanook of the North (1922)

Cannibal Tours (1988)

The Human Systems and Behavior Lab


Omo Valley Culture and Behavior Project

Cross-Cultural Databases

D-PLACE – Database of Places, Language, Culture, and Environment

Standard Cross-Cultural Sample Codebook

Ethnographic Atlas Codebook