Headhunters from Roviana, Solomon Islands: part 1

How chiefs and warriors attained their authority

Solomon Islands - Skull shrines

Solomon Islands - Skull shrines
Photographer:  © Australian Museum Archives

Headhunting was not unique to the Solomon Islands. It was practiced in various cultures, including pre-Columbian Central America, East Asia, prehistoric and medieval Europe and pre-colonial New Zealand.

The headhunting in the form observed in the Roviana area in the 19th century may represent around a 500 year old tradition. In the 16th century the Austronesian and non-Austronesian speaking people of this area underwent a cultural transformation and amalgamation into new economic and ritual arrangements organised around centralised coastal chiefdoms (or polities). These polities exercised their influence via the control of food production in the island’s interior and extensive trading networks. Observations made after the 1830s, during the increasing presence of Europeans, shows that headhunting raids accelerated in scope, frequency and ferocity, leading some to believe that they were a largely unintended product of colonial influence. Yet the closer examination of evidence, including indigenous perspective, oral history and archaeological data supports a view that this practice was well entrenched in native tradition extending to prehistoric times.

Throughout the 19th century, villages in the western and central Solomon Islands were frequently attacked by Roviana headhunters, who ‘have for many centuries been in the habit of making raids upon neighbouring islands for the purpose of taking human heads and capturing slaves’ - says an anthropological study.

This habit consisted of many complex strands but in essence it ‘served Roviana chiefs and warriors as a vehicle for their own political legitimacy’. Headhunting raids and accumulating skulls was a highly visible and ritualised display of their status. Roviana chiefdoms had strong kinship ties which gave them a good basis for maintaining political alliances. Although shifting and fluctuating over time, these partnerships provided them with political advantage and military strength.

Hostile expeditions were mounted either against near neighbours as a revenge in local conflicts or against distant islands for a ritualised collection of trophy heads and slaves.

Local expeditions were typically small scale attacks by hired assassins in revenge killing for murder, adultery or the transgression of customary law. Such killings rarely involved beheading, as the spirit of dead kin (boso lau) was considered extremely dangerous and would have to be appeased by ritual practices.

Large, distant raids, often including two or five canoes and 30-50 warriors, were commissioned to kill powerful rival warriors or to destroy entire hostile group. Beheading was practiced when the Roviana war party attacked non-Roviana groups, often in the islands of Choiseul, Isabel, Russell, Malaita and western Guadalcanal. The heads were needed for the inauguration of a new communal house, to commemorate the death of a chief or release a widow from confinement. They also were needed for the inauguration (va-peza) of a Roviana war canoe – a ritual to please ancestors and to ensure the canoe’s combative success in the future. It was believed that it was necessary to carry a victim’s head on the maiden voyage of the canoe to prevent jinxing it (tamu garata).

There were other benefits of headhunting raids. Children were captured for work and sacrifice, including purification rituals to ensure the maintenance of natural order. Young women were captured for ritualised sex, work, adoption and eventual marriage.

Further reading:

Shankar Aswani. 2000. Changing identities: The ethnohistory of Roviana predatory headhunting. Journal of the Polynesian Society 109: 39-70.

Shankar Aswani and Peter Sheppard. 2003. The archaeology and ethnohistory of exchange in pre-colonial and colonial Roviana. Current Anthropology 44: 51-78.


Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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