Headhunters from Roviana, Solomon Islands: part 2

Political coercion and spiritual necessity.

Solomon Islands Map

Solomon Islands Map
Creator: Design Unit © Australian Museum

Headhunting was, in essence, a tool of political coercion, but it was enmeshed with a complex view of the universe and its spiritual dominance over human life and actions.

Headhunting expeditions were never undertaken before the ritual specialists (hiama) had consulted and received approval from the spiritual world. The blessing of ancestors was essential for the success and safety of such raids. It was important too, that participating warriors were purified and obtained ancestral protection. For this reason warriors would observe various restrictions and undergo spiritual preparation.

Moreover, victims of headhunting raids were metaphorically converted into animals before their slaughter - a ‘wild’ fish or an animal prey. For example the people of Isabel Island were called red fish (heheoku), reflecting their skin colour; and Choiseul Island people were called black fish (valiri) in reference to their dark complexion. There were similarities between bonito-fishing and headhunting ceremonies and related shrines conceived in similar fashion.

Both local and distant raids were contracted and payed for. The contracting chief was obliged to make a compensatory payment of shell-ring valuables to the hired chief and warriors. Thus, chiefs were always eager to acquire shell currency, both locally made and those exchanged through ceremonial trades. They kept them stashed away as a war-chest (nibaka). Such currency was needed to ‘finance’ trading expeditions as well as to pay hired warriors for killing and capturing children for sacrifice. Plots of land were also given as payments for these services.

While local warfare and distant headhunting expeditions were different in their intent and rationale, they became blurred in Roviana area. The close-to-home conflicts resulted predominantly from political rivalry while the distant raids were driven by indigenous metaphysical worldviews. Never the less they both have similar outcomes. They both were the instruments of political coercion in Roviana and in the region. Hostile raids also provided heads – a ritual necessity – as well as slaves and property.

The increase in headhunting raids was likely a result of inflation. Trading with Europeans increased the volume of goods, especially metal tools and shell ornaments, into their traditional trading system. This in turn allowed coastal chiefdoms to further arm themselves and pay for hostile expeditions to pursue long-standing political animosities.

Headhunting in Roviana area stopped abruptly in the early 20th century as a result of colonial intervention. In 1909 Charles Morris Woodford, Resident Commissioner in New Georgia reported that headhunting had become largely ‘a thing of the past’.


Solomon Islands carry in their name a legacy of the Spanish obsession with gold. Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira, Spanish navigator who named the Islands, made the connection between the legendary King Solomon’s gold mines and his own perceived or desired presence of gold on the islands he visited during his search for Terra Australis in 1568.

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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