The Naga people are a conglomerate of several tribes in northeastern India and northwestern Myanmar. Seventeen of these tribes have similar cultures and form the Indian state of Nagaland.
Other Naga tribes can be found in the adjoining states of Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh as well as in Myanmar. The Naga tribes practiced head-hunting and preserved their enemy’s heads as trophies. In the northeast part of the country, Assam was known to have one of the most savage of the Naga tribes.
The word Assam means “peerless” in the extinct Ahom language, which is the perfect meaning for a group of particularly vicious headhunters who believed that they were above the rest. All the people living south of the Brahmaputra River were formerly headhunters.
Most head-hunting groups were warrior-like attackers, but the Assam tribe approached their prey in a sneakier manner. They used surprise tactics by parties of raiders to take the heads of their enemies.
Some of the oldest reports of head-hunting are from the Qin army in China during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475–221 BC). The Qin warriors eventually defeated six other states in war, making the Qin dynasty the first unified, centralized state in Chinese history.
The Qin soldiers were mostly slaves who were looking for a way to move their families to freedom. The soldiers would collect the heads of their murdered enemies and were sometimes granted freedom as a result. It was a great motivator for the Qin army, but it terrified their enemies.
The Taiwanese aborigines were divided into various tribes and areas, but all of them participated in head-hunting except for the Yami people. Late settlers of Taiwan and Japan were often the victims of aboriginal head-hunting raids because the newcomers were seen as invaders, liars, and enemies.
The practice of head-hunting continued during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. It finally ended in the 1930s due to suppression by the Japanese government.
Before Taiwan was colonized by Japan, head-hunting was practiced regularly and heads would be found at various ceremonies like birthdays, funerals, and weddings. Some heads were boiled and left to dry, and they were often seen hanging from trees. When a group returned with a head, it was sometimes a cause for celebration because the aborigines thought that it would bring good luck.
The Celts of Europe practiced head-hunting mainly for religious reasons in the beginning. They were known for nailing the heads of their victims to walls or even dangling them from their horses while riding. Later, the Celts were converted to Christianity by the demi-Celtic Gaels, but the practice of head-hunting continued.
After a while, collecting heads became less of a religious event for the Celts and more traditional and warrior-like. This practice lasted until the end of the Middle Ages in Ireland.
The South American Indian people known as Jivaro lived on the eastern slopes of the Andes and were known to be the most vicious of all the groups when it came to head-hunting. The Jivaro were warlike, and they remain proud that they were never really conquered by others.
This group was made up of tribes that were known for head-hunting and for shrinking the heads that they took. If you take an orange and hold it in your hand, that would be about the size of a Jivaro shrunken head.
The Jivaro people would start by removing the skull of their enemy, and then they would pack the skin with hot sand. This would help shrink the head to that of a small monkey while preserving any features and tattoos. The tribe believed that taking the heads of others would give them supernatural power. They were also motivated by a desire for revenge on anyone they thought deserved it.
The Shuar, who called a shrunken head a tsantsa, was the most dangerous tribe within the Jivaro group. The taking of heads is no longer practiced by their tribe, but they still produce replica heads to sell to tourists who visit the area.