It’s human nature to be drawn to the darker aspects of life, be they fictional, historical or in Netflix documentary form. Souvenir producers of the world know this and often cater to it by producing take-home trinkets that trade on the controversial, unpleasant or horrific aspects of a country’s history.
In Fiji, it was cannibal forks. A small wooden reproduction of a utensil that was used to literally pick the brains of fallen enemies killed during tribal wars.
In Cambodia, it was the darkly humorous Tin Tin in Cambodge t-shirts. A parody of the globetrotting Herge character Tin Tin, who was depicted hobbling on crutches, one leg missing. The unfortunate result of stepping on a landmine during his Cambodian adventure.
I didn’t buy either of these souvenir items. Not for any moral or ethical reason. They just weren’t my cup of tea.
And then I went to Borneo, where I found: Borneo Headhunter Pomade. A cross between hair wax and gel, pomade gives hair a slick shine. It’s used by barbers and hipsters and anyone fond of rockabilly-inspired haircuts like pompadours or ducktails or the undercut Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde) styles.
Not that headhunters cared what your hair looked like. They didn’t want your noggin because it looked good. Among the Dayak and Malay tribes of Borneo, it is believed that headhunting was primarily a traditional and religious practice. A way to strengthen their village via the “lifeforce” or “spiritual strength” thought to reside in the human head.
Once obtained heads were “preserved” via a grisly shrinking process they were displayed in the home to keep away evil spirits and those annoying door to door salespeople.
Shrunken heads were also passed down through families who then became responsible for them and their dusting.
Because of the enormous cultural and spiritual significance of the heads, the new owners can’t abandon, bury or pop them in a thrift shop donation bin when they get sick of them. Nor can they move and leave them behind. For you see, in headhunting, as in life, when you move you have to take your head with you. However, unlike your BOSS BABE mug, you can’t just swaddle it in a bit of bubble wrap and hope for the best.
There’s a whole ceremony involved. The intricacies of which are captured in a short documentary played on a loop at the Sabah Museum in Kota Kinabalu.
Turns out, having a head is complicated and having more than one is a lot more so.
RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING
The Home-life of Borneo Headhunters: Its Festivals and Folklores by William Henry Furness, 1902