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How chiefs and warriors attained their authority
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.
Political coercion and spiritual necessity.
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.
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.