The Jivaro Heads

Explorer F.W. Up de Graff’s account of a Jivaro head hunting raid in 1897.

The enemy having left their dead and dying behind them in their flight, the victors dashed forward to seize the most highly treasured of the spoils of battle — the heads of the enemy slain. With stone-axes and split bamboo knives, sharpened clam-shells (rubbed to a keen edge on sand-stone), and chonta-wood machetes, they went from corpse to corpse, gathering and stringing their gruesome emblems of victory.

Indeed I myself happened to watch the fate of a Huambiza woman who had fallen in the fight wounded by three spears. Little did we imagine what the ultimate issue might prove to be, when we attacked that morning.

The woman lay where she had been borne down by the spear-thrusts. The Aguarunas, eager to collect her head, went to work while she was still alive, though powerless to protect herself. While one wrenched at her head another held her to the ground, and yet another hacked at her neck with his stone-axe. Finally I was called upon to lend my machete, a far better implement for the work in hand. This was truly an act of mercy, to put the poor creature out of her misery as soon as possible. It was a truly hideous spectacle. But it must be remembered that had we attempted interference, we were but five in a horde of fiends, crazed by blood and lust. When at last the head was severed, it was strung with the one other which had fallen to the lot of our party.

This stringing of the heads is in itself an art, the object of which is to facilitate their transportation. They are strung on thin lengths of pliable bark stripped from some nearby sapling, which make a first-rate substitute for the hempen cord of civilization. These bark-ropes are passed through the mouth and out at the neck.

Excerpt from Head Hunters of the Amazon: Seven Years of Exploration and Adventure, available for download for free here.