The Headhunters of Borneo; a look at their traditions, religions and struggle for power

A brief look at the Headhunters of Borneo
By Amanda King

“There is only one sort of rule in jungle warfare, do not be smelt before you are heard, do not be heard before you are seen and below all, do not be seen”

Major Tom Harrison



I have read and heard stories about Head Hunters and have always had a rather macabre fascination with them, but it was not until I travelled to Borneo this year that I actually got to speak to someone from an old Head Hunting Tribe and consequently this rekindled my interest.

The man I met was called Mebo from the Dusun Tribe and he explained to me a little about the old traditions and how they used to hunt heads for many reasons but mainly, according to him, in order to win respect, show their strength and be deemed suitable for marriage.

The Tribe kept the last skull and to this day regularly sacrifice a chicken in a special ceremony to summon up the spirit, which they believe lives on inside the skull. By offering up the blood of the chicken, Mebo explained that this will keep the spirit happy and the skull ‘healthy’ in preventing it from going white and cracking, much like a fragile egg would.

The Tribe name ‘Dusun’ was made more popular by the British Colonials who latched on to the term from the Brunei Malaysian people, the word was used to describe farmers who had a piece of land with fruit and orchards. The Dusuns were split into many sub-tribes who lived in groups around many scattered areas, with names including the Tagahas and Bundu-liwan Tribes, both of which played a key role in the head hunting practice.

The Dusun people are sometimes also referred to as Ma’anyan or Dayak, in fact they have so many different names and sub-tribes that it can become quite confusing, for the most part of this piece I shall refer to them as Dayak.

The Tribes are said to follow Animism, which is a belief that spirits exist in certain animals and plants and even in objects such as rocks, in weather for example thunder and lightning and also geographical places, such as a mountain. In other words there is no distinction between the physical and the spiritual world.

It is an interesting outlook and one that I have come across before, while travelling in the Masai Mara in Kenya, there was a huge thunder storm and the Masai Tribe told me that they believed the Gods were angry with them, so they sacrificed some cattle to try and appease the Gods.

The Masai beliefs are very strong, as are the Dusuns, it is surely one of the things that helps to bond these Tribes together, in having a unity of beliefs and ancient traditions.

The Dayak people live up in the hills and upland valleys and trade their produce of rice and wood with the people of the coast for salted fish other goods and they are said to be peaceful people nowadays.

So where did the practice of Head Hunting for the Dayak people originate from?

From an early Dayak Tribe there was a warrior named Bungkar who came from the hills of Pahu and it is said that at the age of 13 he travelled to a place called Sayap to learn the art of sword fighting; he stayed there for three whole years to master the skill.

After he had finished his training he returned to Pahu and suggested the Tribe move to an area called Tambunan where there was plenty of rich land, always in search of better land they agreed and once they had all moved and settled Bungkar built them a fortress as a form of protection and inserted sharp, wooden stakes all around it to fend off any unwanted intruders.

The rich land of this sought after valley also attracted other Tribes and so next the Tagahas (meaning the strong) moved on to the land, but all thoughts of living peacefully side by side were soon to be disrupted as the Tagahas robbed Bungkars home for his valuable Buffalo.

It is said that the men were put into a deep sleep by “pinjodop” a pagan prayer that induces this sleep and the women were hypnotised by the pagan charm known as “pilubok” which allegedly made them willing to hand over the buffaloes and other livestock to the charmer.

Although non-violent, this was a very underhand way of taking the stock off the Dayaks and of course their actions infuriated the Tribe.

Where Bungkar was concerned, they messed with the wrong man.

Bungkar the newly trained sword fighter was incensed at the robbery so he gathered up a group of men and went after them discovering that they were hiding out waiting for nightfall to move the stolen cattle by moonlight. In using the same charms that the Tagahas had used on them the Dayaks managed to get the livestock back and were on their way back home, however the Tagahas then gave chase and Bungkar made good use of his sword fighting skills by killing five men.

This changed their old ways of fighting with the use of sleep charms as it was replaced with the brutal yet instantaneously effective head hunting in this lawless area.

What sealed this act of violence was when a neutral band of people called the Kososoluon tried to call the peace between the tribes by putting a new rule in place to protect women and children from being harmed, therefore all women and children of the Tagahas or Bundu-liwan Tribes were to carry a green branch wherever they went as a sign of neutrality.

However, the Tagahas opted to ignore this rule by waiting for some girls from the Bundu-liwan tribe to walk by on their way home and attacking them, during which a man named Sambatang beheaded Bungkars sister, Soria.

Bungkar was heartbroken by this and went straight out on a hunt to find Sambatang and beheaded him to avenge his sister, he also beheaded a virgin from the Tagahas tribe with a name similar to his sisters, called Toria.

Back with his people, Bungkar was celebrated for his bravery and defending the Tribe, Torias head was boiled and the brains were shared out for the men to eat to keep the spirit of Head Hunting alive, they believed this would bring great luck to their village and all who lived in it.

Allegedly some hours after this event there was a volcanic eruption which affected the sunlight in the area making it appear darker, the tribe believed it to be due to the Gods being angry and so peace came once more, but only for 15 years. The ritual of head hunting was also outlawed by British and Dutch Colonists at the turn of the century as they thought it barbaric, however it was to return in all its glory in WWII.

WWII held all sorts of challenges for all involved but of course depending on location there would be some additional foreign trials to contend with, such as for the airmen who parachuted into the jungles of Borneo where Tribes with poisoned blowpipes hunted.

These soldiers would have to endure unseen enemies including the heat of the dense jungle, fevers and diseases, insect, scorpion and snake bites and now also the Tribes who would be watching them before the soldiers even had any idea that they were there.

During the Japanese occupation of Borneo many horrific atrocities of war took place where the Japanese tortured, raped and killed their captives and even though the Dayaks had a violent past, they were appalled at all that was going on and naturally wanted to protect their own people.

Author Judith Heimann became interested in the story of some soldiers who survived a plane crash and on reading the diaries of these soldiers she wrote the book The Airmen and the Headhunters which also became a documentary, it is a fascinating account of how the head hunters sympathised with US soldiers against the Japanese and also how this event encouraged a Tribe to return to their old ways of Head Hunting.

On November 16th 1944 a B24 Aircraft with 11 US airmen on board crashed into the jungle and this incident had a surprising reaction from a Tribe of Dayaks who protected the airmen from the Japanese, risking their lives in the process but also at the same time returning to their old ways of headhunting.

Radio operator Dan Illerich wrote a diary detailing how the plane got into trouble and how he parachuted out of the craft and landed in the jungle with co-airman Bombardier Phil Corran landing right by him, the two of them were bewildered, not knowing where they were and it took them some time to figure out what to do.

The Jungle, Borneo

The Jungle, Borneo

Meanwhile, two young boys from the Dayak Tribe, Ganang Laban and Kapung Balang, saw thick black smoke in the sky and watched as the plane came down in to the jungle and some of the Tribe set out to try and find the plane, which took several days walking through dense jungle.

Dan and Phil were sitting on the side of a river on a muddy bank resting but had an overwhelming feeling that they were being watched and on looking up suddenly saw the native Tribe across the river with bows and arrows looking on.

One man from the Tribe began to cross the river and the others followed, the two airmen stood up feeling fearful for their lives and not knowing what would happen next, but then one of the Tribesmen spotted their badges and recognised that they were USA airmen and so the bewildered soldiers were suddenly and surprisingly welcomed.

There were two reasons for this.

The first was that back in the 1930s some American missionary’s had come to Borneo and had converted some of the Dayaks to Christianity, the Dayaks got used to them being around and grew fond of them. However, the happy arrangement was not to last when the Japanese came and had the USA missionary’s rounded up and killed, a man called John Wilfinger was their favourite and even though he willingly gave himself up the Japanese beheaded him anyway.

Not only this, the Japanese had been slaughtering women, children and babies which the Dayaks despised them for, the Japanese also stalked the women of the Tribes and this angered them even further.

So for this reason the USA airmen were taken in and welcomed as one of their own, the Dayaks took the two survivors to their longhouse and gave them food and water and then the next day took them to a shelter deep in the jungle where two more of their crew (one of which was blind from the crash) were hiding out in a lean to, flight engineer Jim Nock and Nose Gunner Eddie.

The Dayaks kept them successfully hidden for 6 weeks.

Japanese soldiers who were stationed near the area were relying on a man called William Mahkahona who ran the area for them, although he was forced by the Japanese to tell about the plane, his loyalties also lay with his own people and the US airmen, so he strove to protect them.

William helped to keep them hidden from the Japanese who were now making their way through the jungle in search of any survivors, however the Japanese knew that the were being lied to by William and the other Dyaks and so they confiscated food and killed the livestock as punishment.

An English eccentric and anthropologist who knew Borneo called Major Tom Harrisson was flown into the area with some men to help rescue the US soldiers and once there he re-endorsed head hunting, approving its return in order to kill as many Japanese as possible..He then whipped up an army of willing Dayaks and together they fought to clear the Japanese out of their area and make it safe for the native inhabitants.

The Dayaks did not need much encouragement, they were so angry about the constant harassment and attacks of the women that they hatched a plan to get rid of the Japanese soldiers in their area and used the women as bait to lure the Japanese in, the women stood bathing in the river near their area and beckoned to the soldiers. As the mesmerised and now somewhat distracted Japanese took to the water wading in to reach the women, the Dayaks descended using their blowpipes to poison the Japanese before returning to their old ways once again of beheading them.

According to Dan Illerich, the Dayaks invited their guest US soldiers to a Head Hunters ritual and so they had an evening of listening to brass gongs chiming out repetitive yet melodic tunes and watching the tribal dances as the heads of the dead Japanese were washed, dried and then smoked over a fire. This part of the ritual was essential as the Dayaks believed it would protect their villages and longhouses and bring good luck to their crops.

The Japanese also have the taking of heads in their culture stemming right back to the Samurai when they would take a head and present it as a trophy to their General who would often reward them by riches or status, which of course served only to encourage more of it and in Borneo the Japanese were cutting off the heads of their victims.

Three more of the airmen from the crash were found and they had also been protected by Dayaks, so they were extremely fortunate to have had these men on their side, the empathy from these head hunters showed a softer side, proving that they were not just heartless savages, but instead people who were often pushed to protect themselves.

Major Harrisson had proved to be a key figure in getting the end result and after the Dayaks had fought and killed the Japanese clearing the area, the Major arranged for a runway to be built out of bamboo and laid down to enable a plane to descend and take the USA surviving soldiers home.

In 2001 the be-headings began openly again during the Sampit conflict of violence between the Dayaks who were indigenous and the Madurese who had migrated there, it was a horrifying ethnic cleansing by the Dayaks and many Madurese were beheaded and the heads banded about for all to see.

It seems that this ancient ritual is not so far off in the past nowadays with the Tribes of Borneo and of course with other cultures around the World, such as the Iraqis. Sadly beheading is now something quite familiar to our society as we are seeing it regularly in the News and reading about it in newspapers, stretching out its grim, icy hand it has reached the far corners of the World, yet still it does not fail to shock the general public……and rightly so in my opinion.

Amanda King

One thought on “The Headhunters of Borneo; a look at their traditions, religions and struggle for power

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