A few weeks after the rice harvest of 1985, drums, song, and loud cries echoed through the headwaters of the Salu Mambi, celebrating the ambush of seven victims in regions downstream. Several bands of headhunters had returned with their bloodless trophies to renew the fertility of their terraces and the prosperity of their households. If such forays appear to be troubling anachronisms in Indonesia's aging New Order, they also display the surprising tenacity of those mythical realities that shape local history. What makes these annual headhunts so unusual and so instructive is the absence of real violence: no enemy actually is slain, no human head is taken. Instead, a village sends out a cohort of weaponless headhunters to get a surrogate head—;usually a coconut bought in a nearby market town. Upon the cohort's return, the community launches into a weeklong ceremony of music, feasting, and speechmaking to honor the headhunters and to glorify the village. Yet the ceremony also commemorates the past, especially with songs and liturgical chants that depict scenes from the ritual headhunts of an earlier era. In short, what takes place is not a headhunt, but something staged to look like one.

The text of this article is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.