Money to "buy" the name.
Translation of an article published in Spanish: “El Eco Filatélico y Numismático”
(May 2008). Vol.64 (n. 1163): pp.60-61.
The human heads were considered as trophies from the ancient Celts to the modern "headhunters" in Oceania. They were too valuable and precious to be regarded as "currency", and came to be part of the most sacred and non-transferable objects (Figure 1), but seems to have been a "currency" which represented or had the value of a human head.
In Africa, some knives as "Mbulu" of Zaire, whose original function was to behead the prisoners in ritual ceremonies, were also used as currency in payment of dowries (a dowry often reached 20 knives)(1). In this case the same object presented two very different functions, but is among the "headhunters" in New Guinea where we find the money that has an even more macabre use.
Until relatively recently, Marind-amin of Irian Jaya (Figure 2), people who lived in southern New Guinea, carried out expeditions to hunt for "names"(2) for their children. In fact, the Australian government claimed before the Netherlands (responsible for the geographical area where they played the "headhunters") to control this practice, and finally installed a police post in Merauke in 1902 to avoid predatory activities of their people(3). According to the ritual, Marind-Amin moved some distance from their villages to reach areas inhabited by people of other languages, then caught some unsuspecting resident, and asked him what his name was while holding him by the hair (4). The terrified words coming from the mouth of the prisoner -which of course did not understand what was asked-, were considered the same name, and immediately his head was cut with a sharp knife, made exclusively from bamboo ("sok").
|Figure 2.- |
But in return, next to the victim's decapitated body an object was deposited (which can be considered as a "currency"). Victims could not be beheaded, and could not even ask his name, until after his head had been struck with a club ritual called "pahui" or "baratu", consisting of a discoidal stone attached to a handle, and finished on top by a delicate and artistic carved wooden figure. With the coup, the figure was separated from the club, and only then could start the bloody and macabre ritual. The decoration of the club is left with the body as a kind of compensation, and the head-hunters were returning to their village carrying the head, and most importantly, the "name" associated with it. The skulls were deposited in a special hut (Figure 3), and it was not uncommon to see children, wearing as a necklace, the jaws of those unfortunates who came from their name. It is clear that these children would take as a name, a plea for mercy or maybe some reproach or insult in other languages, last words of the victims before being violently beheaded. When Holland took over administration of the area, found - in the early twentieth century-, fifteen thousand names with this macabre origin, which means that in one generation was produced at least this amount of ritual murders among the neighboring tribes in the interior(5).
|Figure 3: Accumulation of "trophy heads" in Sanga, Marind-amin village (1913)|
With regard to the objects used as "currency", the decorated ceremonial club, a few specimens are preserved in ethnographic museums of Amsterdam, Leiden and Rome, proceding of ethnographic expeditions undertaken from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries(6). The origins of these brutal customs must be sought in the personal prestige, which is defeating the enemy, taking away the most precious, his own head. Curiously, the value in this case is not the head itself, it is the name associated with it, a name that cannot be appropriated and should be given or transferred to another person, whether the son himself or another child who lacks it. This act of donation implies an increased their social prestige in the group. The French anthropologist S. Breton has realized an interesting study comparing the role of "head-name" of Marind-amin with the "shell money" used as currency by Wodani people in symbolic exchanges, while in the first case the head is a metonymy for the word collected, from which it derives a name, a metaphor in turn on the identity of the person receiving it, for Wodani people, shell-money is itself a metaphor of the person(7).
|Figure 4: Ceremonial clubs used as "currency" for the "headhunters."|
Until recently, the frequent wars and rapine among populations of New Guinea were part of the social system (as Paul Sillitoe anthropologists have defined as "ecological warfare") but have been progressively replaced by "festivals", that are peaceful meetings from different villages of the region. In these "Sing Sing" the differences between neighboring villages are resolved by ritual dances, differences which were previously resolved by tribal wars and bloodshed. In certain regions such as Highland, sight and exoticism of these celebrations are an excellent source of tourist attraction. In reality, our "Western civilization" is not so different, we use with the same purpose football and other competitive sports, and when we make war, is also often motivated by "ecological" causes (better "anti-ecological") as the control of the valuable natural resources (Iraq War, wars in Africa promoted by large multinational companies ...).
(1) Ibáñez, M., 2001. Monedas singulares: Monedas-Armas II. Cuchillos y lanzas africanas. Eco Filat. y Numism. Vol. 57(n. 1087): p. 44.
(2) In many cultures, the name is very valuable, and most non-European languages, the word "name" is synonymous with fame or reputation.
(3) Zegwaard, G. A., 1959. Headhunting Practices of the Asmat of Netherlands New Guinea. Amer. Anthropol. 61 (6): pp. 1020-1041.
(4) These macabre rituals are documented in the work of J. Van Baal: “Dema. Description and analysis of Marind-Anim culture (
(5) Zegwaard, G.A., 1959. Headhunting Practices of the Asmat of Netherlands New Guinea. Amer. Anthropol. 61 (6): 1020-1041.
(6) Grottanelli, V. I., 1951. On the "Mysterious" baratu Clubs from Central New Guinea. Man 51: pp. 105-107, and Kooijman, S., 1952. The Fuction and Significance of Some Ceremonial Clubs of've Marind Amin, Dutch New Guinea. Man 52: pp. 97-99. It is unclear the role of these clubs, although they are related to the rituals of "headhunting" but respond well to the descriptions of the objects used in this macabre ritual when anthropologists describing these customs.
Ibáñez, M, 2008. Monedas para “comprar” el nombre. Gaceta Numismática, 168: 57-64.
(7) Breton, S., 1999: Le spectacle des choses. Considérations mélanésiennes sur la personne. L’Homme 149: pp. 83-112.