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Taking heads isn't my cup of tea, but I have less difficulty understanding the cultural bases of doing so than I do of the apparent inhumanity of, say, the Yanamano or (closer to home) of the Nazi movement of the middle third of the 20th century in what might arguably have been the most culturally advanced society in Europe at the end of the 19th century.

One point: mortal combat among animals of the same species is not common. The more usual pattern is stylized or ritualized combat over resources (usually territory), in which one member concedes without being killed or injured.

To many of us, it doesn't matter a bit whether the victim is "us" (by this, I guess you mean people from the more technologically developed part of the world) or not. Killing others is disturbing and difficult to accept, even when it is for cultural reasons.

I also think that describing the death penalty as "Killing people for reasons the government is actually forbidding..." is a description that misses the mark, especially in democratic societies in which the government serves at the pleasure of the governed.

As I mentioned I tend towards a nature and nurture explanation for a behavior, with a preponderance of weight on social conditioning for the category of behavior in question.

Human behavior, it seems to me, has obviously innate components. We are certainly hard-wired not to try to fly off buildings, and the fear of stepping off a cliff when we can see that there's no place near to land arises pretty early.

But most cultural activities and ethical consciousness are learned behavior (in my judgment). Children learn to not be cruel, they aren't born empathetic.

It was then that the famous missionary Rev. James Chalmers and a party of 12 lost their heads and were eaten by Goaribari headhunters. Another missionary reported witnessing over 10,000 skulls in the long houses of Goaribari.

So I am very sorry for that, but I will go away with very very happy memories of Papua, New Guinea." Conversely, I should also note that in this same documentary the local headman expresses great reverence and esteem for the Rev. Chalmers and went so far as to say, because of his coming we are civilized."

In any case, one can see that Goaribari is a place with a colorful history, no matter what one interpretation of some of those events might be.

As for the Gope boards, they are displayed in the long houses and are the representation of ancestral spirits. They may be understood to represent what are essentially tutelary entities whose power and wisdom guide successive generations.

Though Boas?stated goal was to determine the dynamic conditions under which art styles grow up? and was not necessarily an attempt to nail down the evolutionary, psychological and behavioral impetus for artistic endeavor itself, none the less the cross discipline implications seem relevant.

The cultural context is fascinating as well, and some of you will be aware that the Goaribari Islanders were notorious warriors. It is reported that Authorities were still confiscating skull trophies in the late 1950. Other infamous incidents have become very well known indeed. For instance the events of April, 1901 are legendary.

I imagine Steve P. is familiar with this book, but for others?in a nut shell, the general idea is that those individuals who excelled in artistic pursuits and were witty and creative rendered themselves more desirable in the eyes of prospective mates.

The argument is that such individuals are more desirable to the opposite sex and hence are more likely to pass their skills and aesthetic tendencies on to progeny? Reinforcing the creative/artistic tendencies of the species in the following generations.

Of course there are critics of these ideas, as there always are with anything of this sort, especially when ideas like Miller manage to exceed the boundaries of the specialized scientific community and generate interest among aymen but critiques aside, Miller perspective makes a lot of sense to me in general.

While the Chalmer incident left a powerful impression on the mind of missionaries, the Rockefeller incident is the one that tends to linger most in the thoughts of those of us who are interested in the art and culture of this area. This latter event happened in the Asmat region, which is West through the Torres Straight and up along the coast of West Papua (Indonesian side) in relation to Goaribari Island where the Gope board that started this thread originated.

Yet it struck me that headhunting quite often, though not always, occurs in the context of inter-tribal or inter-village warfare. So, would placing headhunting in the context of war mitigate the abhorrence some of us might feel toward the institution of headhunting? Interestingly, it strikes me that for natives of, as Steve P. aptly designated it ?


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Last modified: Tuesday October 18, 2005.