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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.

Technologically developed areas", the socio-cultural outlook does seem to allow much of the populace to dissociate causing deaths in a war context from urder? This relativity of perception is noteworthy.

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.

Every culture have their representative art works. For example, the statue of liberty is a symbol of freedom and it's a great art work of French people.

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.

Suffice to say that headhunting was a robust tradition here. In 2001, on the centenary of Rev. Chalmers' demise, the BBC aired a documentary in which Charlotte Sainsbury, a direct descendant of Rev. Chalmers visited Goaribari.

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.

Miller draws upon Darwinís theories on sexual selection (which have generally been overshadowed by his more universally recognized thoughts on natural selection), and comes up with an engaging and very readable exploration of behavioral psychology and among other things, the evolutionary implications of the artistic impulse from the Pleistocene onward.

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.

Boas was on to something, and Millerís ideas strike me as complimentary and mutually reinforcing. While Boas only mentions the personal creative satisfaction of the artisan him or herself, the idea that creative virtuosity could serve as an appeal to prospective mates, seems like a fairly reasonable extension of his conclusions on art motives? and one that could reinforce the artisans own pleasure in the aesthetically creative act.

A final comment or two on head hunting? for the majority of us who will read this discussion, I think it is safe to say that if this phenomenon is of interest at all, then at most we may possibly gain an intellectual understanding of why various societies might indulge in headhunting, but our own deeply ingrained cultural praxis will prevent us from ever looking at headhunting the way someone who is an autochthonous member of a headhunting society might.


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Last modified: Tuesday October 18, 2005.