Reviving a Savage Practice


From his hiding place in the Borneo jungle, Asmawi Ab watched as a band of headhunters caught his father, Palindo, 50 yards away. The elderly man fell to his knees and begged for mercy, but the Dayaks stabbed and killed him.

The leader of the gang lifted the body by the hair and in one stroke of his long mandau knife lopped off the head. In triumph, he held it high and drank the dripping blood as his comrades let loose a terrifying victory cry. Then the Dayak cut out the old man’s heart and took a bite.

“After I saw my father beheaded, I was about to faint,” said Ab, 23, whose family comes from the Indonesian island of Madura. “Five people drank the blood.”

More than a century after the Dayak tribes yielded to pressure from Dutch colonialists and declared an end to headhunting, the barbaric custom and the grisly rituals that accompany it have returned to Borneo with a vengeance.


Passed down from generation to generation through the stories of tribal elders, the bloody tradition has resurfaced as the Dayaks lash out against perceived injustice at the hands of Madurese settlers.

In an apparently spontaneous uprising, young Dayaks took their grandfathers’ spears down from the walls of their huts and went on a rampage against the Madurese, whom they accuse of brutality, greed and arrogance.

“Headhunting has been revived again because it was provoked by violence,” insisted Kena Usop, a Dayak community leader and professor of Dayak culture at Palangkaraya University. “They are using traditional weapons to defend themselves and to send away evil because it disturbs the harmony of life.”

Before their killing rampage ebbed, the Dayaks had slaughtered nearly 500 Madurese, according to the Indonesian government. Dayak leaders say their warriors killed 2,000. Hundreds were beheaded in towns, villages and the jungle as they tried to flee. Headless corpses with their hearts ripped out could be seen along the roadside.


Some of the modern-day headhunters followed the ancient rituals of drinking the blood and eating the hearts of the people they killed to subdue their victims’ spirits and absorb their magic.

As a more practical measure, warriors took the severed heads to Madurese villages and waved them in front of the terrified inhabitants to encourage them to flee. Others used the threat of beheading to strip the departing Madurese of their wealth.

All told, officials say, more than 80,000 Madurese were driven from their homes in Central Kalimantan province in the brief but successful campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” Several thousand are still hiding in the jungle.

The Dayaks, normally tolerant and patient people, see themselves as victims of discrimination who are just fighting for their ancient way of existence.

Traditional Dayak life is centered in the remote jungle villages of this vast and forbidding island.

Despite centuries of Christian proselytizing, the main religion is Kaharingan, a form of ancestor worship and animism in which all things are believed to have a spirit. Animal sacrifices are common, and belief in the power of black magic is widespread.

The term “Dayak” embraces more than 200 tribes of indigenous people, each with its own customs, dialect and lifestyle. Historically, only some tribes engaged in the practice of taking heads. These were the legendary headhunters of Borneo, who struck terror in the hearts of the colonizing Dutch and British.

Borneo, bigger than Texas, is the third-largest island in the world. Straddling the equator, it’s dominated by steamy rain forests and laced with rivers that serve as highways for the skilled Dayak boatmen. Home to the endangered orangutan and rich in timber, it has become a prime target of rapacious logging companies.


Skulls of Old Enemies Adorn Jungle Homes

Many Dayaks have adapted to life in towns and cities. But deep in the jungle, traditional Dayaks hunt with blowguns and live in multi-family long houses where the skulls of ancient enemies, blackened by smoke and age, hang from the eaves.

About 3.5 million Dayaks live in Kalimantan, the southern two-thirds of Borneo governed by Indonesia. The province of Central Kalimantan, where the recent slaughter took place, is the Dayak heartland.

Until 100 years ago, headhunting was an essential part of Dayak life and religion. A head was the most potent source of magic. A warrior who cut off an enemy’s head acquired its spiritual power and enhanced his own status in the tribe.

Heads, usually preserved by smoking them, were believed to bring good luck and fertility. The people gave generous offerings of food and tobacco to their skulls so they would protect their village from illness and ensure a good crop. The more skulls a village had, the more prosperous it was.

At times, heads were even a form of currency. A chief might demand three or four skulls in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

The power of the skulls faded with age, and new heads were frequently required for important ceremonies in village life, ensuring that tribes were in a constant state of war.

Periodically, the men of a village would launch a raid on a neighboring village to obtain new heads. Occasionally, several villages combined forces, with as many as 1,000 warriors mounting an attack.


All Skulls--Even a Child’s--Had Value

It made no difference whether the heads they took belonged to a fierce warrior or a young child--every skull had the same value. When taking a head, it was important to conquer the spirit of the dead. This could be done by eating the heart or liver or by drinking or washing in the victim’s blood.

Some tribes, such as the aggressive Iban, used headhunting as an effective weapon of terror in campaigns to expand their territory.

In 1894, the Dayak tribes agreed to a treaty banning headhunting. The pact proved effective, and the Dayaks began using substitutes for their rituals, such as cows’ heads or coconuts.

Since then, there have been isolated cases of Dayaks decapitating outsiders, such as during World War II, when the British encouraged them to hunt the heads of Japanese soldiers.

More than 40 years ago, the Indonesian government began moving people from overcrowded islands to sparsely populated regions such as Kalimantan. Among the migrants to Borneo were the Madurese, who proved to be better at business than the Dayaks and paid little heed to the traditions of the indigenous people. The Dayaks claim that the Madurese also raped their women and killed over petty disputes.

“We have been patient for a long time, and we can’t take it anymore,” said Bahing Djimat, secretary of the Dayak Community Organization in Palangkaraya, the provincial capital.

The Dayaks first went on a headhunting and killing rampage against the Madurese in 1997 in West Kalimantan and again in 1999. By some estimates, thousands were killed.

Some Dayaks are horrified by the killings and the image they create of Dayaks as primitive savages who have never given up headhunting. “What is happening today merely reflects the bad traditions of years ago--the basic customs of our ancestors,” said Onen K. Usop, a lecturer in philosophy at Palangkaraya University and the brother of Kena Usop. “What happened during these years is that it did not really vanish, just like the weapons.

“Actually, nothing has changed.”

Some experts on Dayak culture disagree, noting that the recent killings are missing many of the ritual practices that accompanied ancient headhunting.

“It is not real headhunting as we understand it in the past,” said John Bamba, director of the Institute of Dayakology in Pontianak. “What is happening now is more an expression of anger and resentment.”

Bamba questioned whether the killers were engaging in the ancient rites when they drank the blood and ate the hearts of their victims. More likely, he said, they were possessed by spirits that made them act in this barbaric way.

“What I can say for sure is that there is a teaching to ask for the spirits’ help in time of trouble,” he said. “It is possible that the spirit needs blood to drink and the person who is possessed does it unconsciously.”

Dayak leaders said their warriors collected at least 130 heads from the killing fields last month and brought them in white plastic bags to their command center in Sampit for eventual distribution to villages in the interior. Bahing said the skulls were war trophies, not religious artifacts.

“They plan to bring the heads home as a symbol of victory,” he said.

In the most recent killing, it is clear that the Dayaks were not just out for heads. The warriors were waging a concerted campaign to drive the Madurese from the province. The beheading of one person was usually enough to stampede hundreds of people.

Saroki, 32, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, said he was in his village of Cempaka Mulia last week when truckloads of Dayaks armed with spears and blowguns roared up. One got out holding a severed head and said: “This is the head of the Madurese. If you love your life, you had better flee,” Saroki recounted. The villagers ran for the jungle.

Ameria, 17, an Indonesian of Malay descent, said the Dayaks came into her mixed Madurese and Malay village of Besiri Ilir on Monday and separated the people into two groups, one to live and one to die.

The Dayaks, who are said to be able to identify the Madurese by their smell, determined that her husband’s grandfather, Mursalam, 60, was Madurese and sentenced him to death, she said. The others were ordered to count to 10 to see whether they pronounced the telltale number five with a Madurese accent.

Ameria’s husband, Narto, 19, passed the test but pleaded with the Dayak leader not to kill his grandfather. Without a word, the Dayak took his mandau and split Narto’s skull like a coconut. Then he turned to Mursalam and chopped off his head.

“My neighbor grabbed me and told me to run so the Dayak wouldn’t kill me,” Ameria said. “The bad memories are always in my mind. I keep seeing them cut my husband’s head.”

Asmawi Ab knew the men who killed his father in the jungle. They grew up together in the same village of Pelangsian in houses 200 yards apart. Perhaps they resented the fact that Ab’s family was one of the wealthiest in village--he owned a motorcycle and several houses--and that he was now chief of the village.

After he saw his father beheaded, Ab surrendered to a Dayak official he knew and the two cut a deal: The Madurese in his village would turn over all their property in exchange for their lives.

The Dayak telephoned police, who trucked the villagers to the overcrowded refugee camp in Sampit. Ab said he expects he will soon board a refugee ship for Madura with nothing more than the clothes on his back. “The important thing is my life,” he said. “I don’t care about my property.”