The Head Keepers of Modern Day Indonesia

A Dayak Head Keeper in Borneo
A Dayak Head Keeper in Borneo

We’ve extensively cruised Indonesia on all four of our circumnavigations. Put together, that’s a year’s worth of gunkholing their 17,500 far-flung isles. So two things are true—1.) We’ve spent a good amount of time sailing in the world’s largest Islamic country and, 2.) We’ve barely scratched the surface. We intend to return soon. I can’t think of any country that is as ethnically diverse—or more welcoming—than Indonesia. 

One thing that always amuses us is the ongoing cultural war between their tourism department and their head-keepers. International tourism is finally blossoming in Indonesia, in part because it is losing its reputation for being a ‘too challenging’ (read: scary) a destination for the average tourist. Thus, the last thing the Tourist Department wants is for the local Dayak tribes to start displaying their village’s shrunken heads.  

This ‘culturally-restrictive’ policy totally bums out the small villages along the Sekonyer River—why shouldn’t they show off their proudest possessions? 

If you arrive by boat, they come alongside in dugout canoes, and suspiciously ask if you are from the central government. If the answer is no, they immediately light up and whisper, “wanna come to our village and see the heads?”

The village we visited kept them hidden under their long house—seven shrunken heads on a hardwood plank. 

“The village across the river only has four,” sniffed their chief disdainfully. “Pretty weak, right?”

Now I’ll admit that shrunken human heads aren’t to everyone’s taste—but America has its cowboy heroes, and England had its knights in shining armor, and, well, the Dayak (former) headhunters of Indonesia have their remaining precious heads as evidence of their cultural valor. 

Now this whole ‘chop off a head’ might strike you as a tad lawless and inhumane—but that’s not the way they see it. There were four strict rules back-in-the-day: no children, no pregnant woman, no crazy people, and the victim couldn’t be asleep. 

“It was, well, sort-of-fair,” explained the chief of the village we visited in Borneo. And it was, in the sense that if a headhunter went off to hunt a head and didn’t return—well, it was assumed that his now-diminutive head was being admired in a nearby village. 

Of course, the headhunters had the element of surprise, were heavily armed, and might be attacking elderly folks but, hey, people tend to keep their heads if at all possible. Thus heads were/are scarce. It was catch-as-catch-can. 

In the region we cruised, headhunting might not be such an ancient practice. In 2001, over 500 Madurese were slaughtered by the Dayaks—and the local ‘amateur taxidermists’ were rumored to be working overtime. 

Theoretically, of course, headhunting is now totally illegal. However, local people still have accidents—and in rural Borneo an amazing number of those accidents just happen to involve headless corpses. 

If a motorcyclist’s headless body is found by the side of the highway, well, someone must have forgotten to take down a particularly sharp clothesline, right? If a pair of headless bodies are found in a car with its windows rolled down, well, it is obvious that something came whizzing into the car, decapitated both occupants, and flew out the opposite window along with their heads. 

That makes sense, right?

The Post houses the most cherished head in the village
The Post houses the most cherished head in the village

Now, now, don’t be so judgmental, dear reader—think of the young aspiring man interested in the local… er… art of… er… miniature or human taxidermy, shall we say? Sure, he knows he’s only supposed to traditionally shrink heads that died nobly in battle but, hey, practice makes perfect. So perhaps a little opportunistic ‘harvesting’ occasionally happens—I mean, it isn’t like the dead person needed their head or anything, right? Isn’t a little compassion in order? 

It is if you’re a Dayak. 

Keeping shrunken heads in a rainforest environment isn’t easy—one, they can’t get wet, and, two, any mildew must be removed immediately. Three, they have to stay insect-free. They are basically leather and thus edible; so rats, mice, and small dogs must be kept away as well. 

The heads look amazingly eerie. For one thing, they are perfectly proportioned. The second crazy thing is that their mouths are sewn shut. But the thing that got me the most was that—while the head’s shrink, their ear and nose hairs don’t. Thus, the noses in particular appear to have small paintbrush bristles sticking out of each nostril. 

Bleeck!

Of course, I’m an inquisitive fellow—as we journalists tend to be. And I knew I was in the presence of proud experts who were brimming with cultural knowledge, as gruesome as that knowledge might be. 

“So,” I said nonchalantly, “how do you shrink a head?”

It turns out it is relatively easy—but it takes restraint and time if you want the final product to look identical to its original human form. The key is heat—but heat is also the enemy as well. Too much heat and the epidermal area that is overheated will deform. It must be a small amount of heat evenly distributed. 

The first thing you need is a fresh body. Once a human face had been left for a couple of days in the humid tropical rainforest, it is too late. So the fresher, the better! Second, chop off the head and allow it to briefly drain. Three, make a Y-shaped slit in the back of the head, then peel off the flesh from the skull, using a sharp knife (or, more traditionally, a sharpened seashell) to retain as much as the epidermis as possible—with minimum fat. Four, sew up the Y-shaped incision, the eyes, and the mouth. Five, boil it gently with herbs containing tannins. This will reduce its size by about a third—boil say for an hour and a half or so. Six, after it is dried out, gather a gradient of smooth stones, small rocks, tiny rocks, and sand. Seven, heat same but only a small amount—remember, having the rock/sand too cool only takes extra time; having it too hot deforms the face. Eight, gently pour the head/sock with the heated rock/sand mix about half full, while continuously rotating the head. Do NOT stop, until the rock/sand is cool. Nine, rub with charcoal ash (traps the soul) and smoke-cure it for a few days to assist in preservation. Ten, use black seeds or fruit pits for the miniature eyes. 

Of course, receipts vary—some tribes don’t believe in boiling and make up for it with additional smoking. 

Don’t forget that you don’t merely end up with the head, you also inherit the courage of the dead man—his head is just a pleasant reminder of your bravery. 

Isn’t it amazing what you learn while circumnavigating? 

 

Fatty and Carolyn are back on their mooring at the Changi Sailing Club in their beloved Singapore, playing with the grandkids.

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com