Myths & Legends about Headhunting in Sabah

by Herman, 2009

 The Flying Dusun Blog!

"They have a custom of killing people in order to obtain human skulls, which they suspend as trophies from the roofs of their huts. It is from this custom these people have obtained the name of “Head Hunters”. But, not withstanding the barbarous customs that exist amongst them, they have many good qualities."

The Very Rev. Thomas Jackson, Perfect Apostolic of Labuan and North Borneo, 1884:2

Borneo still lures with myths and legends, and most famous of all stories are probably those about headhunting. Already in early colonial days Borneo gained its reputation as a place where ‘head-hunters roam in wild and untamed jungles.’ Reports of daring adventurers and explorers were chilling enough: long, communal houses, and from the smoke blackened rafters hung endless rows of human skulls, revered in song and deed. Some of the skulls made it back to Europe, and inspired the imagination of early 20th century citizens with awe.

the ruai, or communal gallery in an Iban longhouse in Sarawak -
where in olden days rows upon rows of human skulls were displayed

But what was really behind head-hunting? Was it the cruel and barbarous custom as promoted by the invading ‘cultured’ colonisers, and Christian missionaries?

The definition of cruel and gruesome is different in each culture. Headhunting in Borneo served particular purposes, varying slightly with the different tribes: defence, proof of manhood and spiritual. It was always an aspect of their life, intrinsically linked to cosmology, agriculture, human fertility and religious power.

To put it a bit sloppily: while in olden days people in Borneo lived under the constant threat of head-hunting, most of us live today with the constant danger of being run over by a car…

Colonial Accounts on Headhunting

“The barbarous practice of head-hunting, as carried on by all the Dyaks tribes, not only in the independent territories, but also in some part of the tributary states, is part and parcel of their religious rites. Births and “ naming,’’ marriages and burials, not to mention less important events, cannot be properly celebrated unless the heads of a few enemies, more or less, have been secured to grace the festivities or solemnities. Head-hunting is consequently the most difficult feature in the relationship of the subject races to their white masters, and the most delicate problem which civilization has to solve in the future administration of the as yet independent tribes in the interior of Borneo. The Dutch have already done much by the double agency of their arms and their trade to remove this plague-spot from the character of the tribes more immediately under their control…” (extract from Carl Bock’s ‘The Headhunters of Borneo’ 1881).

European colonial powers, and Christian missionaries from the 1500s onwards were not used to the ritualised violence associated with headhunting in Borneo, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Indeed, the ‘old world’ ideal and morality of a proper war to settle, primarily, territorial disputes was a face-to-face combat. It was not immediately understood that headhunting had other functions than the expansion of one’s traditional territory and that thus the victims need not necessarily only be men – warriors – but were more often women and innocent children, unacceptable targets for the European patriarchal military men. To fulfil the religious, emotional or vengeance goals in Borneo there was no need to distinguish one kind of victim as more worthy than another. Furthermore the Europeans had problems with the way in which heads were ritually displayed in public; the dances in which women would keep still bloody heads in their hands; and the songs that glorified headhunting in general. This was an affront to European sensitivities about the dead and only contributed to the barbaric image the Victorian audience got from Borneo.

Iban with a skull his ancestors collected

two ancient skulls in an Iban longhouse,
during a ceremony; note the offerings
for the spirits dwelling in the skulls

How to Take a Head

Maybe you are now wondering how it was done? The taking of heads was certainly a bloody affair, conform to the Victorian perception of a barbarian Borneo! An official of the Sarawak Government Service* describes the procedures as follows (readers’ discretion advised, this text contains graphic language…):

“The way of cutting off their heads varies with the different tribes. The Sea Dyaks (Iban**), for instance, sever the head at the neck, and so preserve both jaws. Among the Hill Dyaks (Kelabit, Kenyah and other tribes**), on the other hand, heads are very carelessly taken, being split open or slashed across with parangs. Often it may be seen that quite large portions have been hacked out of the heads. Others again cut off the head so close to the trunk that great skill and a practised hand must have been used.

“Many tribesmen habitually carry about their person a little basket destined to receive a head. It is always very neatly plaited, ornamented with a variety of shells, and hung about with human hair. But only those Dyaks who have lawfully obtained such a head, as opposed to those who steal, or "find" them, may include this human hair ornamentation to their macabre baskets.

“The Sea Dyaks scoop out the brains by way of the nostrils, and then hang up the head to dry in the smoke of a wood fire - usually the fire which is maintained anyway for the cooking of all the food for the members of the tribe. Every now and then they will leave their preoccupations, saunter across to the fire, and tear or slash off a piece of the skin and burnt flesh of the cheek or chin, and eat it. They believe that by so doing they will add immediately to their store of courage and fearlessness.

“The brains are not always extracted by way of the nostrils, however. Sometimes a piece of bamboo, carved into the semblance of a spoon, is thrust into the lowest part of the skull, and the brains gradually extracted by the occipital orifice...”

Talking to various elderly Kadazan here in Sabah it seems that they needed to sever the head of their enemy while he was still alive, preferably in combat. The head of an already dead man or woman was considered ‘useless’ because devoid of any spirits: the Kadazan, and other Dusunic ethnic people believe that our body is maintained by a number of specialised spirits that inhabit our body, the Rungus call them 'hatod'. There are spirits looking after our knees, others after our chest and so on. The most important spirit is of course located in the head - the 'lugu' in Rungus, or 'tandahau' in Kadazan. My friends have reasoned with such – admittedly logical – arguments as: “if you lose a leg, or an arm, you can still live, but when you lose your head, or got a major injury to your head you die…!” “When someone dies,” the stories continue, “our ‘maintenance spirits’ reassemble, go to Mt Kinabalu and eventually find themselves back on the earthly plain in the body of a newborn. If a human head is severed the body maintenance spirits leave through the wound the decapitation created, but without the head spirit which has rolled away with the head and finds itself alone and confused. It remains in the severed head hoping that someone will take care of it.” And that is exactly what the Kadazan did: the head was brought to the village, displayed in a bangkaha – a peculiar bamboo contraption for sun drying enemy heads – and then welcomed in a grand ceremony that aimed at making the spirit forget, forgive and feel at home in its new place.

skulls Monsopiad collected some three hundred years ago

The Murut, though having a reputation as fierce headhunters, are being considered less ‘noble’ by the Kadazan. Every young Murut man would need a head to prove his manhood and in order to get married. This is in stark contrast to the Kadazan who trained warriors to defend their territories and who collected the heads of their enemies as proof of victory. Mostly, that is! A head was still prestigious and might win you that sweetheart you covet…

Young Murut men would go on headhunting raids, and any head would do – an old lady collecting vegetables from the jungle, or an unsupervised child near a rice field would do just as nicely as the head of a young warrior. I fear that it was probably easier for many young men to ‘hunt down’ an old lady – and thus not risk their own lives – than to face another headhunter, hence the perception of other tribes in Sabah that the Murut were maybe fierce headhunters, but at heart cowards nevertheless.

Religious Motives

Anthropologists and scholar-colonial administrators working in upland Burma and Assam, where head-hunting was practised just like in Borneo, were among the first to recognize that this custom was not just about violence, revenge, or savagery. Subsequent ethnographers in Sarawak noted that head-hunting had a definitively spiritual aspect to it. Victims’ heads were brought to the village or house of the victorious headhunting party with much ceremony, displayed in a place of honour and treated with much reference. The victims’ souls were welcomed in their new home and ritually purified. Thus the souls of the enemies were recruited as one’s allies. Amongst the Kadazan in Sabah the spirits of such allies were then considered part of the villages’ ancestral spirit group. They would be called upon during major shamanistic ceremonies, or when their aid and support was needed, just as that of one’s own ancestors’ spirits.

The skulls also represented the most powerful magic in the world, vital transfusions of energy. A “good head” – that is a skull that was well looked after by an already powerful warrior or his descendants – could save a village from plague, produce rain, ward off evil spirits, or ensure copious rice yields.

Territorial Defence

Obviously not all headhunting was conducted ritually. There were times when it was necessary to defend one’s ancestral territories. The Kadazan in Sabah, and other tribes throughout Borneo trained young men as warriors in order to secure their land. There were times when it was necessary to act in defence, or even go after one’s traditional enemies and vanquish them to secure a lasting peace. A well documented legend in Sabah is that of a certain Kadazan warrior Monsopiad, who lived in the 18th century and throughout his lifetime “collected” 42 skulls: the enemy head brought to the village was the ultimate proof that the enemy was indeed dead – then they obviously did not have the benefit of newspapers and TV broadcasts confirming the victory.

Subsequently the heads were, as described above, brought to their new abode with much ceremony and there are customs (adat) that punish anybody who is disrespectful towards a head or a skull. Because the killing one’s enemy and taking his head not only means “victory,” but acquiring the human head also confers mystical benefits. To profit of the mystical benefits the head must be treated with the proper ceremony, and rites ensuing the successful victory (or head-hunting raid) enable the spirits dwelling in the skull to become friend, guardian or benefactor not only to the victorious warrior, but also to his (or her, in very rare cases) ancestral spirits, and those of his family – and to a larger extent even those of the village.


Headhunting was in many cases a way of earning prestige and could enable a man to gain fame as a hero amongst his people, and the surrounding area. The number of skulls displayed in a house very eloquently told every visitor of the prowess of its inhabitants – and served as a warning not to mess with the host, neither on a physical nor on a spiritual plane! As such, headhunting was amongst certain tribes also a test to confirm their manhood. In Sabah, the Murut were particularly feared head-hunters, not only because they tended to fiercely defend their territories but also because they conducted head-hunting raids in order to get married: not so long ago, a young Murut man was considered worthless if he had not taken at least two heads; he could not get married!

skull on display in an Iban longhouse

The fiercest head-hunters in Borneo by far seem to have been the Iban. Heads allowed a man to obtain prestige, fame, a bride from a good family, and fresh heads were also necessary for many yearly recurring rites, especially those in conjunction with the annual rice planting cycle and to celebrate rites of passages (births, deaths, weddings etc). The Iban did not only search out enemy tribes, but would conduct inter-tribal warfare. This was clearly a never ending vicious circle because any longhouse would feel sooner or later the burnt of revenge from a longhouse that they had attacked many years previously. Head-hunting was thus kept alive and anthropologists speculate that Borneo has never known a population explosion because of this ancient custom.

Head-Hunting in Present-Day Rites and Ceremonies

In many parts of contemporary Borneo headhunting is a part of the past preserved in narrative form and in some areas headhunting rituals continue. While in olden days fresh heads were required for certain ceremonies ‘old’ skulls may now be used as replacement, or the skulls of orang utan and even wooden substitutes or coconuts. This is in areas where head-hunting rituals are needed for spiritual benefits such as for agriculture (rice) and the building of a new house (longhouse). In the case of the direct descendants of the Kadazan warrior Monsopiad, yearly simple rites are conducted to maintain and ensure the ‘happiness’ of his 42 skulls and the spirits dwelling therein. The yearly rites were completed with a major ceremony (momohizan) that recurred every five to seven years. The ceremony lasted over several days and was very costly because the whole family had to be gathered, plus of course many friends and all had to be served foods and drinks. It was essentially a very prestigious event for the ‘guardian of skulls’ and his family, where the spiritual purpose outweighed the cost. In fact, the ritual was necessary in order to maintain and renew the spiritual/magical bonds with the otherworld. With the disappearance of the last Bobohizan – the Kadazan ritual specialists – the present keeper of skulls and 6th direct descendant of Monsopiad is worried that the spirits inhabiting the skulls will resort to mischief. The simple ceremonies in order to keep the spirits ‘calm’ must still be conducted on a yearly basis, and certain taboos must be observed by those wishing to see the skulls.

Kadazan Bobohizan, or ritual specialists

Gundohing Dousia, keeper of Monsopiad's skulls

To-day, headhunting has officially disappeared. The last to give up the old custom in Sabah were the Murut, because their main reason for headhunting – initialisation into manhood – was more on a spiritual level than the Kadazandusun headhunting which primarily occurred during territorial disputes. The Kadazan passed their ancestors’ skull collection on to new generations who maintained the spirits in the skulls. Thus they had no need to add regularly to the collection, whereas each Murut man needed to prove his manhood with the killing of at least one person and show the skull for proof.

Headhunting was reportedly revived during WWII when the Japanese occupied Borneo. In fact, the English encouraged the locals on a guerrilla war against the Japanese, and paid for every enemy head two shilling*. Rumours persist of modern-day headhunting, of course. It is said that when a new bridge is built, a head (or several, depending on the size of the bridge) is needed in its fundaments. Prolonged draught and other natural calamities also may require a human sacrifice to calm nature and reinstall harmony between mankind, nature and the astral world. When in a faraway village people advise you to lock all doors and windows in the night, or if they insist that you sleep with them in the same room as they do, simply don’t ask…

skull in a village near Kundasang, Sabah;
this one reputedly belonged to a Japanese soldier,
taken during a raid in WWII when headhunting was revived

* citation needed
** notes by the author


  • Robert McKinley’s study of ethnographic documents on headhunting in Southeast Asia is the first major ‘regional’ synthesis: R McKinley, 1976 "Human and Proud of It! A Structural Treatment of Headhunting Rites and the Social Definition of Enemies"
  • Gundohing Dousia Dousia Moujing, 6th direct descendant of the famous Kadazan warrior and head-hunter Monsopiad
  • James Masandang, descendant of Rungus warriors
  • Interviews with Dusun in various districts in Sabah
  • Various Internet resources


All features are original scholarship works and copyrighted. Please contact us for the use of the material. 

  Back to Feature Index | Back to Home Page | Deutsche Homepage | Contact Us
Discover Sabah | Experience Sabah | Taste Sabah
Tour Index | Places | Photo Gallery | Links