by Rob McMahon
Rob Magnuson Smith’s piece, “The Headhunter’s Trumpet,” offers a glimpse into the world of New Guinean tribal practices. The piece focuses on a Papuan headhunter’s trumpet, an instrument created, carried, and played to display a tribe’s ferocity and brutality before a headhunting. A headhunter’s trumpet, carved from black bamboo, would be marked for every ten skulls collected by the headhunter. In his piece, Smith hints that this practice was almost like scorekeeping; one could even go so far as to say it was a kind of ritualized blood sport.
Headhunting began in various parts of the world long before the Common Era. This ritual was a form of raiding carried out by the warriors of the tribes of Southern New Guinea. The raids began before dawn as warriors surrounded a rival village to prevent escape. The actual attack was carried out at sunrise. It was an ambush, ending in the slaughter of unsuspecting victims.
The trumpet, carried by the tribe’s deadliest warrior, was used just before the attack in order to wake the slumbering victims of the raid. All who heard the call of the trumpet knew that death could not be far behind. The raid’s conclusion marked the beginning of the ritual killings.
After the raiders executed their captives, they butchered the corpses and carved away the muscles, tendons, limbs, and even the intestines. The meat was then returned to the village to be prepared and eaten by the tribe in celebration of their victory. Using special tools, the brain and jaw were removed from the skulls of the victims and prepared for preservation.
The blood of the victims would be collected in a special bowl and poured over special stones, referred to as blood stones, in an offering to the spirits. Afterwards, clay would be molded onto the skulls to preserve them for storage. According to descendants of these tribesmen, the act of headhunting is still practiced today and there are hundreds of caves within the mountains and foothills, near Papua, where the skulls are kept.
The headhunter’s trumpet serves as a solemn reminder that humanity still has a darker side, tucked away beneath the foothills, mountains, and more remote regions of New Guinea.
“Cannibalism and Head Hunting in Papua, New Guinea.” YouTube. YouTube, 27 June 2009. Web. 14 July 2014.
Visser, Willem. “Head Hunting on the South Coast.” N.p., n.d. Web. 14 July 2014.
Zegwaard, Gerard A. Headhunting practices of the Asmat of Netherlands New Guinea. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959. Print.