Debunking the Myth of Headhunting

Tezenlo Thong

Is the choice of early Nagas to build their villages on hilltops or ridges in any way related to the alleged widespread and deeply entrenched practices of headhunting? Western colonial writers have often postulated that the Nagas chose to establish their dwellings on hilltops because the practice had the advantage of having natural protections from headhunting raids. Unfortunately, we Nagas have come to imbibe this dubious claim of our erstwhile colonizers. I’d like to argue that this proposition is misleading and, then, present plausible alternatives or counter-narratives on why our foreparents chose to establish their settlements on hilltops. 

The notion that the culture of the Other was exotic, queer, barbaric and savage was a prominent characteristic of the colonizer. This idea or presumption of the exotic Other intrigued White people to take frequent exploration trips or expeditions to distant lands or peoples. Likewise, Western colonizers came with the idea in their mind that the Nagas were fierce headhunters. A Dutch anthropologist, Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, for instance, acknowledged that he wanted to travel to the Naga tribes to the “east and north-east” because of the fact that the region was “unexplored” and “feuds and head-hunting were still the order of the day” (See The Naked Nagas: Head-hunters of Assam in Peace and War [1978], p. 4). With this preconceived colonial mindset, they went on to look for any cultural practices or hints among the Nagas to authenticate their claim that the Nagas were indeed headhunters. Finding most Naga villages located on hilltops was enough to confirm the presumed existence of headhunting culture. If this is truly the case, we also might find a reason or two – related to slave trade, colonization, genocide, lynching, etc. – on why Euro-Americans built their settlements on the plains. 

I’d like to suggest and delineate some alternative reasons on why the Nagas chose to situate their settlements on hilltops. First, there is a geographical reason. Given the steep terrain of the physical landscape of “the hills people,” as the Nagas were known among the plains peoples and foreign invaders, hilltops provided the best choice to build settlements. In other words, the Naga landscape hardly offers valleys or lowlands big enough to establish villages. On careful study, one will observe that most Naga villages are unusually elongated along the ridges, with almost no breadth. Most villages are built along mountain ridges, with normally two houses facing each other in a long row, and a village path runs in between the houses from one end of the village to the other. It only makes sense, then, that the ancient Nagas preferred to build their settlements on hilltops rather than on precipices or cliffs.

If, in the first instance, building settlements on hilltops was necessitated by the given precipitous physical settings, the second reason is deeply embedded in the culture of the people. Situating one’s village on a higher elevation has many advantages than in a valley or lowland area and has deep cultural significance on a daily basis. Several cultural reasons may be cited here. Closely related to the geographical landscape is the reason related to the climatic condition of the Naga inhabited areas. A village situated on a hilltop receives more or longer duration of sunshine than one that is located on a lowland or valley, especially in winter. Drying crops was and is almost a daily routine for the Nagas. For instance, before pounding the rice in preparation for a family meal, the rice has to be “dried” in direct sunlight for hours. Moreover, as a way of preserving and preparing for a long winter, certain crops are dried and stored, which otherwise cannot be kept for a day or two. Also, winter is long and cold throughout the entire Naga homeland, but the ancient Nagas did not have the luxury of warm and fancy clothes. Nor did they have a heating system that kept their houses warm. The wise selection of a village site, therefore, becomes crucial for these various reasons.

Yet another cultural reason why the Nagas chose the hilltop for their settlement is because it provided them with the advantage of taking a bird’s eye view of the surrounding areas, and the ability to do so from such a vantage point had almost daily practical implications. First, it provides the advantage of overlooking the entire landscape, and communal decisions on which area to cultivate for the coming years are taken. Second, the Naga “recreational” lifestyle consisted of the pursuit of game animals and birds, fishing and gathering. Locating one’s village on a high point provides the benefit of overlooking the region and determining where such activities can be pursued, an advantage that is not possible for someone settled on a relatively low ground. Third, settlement of land disputes is done sometimes by looking at the disputed area from the village. Arbitrators visit the spot only if the disputing parties fail to reach an agreement from distance. Finally, sometimes paddy fields are attended to from one’s village from destruction by animals, especially domesticated ones.

One way to deconstruct and belie colonial myths is to construct counter-narratives and reconstruct our traditional or cultural narratives by ourselves, because colonial myths, stereotypes or portraits, projected by the colonizer, are often introjected by the colonized and become the image through which we see and under stand ourselves. Such introjection inevitably leads to self-primitivization and self-alienation. The colonial portrayal that the Nagas were once “fierce headhunters” has, thus far, come to deeply associate with the discourse on Naga culture. This piece, therefore, is an attempt to critique the discourse on the alleged “culture of headhunting” among the early Nagas.