Volume 109 2000 > Volume 109, No. 1 > [Front matter] p 1-8
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Volume 109 MARCH 2000 Number 1
    Guest Editor
    Editorial Assistants

Published quarterly by the Polynesian Society (Inc.), Auckland, New Zealand

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Published in New Zealand by the Polynesian Society (Inc.)

Copyright © 2000 by the Polynesian Society (Inc.)

Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism, or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part of this publication may be reproduced by any process without written permission.

Inquiries should be made to:

Hon. Secretary

The Polynesian Society

c/- Center for Pacific Studies

The University of Auckland

Private Bag 92019, Auckland

ISSN 0032-4000

Indexed in CURRENT CONTENTS, Behavioural, Social and Managerial Sciences, in INDEX TO NEW ZEALAND PERIODICALS, and in ANTHROPOLOGICAL INDEX.


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Volume 109 MARCH 2000 Number 1
  • Preface: On Head-hunting in the Western Solomons 4
  • PETER SHEPPARD, RICHARD WALTER and TAKUYU NAGAOKA The Archaeology of Head-hunting in Roviana Lagoon, New Georgia 9
  • SHANKAR ASWANI Changing Identities: The Ethnohistory of Roviana Predatory Head-hunting 39
  • CHRISTINE DUREAU Skulls, Mana and Causality 71
  • DEBRA MCDOUGALL Paths of Pinauzu: Captivity and Social Reproductions in Ranongga 99
  • DEBORAH WAITE An Artefact/Image Text of Head-hunting Motifs 115
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This Issue: Head-hunting in the Western Solomon Islands

In writing about head-hunting we risk evoking images of the savage other. The authors of this volume recognise that reconstituting the past, particularly one that is generally perceived as brutal, even by Solomon Islanders themselves, presents a difficult and politically volatile task. Images of the violent past have nourished Western popular fascination with exotica and provided fertile literary grounds for imagining the darkest corners of human irrationality. More concretely, representations of head-hunters savagely slaughtering innocent victims in surprise attacks historically served as the justification for European pacifying and colonising enterprises, and continued to operate as rationales for the colonial and post-colonial structures of domination that followed. This linkage between purported savagery and colonial intervention was nowhere so prominent as in the case of the Western Solomon Islanders whom 19th century European political commentators portrayed as quintessential savages in need of pacification and enlightenment. Such past portraits of New Georgians raise two linked critical questions. How do we as anthropologists interpret in a politically responsible fashion a practice that has long been portrayed as an emblem for savagery? And how do we avoid falling into the trap of constructing an exotic other? Answering these questions is a complicated matter and one that is exacerbated by anthropology's own colonial past.

Apologia for the sake of contemporary sensitivities, however, not only obfuscates the historical and ethnographic complexities of pre-pacification Western Solomon Islands life (c.1900), but also negates an indigenous historicity and thus constitutes

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an additional act of neo-colonial appropriation of local representations. The contributors deal with these issues in different ways. Christine Dureau, who addresses the issues at some length, does not proffer a definite answer. Rather, she reasserts the value and shortcomings of the “partial truths” that can result from the careful relativism of placing head-hunting in its broader cultural and historical contexts. Deborah Waite likewise places the artefacts of warfare in a broader socio-cultural context. The shields, axe handles, canoes, rifle butts, etc. used in head-hunting raids were far more than mere technologies of violence. In addition to their manifest functions, these highly aestheticised objects reflect the artistic creativity, and provide insights into the worldview and sociality of craftspeople, warriors and leaders.

Debra McDougall, by contrast to Dureau and Waite, places her account within the context of how people now talk about the female captives who were snatched in raids. She brings a much needed recognition of the significance of war captives to the analysis of head-hunting by arguing that pinausu (captives) were a central reason for, rather than a secondary outcome of, organising or joining a raid. Her work shows the shortcomings of analyses that exclusively centre on the practice of head taking.

Shankar Aswani takes head-hunting right out of the 19th century context of European commentators. Using a combination of oral historical accounts and genealogical memories about population movements and political leadership in Roviana, he pushes the time frame of analysis back several centuries. If Dureau gives an account of the interrelationships between ancestor veneration, political leadership, economy, worldview and head-hunting, this paper points to the longer term patterning and permutations of these phenomena. Such analyses implicitly answer questions about how to write about cross-cultural violence. Firstly, the longer view of Aswani's paper undermines the stereotypical notion that 19th century head-hunting was somehow out of control following the introduction of iron and firearm technologies, as if, on the one hand, the introduction of western technology determined the trajectory of local history and, on the other, unknowing savages could not cope with the incursions of modernity represented by increasing contact with Europeans. Secondly, like McDougall he privileges local accounts relying heavily on local genealogies and histories.

The importance of oral accounts in historical representation is crystallised by the archaeological work of Peter Sheppard, Richard Walter and Takuya Nagaoka who add a powerful spatio-temporal dimension to the study of head-hunting in the Solomon Islands. By intertwining oral accounts with the archaeological record of the Roviana Lagoon, Sheppard and his colleagues explain the regional socio-economic and politico-religious changes that occurred beginning in the 16th century and continued onwards. Although institutionalised violence does not directly manifest archaeologically, the authors show how indigenous beliefs in the power and efficacy obtained from ancestors took on various material forms. They, too, suggest that predatory head-hunting was prominent in Roviana (and by implication elsewhere) long before the region's articulation with Western technological and economic forces, which is usually taken to explain the scale and geographic scope of New Georgian head-hunting.

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Despite the specified focus of the topic, the contributors see head-hunting as a part of much broader social structures and cultural understandings. Head-hunting, including the abduction of captives, is viewed as having played a central role in the social, cultural, political, economic and religious life of Western Solomon Islanders. This conclusion is not only grounded in historical records, but also based on extensive ethnographic, ethnohistorical and archaeological fieldwork conducted by the various authors. At the same time they recognise that an anthropological diachronic analysis is inevitably incomplete, as an historical representation of head-hunting cannot possibly incorporate all existing “historicities” (Ohnuki-Tierney 1990). Yet, taken as a whole, these contributions demonstrate the power of historical analysis in ethnographic research.

Head-hunting has been variously explained by a wider literature, principally focused around Southeast Asia, as resulting from the need to toss one's rage or a form of piacular sacrifice (Rosaldo 1980), the desire to ritually incorporate enemies as friends by preserving the severed head's identity and physical features (McKinley 1976, cf. Pannell 1992), the cult of heads as phallic symbols or allegories for vitality and fertility (Freeman 1979), and as a means to gain access to women of marriageable age (Rosaldo 1980, McWilliam 1996) and to cross the threshold between adolescence and manhood (Rosaldo 1980, Zegwaard 1959). Current approaches characterise severed heads as political symbols in the formation of states (McWilliam 1994, 1996), as vehicles to fashion identity and the past via songs and lyrics (George 1993, 1996), and as historical and political symbols of resistance to colonial and neo-colonial cultural, political and economic hegemony (Hoskins 1987,1996). This sustained academic attention to the contexts and significance of Southeast Asian head-hunting is conspicuously lacking for the New Georgia Group. This is curious, given, on the one hand, the region's past renown for head-hunting and, on the other, its prominence in New Georgian constructions of local identity (for an analysis of this in nearby Cheke Holo, Santa Isabel, see White 1991).

Nineteenth and early 20th century popular and scholarly descriptions of head-hunting in the New Georgia Group (Cheyne 1852, Coombe 1911, Edge-Partington 1907, Goldie 1909, Griffiths 1943, Guppy 1887, Hocart 1931, Knibbs 1929, Mahaffy 1902, Mytinger 1943, Ribbe 1903, Somerville 1897, Williamson 1911, Wilson 1932, Woodford 1889, 1890), and contemporary authors (Bennett 1987, Boutilier 1973, Jackson 1975, 1978, McKinnon 1975, Zelenietz 1979) have developed rich arguments illustrating the transformation of the region's political economy in the 19th century and its impact on indigenous warfare. However, these authors have rarely critically addressed the character and temporal scale of regional forms of warfare before European contact, nor have they analysed in depth the indigenous views for the causation of head-hunting.

Despite this large corpus, however, the essays herein are the first comprehensive attempt to treat the subject of Western Solomons head-hunting and are unique in their scope and depth. They draw on the perspectives of anthropologists, archaeologists and art historians to provide diverse analytical perspectives chiefly addressing the themes of time and contextualisation. Temporally, the analysis goes back to the 16th century, well before the adoption of iron weaponry. Sheppard's archaeological research has relevance beyond the specific history of the New Georgia - 7 Group. This may be the first move towards an archaeological understanding of the Western Solomon Islands' place in Austronesian-speaking population movements and the distribution of cultural patterns in the region. Geographically, the focus is on the “heartland” of Western Solomon Islands head-hunting, the New Georgia Group, looking specifically at Roviana Lagoon (Aswani, Sheppard et al.), Ranongga (McDougall) and Simbo (Dureau). Waite pulls these diverse places together in a cross-regional analysis that also extends to Vella Lavella.

The particular historical concern is on the contextualisation of head-hunting in the pre-pacification period, leaving aside the processes of colonialism and pacification. Most of the essays privilege local narratives of cultural practice and meaning, but these are always coupled with historical and archaeological data to draw further analytical insights. As a whole, the authors reject the distinction between oral and written history as vehicles for historical representation. The oral narratives presented are based on the recollection and reconstruction of informants whose head-hunter kin are at least one or two generations removed. However, these narratives are historically germane. Although memories of the past have been transformed to incorporate foreign ideologies, they still convey the essence of past historical processes and events, or more accurately the longue durée structures of society and culture (Braudel 1980, Ohnuki-Tierney 1990:6).

This collection should be seen as a first step towards the more comprehensive analysis of head-hunting in the Western Solomon Islands. The essays demonstrate a creative tension between the broad outlines of socio-cultural shared practices and understanding across the region and the particular effects of more local practices, imperatives and historical trajectories. The juxtaposition of broad similarity and local specificity stimulates analytical cross-fertilisation while making us cautious enough to disavow any attempt to make claims of New Georgian cultural homogeneity.

As final comments, the reader will note the ample use of indigenous vernacular terms particularly in the Roviana, Simbo, and Kumbokota (Ranongga) languages. This inclusion has been made to clarify concepts for our Solomon Islands readers. Also, all references have been grouped together at the end of the volume. Lastly, we wish to thank and dedicate this volume to the peoples of the Western Solomon Islands, who have so generously shared their thoughts, their food, their time and their friendship with us. Leana hola (Roviana), Evaṉana zola (Simbo), Leana jola (Kumbokota).


I would like to thank Debra McDougall and Christine Dureau for their valuable comments.

Shankar Aswani

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