Research on Melanesian human skulls

by Kristin Leith

  As part of the Discovering Worlds project, I am conducting research into Melanesian human skulls housed in the Ethnographic collection here at RAMM.  During the 1930s, three over-modelled skulls came into the collection.  The procurement of these types of objects was part of a wider collection frenzy in Melanesia during the early part of the twentieth century, a period of time in which ethnographers and anthropologists as well as collectors and entrepreneurs were first accessing the many and varied areas and cultures of Oceania.  The acquisition of decorated skulls acquired through headhunting raids, used in Melanesian funerary rituals or for divining purposes was to say the very least intriguing and certainly seen as exotic by Westerners.

Modified crania from Fly River, Papua New Guinea

  Yet, we know next to nothing about these Melanesian remains.  There is little if any information on the donors, how they came by the skulls or about the context in which each specimen was found.  Since their arrival some 80 years ago, no research has been done on the RAMM skulls.  

  We do know that two of RAMM’s Melanesian skulls are from the Fly River region of New Guinea and Malakula Vanuatu (New Hebrides).  The third skull is from an unspecified area of New Guinea.  Each of the three skulls is over-modelled (partly covered with materials such as mud and organic fibres) and decorated in various ways.  Each is unique in its own right, which in of itself characteristic of Melanesian trophy/ancestor skulls which generally display a diverse range of decorative modifications.  The Fly River skull features seeds and wood plug in the eye socket and a piece of wood or shell worked to resemble a flint in the nasal cavity.  The jaw (mandible) is attached to the rest of the skull.  The skull from Vanuatu, which can be viewed in the World Cultures Melanesia case, is coated in red pigment and decorated with white circular spots.  Additionally, the cranium itself is elongated, the result of skull modification practiced during the life of this individual.  The final skull is from an unspecified area of New Guinea and is partly over-modelled with mud and organic fibres.

   The aims of this research are two-fold.  First, we want to piece together how these skulls made their way into the RAMM collection.  Who were the donors?  How did these individuals acquire the skulls and from whom?  Second, we want to find out more about skulls and their uses.  Who were these individuals?  Were they victims of headhunting raids or venerated ancestors?  Did they function as divination tools?  Did these uses possibly change over time, before the skulls were sold or given to collectors?

   Until recently, there was an assumption that trophy and ancestor skulls were male, but this is simply not the case.  New research has revealed that men, women and children were head-hunted indiscriminately throughout Melanesia.  We also know that the skulls of men, women and children were curated, carefully treated and transformed into objects of veneration through the use complex funerary rituals that were carried out over extended mourning periods that could last as long as an entire year.  What is more, trophy skulls acquired through headhunting activities could be decorated and venerated in much the same way as the skulls of deceased family members and ancestors.  Hence, the life-ways of the RAMM skulls are potentially complex.  Through the use osteological and contextual analysis we ultimately hope to reveal how and to what extent the intersection of a network of political, social, economic and religious concerns determined the use(s) and possible sanctification of these Melenesian skulls over time.