Ancestor Heads

Tribes along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea practiced a unique form of ancestor skull worship. Taking clay and mud from the riverbed, they would coat the skulls, giving them a new skin. In some cases, the ancestor heads were mounted atop a carved figure, giving a “body” to the ancestor.

These earthy vestiges of the past were then painted, traced with designs, and decorated with wood, bone, fiber, real human hair, fur, and shells. When decorating the skull, it was believed that the spirit and vitality of the deceased would channel through the head, and help advise living descendants and imbue them with power.

During debates within the clan-house, tribesmen would sit in a chair watched over by the ancestor heads, and give arguments. The role of the ancestor was to give credence to every word spoken.

Only male tribe members would be preserved as ancestral heads, and they would even be kept in a village house reserved for men alone. Only on special occasions would they be removed and shown publicly in the sight of women or children.

According to some studies, it’s believed that the skull of the deceased wasn’t immediately preserved, but instead only underwent over-molding once the body had been mourned and even buried for a time. Only when the grave was dug up later would the now-exposed skull be cleaned and adorned with clay and decorations.

Tribes along the Sepik River, most notably the Iatmul, experienced frequent flooding. Their houses were built on stilts and they mostly traveled by canoe. The winding river would leave some exposed “islands” of land which served as the only spots for cultivation, allowing them to grow various palm trees.

Fish made up a majority of their diet, but they also hunted small mammals and crocodiles. The land itself was believed to be contained within a crocodile’s open mouth—its top jaw the sky and teeth mountains. When a boy was swallowed by the crocodile, it’s said he became a man when he was regurgitated.

Ancestor heads were important for connecting the traditions and people of the past to tribes in the present, solidifying their relationship with the tribe as a whole.