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Scalp dance of the Minnataree, a sub-branch of the Sioux Indians, painting by Karl Bodmer Karl Bodmer - Scalp Dance of the Minitarres - Google Art Project.jpg
Scalp dance of the Minnataree, a sub-branch of the Sioux Indians, painting by Karl Bodmer

Scalping is the act of cutting or tearing a part of the human scalp, with hair attached, from the head.

Scalp anatomical area bordered by the face anteriorly and the neck to the sides and posteriorly

The scalp is the anatomical area bordered by the human face at the front, and by the neck at the sides and back.


This can either occur as part of war with the scalp being a trophy, [1] or as an accident. Scalp-taking is considered part of the broader cultural practice of the taking and display of human body parts as trophies, and may have developed as an alternative to the taking of human heads, for scalps were easier to take, transport, and preserve for subsequent display. Scalping independently developed in various cultures in both the Old and New Worlds. [2]

Human trophy collecting

The practice of human trophy collecting involves the acquisition of human remains. The intent may be to demonstrate dominance over the deceased, such as scalp-taking or forming necklaces of human ears or teeth, or to commemorate the deceased, such as the veneration of the relics of saints. It can be done to prove one's success in battle, or to show off one's power to others. Murderers' collection of their victims' body parts have also been described as a form of trophy-taking; the FBI draws a distinction between souvenirs and trophies in this regard.

Old World Collectively Africa, Europe, and Asia

The term "Old World" is used commonly in the West to refer to Africa, Asia and Europe, regarded collectively as the part of the world known to its population before contact with the Americas and Oceania. It is used in the context of, and contrasts with, the New World.

New World Collectively, the Americas and Oceania

The New World is one of the names used for the majority of Earth's Western Hemisphere, specifically the Americas, and Oceania.

Asia, Africa, and Europe

In England in 1036, Earl Godwin, father of Harold Godwinson, was reportedly responsible for scalping his enemies. According to the ancient Abingdon manuscript, 'some of them were blinded, some maimed, some scalped. No more horrible deed was done in this country since the Danes came and made peace here'. [3]

Godwin of Wessex was one of the most powerful earls in England under the Danish king Cnut the Great and his successors. Cnut made him the first Earl of Wessex. Godwin was the father of King Harold Godwinson and Edith of Wessex, wife of King Edward the Confessor.

Harold Godwinson 11th-century Anglo-Saxon King of England

Harold Godwinson, often called Harold II, was the last crowned Anglo-Saxon king of England. Harold reigned from 6 January 1066 until his death at the Battle of Hastings, fighting the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror during the Norman conquest of England. His death marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule over England.

<i>Anglo-Saxon Chronicle</i> Set of related medieval English chronicles

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great. Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. In one case, the Chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154.

Georg Frederici noted that “Herodotus provided the only clear and satisfactory portrayal of a scalping people in the old world” in his description of the Scythians, a nomadic people then located to the north and west of the Black Sea. [4] Herodotus related that Scythian warriors would behead the enemies they defeated in battle and present the heads to their king to claim their share of the plunder. Then, the warrior would skin the head “by making a circular cut round the ears and shaking out the skull; he then scrapes the flesh off the skin with the rib of an ox, and when it is clean works it with his fingers until it is supple, and fit to be used as a sort of handkerchief. He hangs these handkerchiefs on the bridle of his horse, and is very proud of them. The best man is the man who has the greatest number.” [5]

Herodotus Ancient Greek historian

Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus in the Persian Empire. He is known for having written the book The Histories, a detailed record of his "inquiry" on the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars. He is widely considered to have been the first writer to have treated historical subjects using a method of systematic investigation—specifically, by collecting his materials and then critically arranging them into an historiographic narrative. On account of this, he is often referred to as "The Father of History", a title first conferred on him by the first-century BC Roman orator Cicero.

Scythians historical ethnical group

The Scythians, also known as Scyth, Saka, Sakae, Sai, Iskuzai, or Askuzai, were Eurasian nomads, probably mostly using Eastern Iranian languages, who were mentioned by the literate peoples to their south as inhabiting large areas of the western and central Eurasian Steppe from about the 9th century BC up until the 4th century AD. The "classical Scythians" known to ancient Greek historians, agreed to be mainly Iranian in origin, were located in the northern Black Sea and fore-Caucasus region. Other Scythian groups documented by Assyrian, Achaemenid and Chinese sources show that they also existed in Central Asia, where they were referred to as the Iskuzai/Askuzai, Saka, and Sai, respectively.

Ammianus Marcellinus noted the taking of scalps by the Alani, a people of Asiatic Scythia, in terms quite similar to those used by Herodotus. [6]

Ammianus Marcellinus was a Roman soldier and historian who wrote the penultimate major historical account surviving from antiquity. His work, known as the Res Gestae, chronicled in Latin the history of Rome from the accession of the Emperor Nerva in 96 to the death of Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, although only the sections covering the period 353–378 survive.

The Abbé Emmanuel H. D. Domenech referenced the decalvare of the ancient Germans and the capillos et cutem detrahere of the code of the Visigoths as examples of scalping in early medieval Europe, [7] though some more recent interpretations of these terms relate them to shaving off the hair of the head as a legal punishment rather than scalping. [8]

Germanic peoples A group of northern European tribes in Roman times

The Germanic peoples were an ethnolinguistic group of Northern European origin identified by Roman-era authors as distinct from neighbouring Celtic peoples, and identified in modern scholarship as speakers, at least for the most part, of early Germanic languages.

Visigoths Gothic tribe

The Visigoths were the western branches of the nomadic tribes of Germanic peoples referred to collectively as the Goths. These tribes flourished and spread throughout the late Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, or what is known as the Migration Period. The Visigoths emerged from earlier Gothic groups who had invaded the Roman Empire beginning in 376 and had defeated the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. Relations between the Romans and the Visigoths were variable, alternately warring with one another and making treaties when convenient. The Visigoths invaded Italy under Alaric I and sacked Rome in 410. After the Visigoths sacked Rome, they began settling down, first in southern Gaul and eventually in Hispania, where they founded the Visigothic Kingdom and maintained a presence from the 5th to the 8th centuries AD.

Middle Ages Period of European history from the 5th to the 15th century

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

In 1845, mercenary John Duncan observed what he estimated to be 700 scalps taken in warfare and displayed as trophies by a contingent of female soldiers — Dahomey Amazons — employed by the King of Dahomey (present-day Republic of Benin). Duncan noted that these would have been taken and kept over a long period of time and would not have come from a single battle. Although Duncan travelled widely in Dahomey, and described customs such as the taking of heads and the retention of skulls as trophies, nowhere else does he mention scalping. [9] [10]


A scalp dance A scalp dance.jpg
A scalp dance


Specific scalping techniques varied somewhat from place to place, depending on the cultural patterns of the scalper regarding the desired shape, size, and intended use of the severed scalp, and on how the victims wore their hair, but the general process of scalping was quite uniform. The scalper firmly grasped the hair of a subdued adversary, made several quick semicircular cuts with a sharp instrument on either side of the area to be taken, and then vigorously yanked at the nearly-severed scalp. The scalp separated from the skull along the plane of the areolar connective tissue, the fourth (and least substantial) of the five layers of the human scalp. Scalping was not in itself fatal, though it was most commonly inflicted on the gravely wounded or the dead. The earliest instruments used in scalping were stone knives crafted of flint, chert, or obsidian, or other materials like reeds or oyster shells that could be worked to carry an edge equal to the task. Collectively, such tools were also used for a variety of everyday tasks like skinning and processing game, but were replaced by metal knives acquired in trade through European contact. The implement, often referred to as a “scalping knife” in popular American and European literature, was not known as such by Native Americans, a knife being for them just a simple and effective multi-purpose utility tool for which scalping was but one of many uses. [11] [12]

Intertribal warfare

Choctaw American Indians, in warpaint, bearing scalps, Alexandre de Batz, 1732 Sauvages Tchaktas matachez en Guerriers qui portent des Chevelures.jpg
Choctaw American Indians, in warpaint, bearing scalps, Alexandre de Batz, 1732

Author and historian Mark van de Logt wrote, "Although military historians tend to reserve the concept of 'total war'", in which civilians are targeted, "for conflicts between modern industrial nations," the term "closely approaches the state of affairs between the Pawnees, the Sioux, and the Cheyennes. Noncombatants were legitimate targets. Indeed, the taking of a scalp of a woman or child was considered honorable because it signified that the scalp taker had dared to enter the very heart of the enemy's territory." [13]

Scalping Knife and Sheath, probably Sioux, early 19th century, Brooklyn Museum Scalping Knife and Sheath, early 19th century, 50.67.118a-b.jpg
Scalping Knife and Sheath, probably Sioux, early 19th century, Brooklyn Museum

Many tribes of Native Americans practiced scalping, in some instances up until the end of the 19th century. Of the approximately 500 bodies at the Crow Creek massacre site, 90 percent of the skulls show evidence of scalping. The event took place circa 1325 AD. [14]

Colonial wars

Hannah Duston scalps the sleeping Abenaki family who had kidnapped her and murdered her infant after the Raid on Haverhill (1697). Hannah Duston, by Stearns.jpg
Hannah Duston scalps the sleeping Abenaki family who had kidnapped her and murdered her infant after the Raid on Haverhill (1697).

Authorities of New Spain offered bounties on heads to suppress indigenous tribes in Durango as early as 1616. [15] The Connecticut and Massachusetts colonies offered bounties for the heads of killed hostile Indians, and later for just their scalps, during the Pequot War in the 1630s; [16] Connecticut specifically reimbursed Mohegans for slaying the Pequot in 1637. [15] Four years later, the Dutch in New Amsterdam offered bounties for the heads of Raritans. [15] In 1643, the Iroquois attacked a group of Huron pelters and French carpenters near Montreal, killing and scalping three of the French. [17]

Bounties for Indian captives or their scalps appeared in the legislation of the American colonies during the Susquehannock War (1675–77). [18] New England offered bounties to white settlers and Narragansett people in 1675 during King Philip's War. [15] By 1692, New France also paid their native allies for scalps of their enemies. [15] In 1697, on the northern frontier of Massachusetts colony, settler Hannah Dustin killed ten of her Abenaki captors during her nighttime escape, presented their ten scalps to the Massachusetts General Assembly, and was rewarded with bounties for two men, two women, and six children. [16] There were six colonial wars with New England and the Iroquois Confederacy fighting New France and the Wabanaki Confederacy over a 75-year period, starting with King William's War in 1688. All sides scalped victims, including noncombatants, during this frontier warfare. [19] Bounty policies originally intended only for Native American scalps were extended to enemy colonists. [15]

Massachusetts created a scalp bounty during King William's War in July 1689. [20] During Queen Anne's War, by 1703, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was offering $60 for each native scalp. [21] During Father Rale's War (1722–1725), on August 8, 1722, Massachusetts put a bounty on native families. [22] Ranger John Lovewell is known to have conducted scalp-hunting expeditions, the most famous being the Battle of Pequawket in New Hampshire.[ citation needed ]

In the 1710s and '20s, New France engaged in frontier warfare with the Natchez people and the Meskwaki people, during which both sides would employ the practice.[ citation needed ] In response to repeated massacres of British families by the French and their native allies during King George's War, Massachusetts governor William Shirley issued a bounty in 1746 to be paid to British-allied Indians for the scalps of French-allied Indian men, women, and children. [23] New York passed a Scalp Act in 1747. [24]

During Father Le Loutre's War and the Seven Years' War in Nova Scotia and Acadia, French colonists offered payments to Indians for British scalps. [25] In 1749, British Governor Edward Cornwallis created an extirpation proclamation, which included a bounty for male scalps or prisoners. Also during the Seven Years' War, Governor of Nova Scotia Charles Lawrence offered a reward for male Mi'kmaq scalps in 1756. [26] (In 2000, some Mi'kmaq argued that this proclamation was still legal in Nova Scotia. Government officials argued that it was no longer legal because the bounty was superseded by later treaties - see the Halifax Treaties). [27]

During the French and Indian War, as of June 12, 1755, Massachusetts governor William Shirley was offering a bounty of £40 for a male Indian scalp, and £20 for scalps of females or of children under 12 years old. [21] [28] In 1756, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Robert Morris, in his Declaration of War against the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) people, offered "130 Pieces of Eight, for the Scalp of Every Male Indian Enemy, above the Age of Twelve Years," and "50 Pieces of Eight for the Scalp of Every Indian Woman, produced as evidence of their being killed." [21] [29]

American Revolution

In the American Revolutionary War, Henry Hamilton, the Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs at Fort Detroit, was known by American Patriots as the "hair-buyer general" because they believed he encouraged and paid his Native American allies to scalp American settlers. When Hamilton was captured in the war by the colonists, he was treated as a war criminal instead of a prisoner of war because of this. However, American historians have conceded that there was no positive proof that he had ever offered rewards for scalps. [30] It is now assumed that during the American Revolution, no British officer paid for scalps. [31] During the Sullivan Expedition, the September 13, 1779 journal entry of Lieutenant William Barton tells of patriots participating in scalping. [32]

Americans believed British officers paid their Indian allies to scalp American soldiers, c. 1812. "A Scene on the Frontiers as Practiced by the Humane British and Their Worthy Allies!".jpg
Americans believed British officers paid their Indian allies to scalp American soldiers, c. 1812.


In 1835, the government of the Mexican state of Sonora put a bounty on the Apache which, [33] over time, evolved into a payment by the government of 100 pesos for each scalp of a male 14 or more years old [ citation needed ]. In 1837, the Mexican state of Chihuahua also offered a bounty on Apache scalps, 100 pesos per warrior, 50 pesos per woman, and 25 pesos per child. [33] Harris Worcester wrote: "The new policy attracted a diverse group of men, including Anglos, runaway slaves led by Seminole John Horse, and Indians — Kirker used Delawares and Shawnees; others, such as Terrazas, used Tarahumaras; and Seminole Chief Coacoochee led a band of his own people who had fled from Indian Territory." [34]

Civil War

Some scalping incidents even occurred during the American Civil War. For example, Confederate guerrillas led by "Bloody Bill" Anderson were well known for decorating their saddles with the scalps of Union soldiers they had killed. [35] Archie Clement had the reputation of being Anderson's “chief scalper”.

Continued Indian Wars

In 1851, the U.S. Army displayed Indian scalps in Stanislaus County, California. In Tehama County, California, U.S. military and local volunteers razed villages and scalped hundreds of men, women, and children. [36] [ when? ]

Scalping also occurred during the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864, during the American Indian Wars, when a 700-man force of U.S. Army volunteers destroyed the village of Cheyenne and Arapaho in southeastern Colorado Territory, killing and mutilating [37] [38] an estimated 70–163 Native Americans. [39] [40] [41] An 1867 New York Times article reported that "settlers in a small town in Colorado Territory had recently subscribed $5,000 to a fund ‘for the purpose of buying Indian scalps (with $25 each to be paid for scalps with the ears on)’ and that the market for Indian scalps ‘is not affected by age or sex’." The article noted this behavior was "sanctioned" by the U.S. federal government, and was modeled on patterns the U.S. had begun a century earlier in the "American East". [42] :206

From one writer's point of view, it was a "uniquely American" innovation that the use of scalp bounties in the wars against indigenous societies "became an indiscriminate killing process that deliberately targeted Indian non-combatants (including women, children, and infants), as well as warriors." [42] :204

Accidental scalping

President of Associacao das Mulheres Escalpeladas do Amapa, (Amapa Escalpeladas Women Association) during a reunion of Amazonia's Commission. Picture: Antonio Cruz/Agencia Brasil Presidente das mulheres escalpeladas do Amapa.jpg
President of Associação das Mulheres Escalpeladas do Amapá, (Amapá Escalpeladas Women Association) during a reunion of Amazonia's Commission. Picture: Antonio Cruz/Agência Brasil

Accidental scalping has become a public health issue in Brazil along the Amazon River, where numerous boaters have been scalped after becoming ensnared by propellers or motors of unregulated watercraft. [43]

See also

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Raid on Dartmouth (1751)

The Raid on Dartmouth occurred during Father Le Loutre's War on May 13, 1751 when a Mi'kmaq and Acadia militia from Chignecto, under the command of Acadian Joseph Broussard, raided Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, destroying the town and killing twenty British villagers and wounding British regulars. The town was protected by a blockhouse on Blockhouse Hill with William Clapham's Rangers and British regulars from the 45th Regiment of Foot. This raid was one of seven the Natives and Acadians would conduct against the town during the war.

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Battle of Winnepang

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Daniel N. Paul,, is a Mi'kmaq Elder, author, columnist, and human rights activist. Paul is perhaps best known as the author of the book We Were Not the Savages. Paul asserts that this book is the first such history ever written by a First Nation citizen. The book is seen as an important contribution to the North American Indian movement. One writer stated, "It’s a Canadian version of Dee Brown’s best seller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and, as such, served a valuable purpose in raising public consciousness about Mi’kmaq history, identity, and culture."

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Military history of Nova Scotia Provincial military history

Nova Scotia is a Canadian province located in Canada's Maritimes. The region was initially occupied by Mi'kmaq. During the first 150 years of European settlement, the colony was primarily made up of Catholic Acadians, Maliseet and Mi'kmaq. During the latter seventy-five years of this time period, there were six colonial wars that took place in Nova Scotia. After agreeing to several peace treaties, this long period of warfare ended with the Burial of the Hatchet Ceremony between the British and the Mi'kmaq (1761) and two years later when the British defeated the French in North America (1763). During these wars, Acadians, Mi'kmaq and Maliseet from the region fought to protect the border of Acadia from New England. They fought the war on two fronts: the southern border of Acadia, which New France defined as the Kennebec River in southern Maine. The other front was in Nova Scotia and involved preventing New Englanders from taking the capital of Acadia, Port Royal, establishing themselves at Canso.

The Northeast Coast Campaign (1723) occurred during Father Rale's War from April 19, 1723 – January 28, 1724. In response to the previous year, in which New England attacked the Wabanaki Confederacy at Norridgewock and Penobscot, the Wabanaki Confederacy retaliated by attacking the coast of present-day Maine that was below the Kennebec River, the border of Acadia. They attacked English settlements on the coast of present-day Maine between Berwick and Mount Desert Island. Casco was the principal settlement. The 1723 campaign was so successful along the Maine frontier that Dummer ordered its evacuation to the blockhouses in the spring of 1724.

Fort Sackville (Nova Scotia)

Fort Sackville was a British fort located in present-day Bedford, Nova Scotia that was built during Father Le Loutre's War. The British built the fort adjacent to present-day Scott Manor House, on a hill overlooking the Sackville River to help prevent French, Acadian and Mi'kmaq attacks on Halifax. The fort consisted of a blockhouse, a guard house, a barracks which housed 50 soldiers, and outbuildings, all encompassed by a palisade. Not far from the fort was a rifle range. The fort was named after George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville.

Danks' Rangers was a ranger unit raised in colonial North America and led by Captain Benoni Danks. It was modeled on and often served alongside of the better known Gorham's Rangers. The unit was recruited in early 1756, during the early stages of the Seven Years' War / French and Indian War, from among men serving in two then-disbanding New England provincial battalions stationed in Nova Scotia. Raised to help protect the British garrison on the Isthmus of Chignecto and secure the area after the siege of Fort Beauséjour, their principle foes were Acadians resisting removal from the region and Mi'kmaq Indians resisting British authority. Their primary area of operations was the northwestern portion of Nova Scotia and the north and eastern parts of what would later become New Brunswick. The unit averaged a little over one hundred men for much of its existence, although it seems to have been augmented to 125 for the attack on Havana in 1762. The company often operated in tandem with Gorham's Rangers, based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and after 1761, the two companies were combined into a Nova Scotia ranging corps, led by Major Joseph Gorham.

Military history of the Miꞌkmaq people

Miꞌkmaq militias were made up of Miꞌkmaq warriors (smáknisk) who worked independently as well as in coordination with the Wabanaki Confederacy, French and Acadian forces throughout the colonial period to defend their homeland Miꞌkmaꞌki against the English. The Miꞌkmaq militias deployed effective resistance for over 75 years before the Halifax Treaties were signed (1760–61). In the nineteenth century, the Miꞌkmaq "boasted" that, in their contest with the British, the Miꞌkmaq "killed more men than they lost". In 1753, Charles Morris stated that the Miꞌkmaq have the advantage of "no settlement or place of abode, but wandering from place to place in unknown and, therefore, inaccessible woods, is so great that it has hitherto rendered all attempts to surprise them ineffectual". Leadership on both sides of the conflict employed standard colonial warfare, which included scalping non-combatants. After some engagements against the British during the American Revolution, the militias were dormant throughout the nineteenth century, while the Miꞌkmaq people used diplomatic efforts to have the local authorities honour the treaties. After confederation, Miꞌkmaq warriors eventually joined Canada's war efforts in World War I and World War II. The most well-known colonial leaders of these militias were Chief (Sakamaw) Jean-Baptiste Cope and Chief Étienne Bâtard.


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