The First Warriors

Ritual Acts Of Retribution

Cannibalism and Scalping

Amerindian warrior brandishing a scalp

Caption: Amerindian warrior brandishing a scalp

Another Amerindian practice that was anathema to Europeans was cannibalism. Sometimes Amerindians ate the hearts or other body parts of enemies whom they considered to have been especially courageous in the face of suffering and death, instead of simply throwing them out, in order to appropriate this courage and because they thought these enemies were worthy of being perpetuated in this way. If this macabre custom appears to have made some sense in certain cases, sheer madness seems to have taken over on other occasions. One unfortunate prisoner was unceremoniously disembowelled so that the Amerindians could drink his blood and eat his heart while it was "still warm." 6 The custom of scalping, or cutting the scalp and hair off enemies, is apparently very old. As early as 1535, an explorer in Hochelaga remarked on seeing "skin from the heads of five men." 7 This practice was very widespread among both the forest and Plains Amerindians. Scalps were apparently considered to be war trophies. When wounded enemies were scalped, they had little chance of survival. The Amerindians preferred to sever the entire heads of vanquished warriors, but cut off only the scalps if they had too much to carry. Such was supposedly the origin of this horrifying custom.

Horrifying at least in the eyes of the Europeans, who loudly condemned this practice. However, a double standard was evidently at work during the colonial wars. Beginning late in the seventeenth century, the authorities in New England offered large rewards for the scalps of their enemies. The French, finding rewards thus placed on their own heads, responded in kind, although their bounties were only one-tenth of the value of those offered by the British. Usually, they preferred to spend their money buying back from the Amerindians white people who had been captured. In the end, white combatants on both sides took up scalping. And so, despite their official protests, the colonial authorities perpetuated this practice, all the while reviling the Amerindians for it.

Additional Images

St Bartholomew’s massacre, 24 August 1569