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Hair-raising Antiquity

November 2018

In “Who Invented Scalping?” an article in our April, 1977. issue, James Axtell argued that—contrary to recent revisionist notions—Europeans did not teach the Indians how to scalp. The Indians, he said, had learned it all by themselves and had practiced it long before Europeans inflicted themselves on this innocent continent. Additional evidence to support Mr. Axtell’s theory has since come to us from Douglas Owsley and Hugh Berryman, anthropologists at the University of Tennessee, who furnished us with the photograph above and a description of what happened to the skull’s former owner:

“The human skull shown in the picture is that of an adult male American Indian who was scalped. The bones of this individual [who died in about A.D. 1300] were recovered during an archaeological excavation of the Arnold site in Williamson County, Tennessee. … Cuts in the bone (visible in the photograph) extend across the forehead in the approximate location of the hairline. Two or three strokes with a sharp stone knife were all that was required.

“In the historic period, and likely the prehistoric as well, certain tribes in the southeastern United States considered the scalp symbolic of an individual’s soul. Loss of the scalp had supernaturally dangerous consequences to the victim’s eternal future unless his death was avenged by friends and relatives.”