Who Invented Scalping?

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Two kinds of evidence of scalping have been unearthed by archaeologists armed with trowels and carbon-14 dating. The first is cuts or scratches on the skulls of victims who had been previously killed. These cuts are of course subject to various interpretations, given the existence of post-mortem ritual mutilations in many Indian cultures. The trophy skulls found in several Hopewellian burial mounds in Ohio, for example, frequently exhibit superficial cuts, apparently made by flint knives in the process of removing the flesh.

 

But the second kind of evidence is more conclusive. In a number of prehistoric sites, circular lesions have been found on the skulls of victims who survived scalping long enough to allow the bone tissue to regenerate partially, leaving a telltale scar. Contrary to popular belief, scalping itself was not a fatal operation, and American history is full of survivors. Scalping is the only possible explanation for these lesions, which appear exactly where eyewitness descriptions and drawings indicate the scalp was traditionally cut.

In the light of such evidence, it is clear that Indians, not white men, introduced scalping to the New World. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the colonists encouraged the spread of scalping to many tribes unfamiliar with the practice by posting scalp bounties. Nor can it be forgotten that Americans of every stripe—from frontiersmen to ministers—were tainted by participating in the bloody market for human hair. Yet in the end, the American stereotype of scalping must stand as historical fact, whether we are comfortable with it or not.