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"Scalping" can be a very touchy subject. It is undeniable that it occurred and was (is) a barbaric, atrocious act. So, for good reason, few would like to reflect on its taking place and certainly not when one's own (cultural, racial, ethnic, et cetera) group partook in the practice. It becomes a war of self-identity, one group claiming they did not originate it or they were forced to do it (reciprocation, being the usual excuse) or they did it on a smaller scale. Regardless, it shouldn't be shied away from in order to allow one's ancestors to sleep better or to make one feel better about his cultural/racial/ethnic identity.

It has become "fashionable" in a (well-intentioned, granted) politically correct way to suggest that American Indians (usually, all "New World" indigenous peoples, inclusive) did not practice scalping prior to contact and "learned" it from the "vicious" Europeans. Further, it is suggested that it could not become a widespread (or even localized) practice until the trade of metal knives by those same Europeans. Unfortunately, this tends to buy into the "noble savage"/"beautiful people" myths as well as the belief (presented as corollary) that the Europeans were the true "bloodthirsty savages." As usual, neither is a realistic way of looking at the problem (or either group). Not all Indians were angels and not all Europeans devils. There's plenty of blame to go around.

That said, the fact of the matter is that no one knows the ultimate origin of the practice, but what is known is that scalping was present in the New World back to pre-Columbian times—and was known in the Old World, as well.

Scalping in the Old World
It should be noted that scalping, while a specific act, is part of a greater set of "mutilation" acts. The main reasons tend to be as means of proving one's bravery/mettle in (or after) battle, as " trophies" (not always unrelated to the prior reason; later often as " keepsakes"), and a way to determine the "body count." (Further reasons would include humiliation of the victim and/or victim's group and to instill fear in the enemy.)

Remains have been found in China that exhibit the characteristic marking of scalping victims. These date back about 4000 years (thought to be comparable to the earliest scalping evidence in the New World). Herodotus, in the fourth book of his History describes it as a practice of the Scythians:

In order to strip the skull of its covering, he makes a cut round the head above the ears, and, laying hold of the scalp, shakes the skull out; then with the rib of an ox he scrapes the scalp clean of flesh, and softening it by rubbing between the hands, uses it thenceforth as a napkin. The Scyth is proud of these scalps, and hangs them from his bridle-rein; the greater the number of such napkins that a man can show, the more highly is he esteemed among them. Many make themselves cloaks, like the capotes of our peasants, by sewing a quantity of these scalps together.

Herodotus goes on to further describe other (often ritual) mutilations by the Scythians including flaying of the right arm to make quivers or large portions of the body to carry along with them (the above scalping took place after decapitation).

There is mention (along with torture and mutilation) in the (Catholic Apocrypha) Bible. In 2 Maccabees 7:

The king fell into a rage, and gave orders to have pans and cauldrons heated. These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on....After the first brother died in this way ["the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan"], they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair.... ( NRSV, 3-5, 7 )

There are also references to scalping among the Visigoths and even among the Anglo-Saxons almost up to the 9th century—in many, if not most cases, accompanied by decapitation—and acts by individulas even later. Decapitation (and the display of the heads) was used during the late 16th century by the English as a means of "pacifying" (terrorizing into submission) the Irish. (Interestingly, the English tried to justify their practices toward the Irish by pointing out Spain's treatment of the New World Indians.) Though not specifically scalping, it is part of the same pattern of behavior.

Scalping in the New World
It was generally assumed that scalping originated in the New World but it wasn't until the 1940s that archaeological evidence was available (not for an "origin," of course, but for the existence of the practice prior to contact). Part of the earlier evidence that led to the assumption (which, no doubt, had ethnic/racial bias as a component) was due to first hand accounts by those unfamiliar with the practice (which doesn't seem to be have been common or widespread in the Old World—at least by the time of contact and subsequent exploration and settlement). Another, more compelling, part was that there was clearly (already extant and developed) vocabulary among various tribes that referred specifically to the act of scalping, the scalp, and the scalping victim—something that seems doubtful in the case of a supposed "learning experience" via contact.

Archaeological and forensic evidence of (an admittedly small pool) skeletal remains shows that the practice existed and existed among many—not all, by any means—Indian cultures going back to prehistoric times up through contact (post contact scalping is hardly controversial). A survey shows that there was not a strong sexual bias to the practice, as men and woman are both found as victims. Due to the current number of sites and remains, it cannot be conclusive, but the breakdown is approximately 60-40 in favor of male victims. There is speculation that the disparity could be greater for male victims as some might not have died near burial sites, or in some cases—the Arikara and possibly others—survivors (and evidence shows survival was not always uncommon) were shunned into solitary existence outside the tribe and its locality.

What it does seem to show is that the practice may have been partly or primarily an action taken during raids due to the presence of females who are not known to have partaken in warfare. Others think that scalping may have also been linked to the practice—for the purpose of proving one's courage and skill—of sneaking into an enemy village and to escaping with the scalps as proof of "penetration." This could also explain the larger than might be expected percentage of females. Scalped children (some conclusively aged as young as 5-7) are also found among the remains at some of the sites, suggesting that age was also not a barrier to the practice. Additionally, at some of the sites evidence of mutilation (often severed hands and feet) has been found.

As for the charge that it didn't begin until the Indians were given metal knives by the Europeans, it doesn't hold up. Besides the fact that well-made flint and other stone tools are adequate for the purpose, the "Copper Culture" of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (dating back as far as 7000 years) did make metal implements, including jewelry, utensils, tools, and knives. All of which were traded outside of the region.

Scalping post contact
The evidence clearly shows that scalping existed before European contact and it was hardly "learned" from them. It also shows that scalping (and other mutilation practices) was not unknown on the other side of the Atlantic. On the other hand, the practice didn't reach its peak until after contact.

While scalping was preexistent, what made it so widespread was the institution of "scalp bounties" on the part of the Europeans. Using heads as a means of "display warning" already existed in the early days of the settlement of New England (Miles Standish mounted the head of a killed Wampanoag leader on the pilgrims' fort). Bounties made it not only a method of terror and extermination, but of commerce as well. The Dutch paid rewards for the heads of certain Indians, later accepting scalps. The French also paid out for scalps, even providing the "tools of the trade" to some tribes in order to bring in the scalps of their enemies (the French tended to play the Indians against each other rather than straight extermination methodology). It was standardized in 1688 by the governor of Quebec, who offered "ten beaver skins to anyone bringing him the scalp of any 'enemy of France, Christian or Indian'" (qtd. in Churchill). That it wasn't relegated to only Indians will be returned to in a bit.

1694 is the earliest recording of bounties offered from the English. Massachusetts passed and act that make it "illegal" for "unattended" Indians to enter the colony without permission. Payment was offered for all Indians ("great or small") that were killed or brought in (who ended up sold as slaves). The breakdown:

£50 each, regardless of age or sex, if the killer were an average civilian or professional scalp hunter;
£20 each as a supplement to the meager pay of militiamen; and
£10 each to regular soldiers.

In 1704:
£100—four times the annual income of a good New England farmer—was paid per man's scalp,
£40 per woman's,
£20 per child's
(qtd. and adapted from Churchill)

An adult was any Indian over the age of ten.

Prices varied to some extent, but it was enough that some became "professional" scalpers and were able to make a comfortable living (as could some Indians, as well). It was also, of course, ones' "civic duty" that helped keep the area free of "hostiles." By 1717, all the current colonies and New Jersey had bounties in place. (It should be noted that Mexico had its own scalp bounties that lasted into the 1880s.)

One thing about a scalp is that it doesn't come with a label designating its owner. This more than likely led to countless unknown atrocities (in addition to that of the "institution's" stated intentions) whereby people looking for the bounty killed Indians indiscriminately, regardless of whether they were "friendly" or "hostile." Further, the difficulty of telling the difference between sex and age and race would have led to scalps being taken from whomever was convenient (hardly helped by bounties placed upon whites by both England and France, attempting to dislodge each other from the continent). And as tribal "economies" were being ruined by the encroachment of settlers, trappers, and others, plus the growing dependence on tools, supplies, and guns, many Indians were pushed into participation.

Scalping among the English (even against other whites) continued into the Revolutionary War. The practice didn't end there, even as the bounty acts (many originally passed and reinstated with much public support) began to decline. Scalping and mutilation were hardly uncommon among the military in their interactions with the Indians. At the Battle of Tippecanoe, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh was stripped and the skin torn off his back and thighs, was scalped, and cut into "trophies" as small as a penny—even hair was torn away and saved as mementos (there are some who think that the body in question may have not been the chief, whose body may have been hidden away—leading to rumors of him returning, messiahlike, one day; the identity really doesn't matter in this case, only what was done to it).

Abuses of this sort were not as isolated as one would hope. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, soldiers under Andrew Jackson (who once bragged that "I have on all occasions preserved the scalps of my killed") scalped and mutilated the bodies of the Indians killed, including pieces cut off in order to tan and make into reins or belts. When it came time to get a body count, it was decided that the most efficient way would be to cut off the noses of the slain and count them. Supposedly it was a general order not to partake in that kind of activity, but there is no record of punishment or reprimand for any involved.

The extreme nature of Sand Creek should speak for itself, including such horrors as scalping, fingers broken or severed to get rings, ears cut off for jewelry, general savagery and dismemberment, and genital mutilation of both sexes (some of the male parts taken to make tobacco pouches and the female parts used for display: put on sticks or stretched over saddle bows—even worn as hats).

One of the first legislative acts of the Republic of Texas was a scalp bounty which was continued into statehood as late as the 1880s.

There being numerous and widespread stories and examples of Indian scalping, mutilation, and torture (admittedly some exaggerated, biased, and even invented), it seems unnecessary to add to the litany of human cruelty further. Man's inhumanity to man is not something that needs to be taught.

The fact of the matter is that the Indians were no stranger to either scalping or mutilation of their enemies, but the practice(s) became something of a perverse art form at the hands of the Europeans. One which some Indians most certainly matched in degree and kind. And while to a large extent, it was a revenge practice in response to atrocities committed against them, it was not only manifested in that way either against the Europeans or other tribes—nor should that mitigate the fact that it is a savage, cruel practice that has no place in any civilization, in time of war or not.

(Sources: Ward Churchill A Little Matter of Genocide: holocaust and denial in the Americas, 1492 to present, 1997; ; Carl Waldman Biographical Dictionary of American Indian History to 1900 rev. ed. 2001; www.dickshovel.com/scalp.html ignore the odd URL, this is an excellent source for information and links on Indians and issues concerning them, past and present; www.sfaa-archery.com/Articles/Scalping/scalping.html, www.csasi.org/Jan2000/antiquity_of_scalping.htm; Maccabees and Herodotus quotes from The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, 1994 and http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.4.iv.html)