Cliff Morris wrote: “The Timorese have a special reverence for death. It was the time when the virtues of the deceased were told to the world at great length by the mourners. The demise of an important clan member meant much displacement of power, with new positions to be filled. Sometimes it was found that the only solution was to offer the position to someone in a neighbouring clan. In extreme situations the clan was split into two. It has been said to me by a KATUAS (wise old man) that by nature man is a spiller of blood, and is incapable of controlling his actions which are against the needs of Mother Earth, where harmony will ensure a fruitful life for humans. Therefore it is better for him to satisfy his instinct outside his family, so that he can live in harmony at home with his wife and children. [Source:, A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun from the Land of the Sleeping Crocodile East Timor, 2003 ]

“After about a year, all the relatives and those who had a debt owing to them, or those who had an alliance with the deceased were invited to a KORE METAN (celebration of departure) back to where the soul of the deceased had emerged form the womb of Mother Earth. Many final debts were repaid in the work involved in the preparation of the feast. The guests gorged themselves with meat and TUAKA (palm wine) for anything up to a week of dancing and telling stories of the virtues of the departed.”

Commenting on tombstones he saw in East Timor, Dswede posted on Virtual Tourist: “East Timor is heavily Catholic, which makes it one of two predominately Catholic countries in Asia (the other being the Philippines). So there is no shortage of Catholic cemeteries and crucifixes on their graves. However, East Timor is also heavily animist. These tendencies predate the Portuguese colonization and religious missionary conversions. Therefore you will often have a mixture of animist and Christian symbols. With that being said, I never heard a definitive reason why many of the remote and rural burial graves had skulls and horns decorating the crosses above them. It may be an animist symbol, but I think it is a reflection of wealth of the family or clan. This is more in line with neighboring cultures of other Indonesian islands. To find these, simply get out of the cities. The skulls will be more common in small villages and rural areas. [Source: DSwede, Virtual Tourist, September 22, 2011]

Headhunting in Colonial East Timor

In a review of the “Headhunting and Colonialism. Anthropology and the Circulation of Human Skulls in the Portuguese Empire, 1870-1930" by Ricardo Roque, Mary Bouquet of Utrecht University wrote: “Collections of human remains constitute perhaps the most problematic legacy of nineteenth-century anthropology for contemporary museums. Anthropology as the science of the skull was dominated by French, British, and German scientists in the heyday of imperial collecting. Anthropological objectification of the human cranium, from the 1860s to the 1880s, revolved around the belief that this was the best material for studying race and ancestry. The natural history of man was then dominated by the classification of race based on physical characteristics, notably the form of the skull. Enter the Coimbra- Timor collection of crania. [Source: Mary Bouquet, Utrecht University =]

“Ricardo Roque’s multi-sited study centres on the biographies of a collection of 35 human skulls sent, in 1882, from the Portuguese colony of East Timor to Coimbra University. He provides a compelling account of the place of headhunting in colonial warfare and ceremonial government in East Timor. Drawing on Bruno Latour’s notion of the circulatory system whereby science and society are inextricably linked, Roque conceptualizes colonial headhunting as vitally connecting colonizers and colonized. The fragility of colonial rule in this remote corner of the Portuguese empire is reflected by the fact that irregular troops under the command of Portuguese army officers included Timorese head-hunters. Portuguese officials depended on alliances with the aristocratic and military classes of the surrounding kingdoms whose leaders were invested with ceremonial office in exchange for vassalage and support. These arrangements meant that the Portuguese became jural rulers of worldly affairs while the Timorese remained the supreme lords of sacred affairs. Roque observes that ceremonialism was “the heart of an artful management of stylized behaviours and the symbolic power of colonial authority. Colonial government was the government of ceremonial” (p. 68). The colonial justice system that meted out punishment for rebellion offered Timorese warriors an occasion to practice traditional headhunting against enemies of the Portuguese. Some of the heads severed in these colonial wars went, at a certain moment, beyond local circulation to become part of a transnational movement between colony and metropole. How did this happen? =

“Headhunting customs were not colonial atavisms, Roque argues, but rather the “quintessence of colonialism in practice” (p. 7). The perceived connection between headhunting and fertility, whereby the plundering of villages and taking of slaves were seen as a ‘harvest’ that empowered the victors while inflicting great loss and misery on other groups, was pragmatically used by the colonial administrators. Victorious campaigns against rebels were followed by ‘head-feasts’ which were attended, albeit reluctantly, by Portuguese officials. Although the latter attempted to create and maintain a boundary between themselves and such ‘barbarities’, in practice this proved difficult to sustain given the weakness of colonial rule. Roque develops the conceptual framework of ‘mutual parasitism’ to account for the entanglement between the colonial power and indigenous cultures in the practice of headhunting during late nineteenth-century pacification campaigns. This approach extends the term ‘parasitism’ (coined by Michel Serres) to examine the symbiotic dynamics underlying colonial violence and the exercise of European rule in indigenous societies. Colonial power, seen in this way, is based on vulnerability. Mutual parasitism makes it possible to explain the complexities of intercultural exchanges taking place between colonialism, headhunting and anthropology in the case of East Timor, 1880-1930. =

“The Coimbra skull collection can be traced back to the 1877 request from Lisbon to the governor of Macão to assemble raw materials and manufactured goods aimed at proving the productive wealth of Macau and Timor. Unlike commercial products, such as coffee, sandalwood, and gold, the 35 crania travelled without papers. Similarly, the crafted cartridge boxes used by Timorese warriors had no description and were virtually unclassifiable. The skulls do appear in the List of objects despatched, as ‘Number 197. Name: Human skulls. Provenance [Naturalidade] Timor’. It was in Coimbra, where they were sent for their scientific interest, that the skulls were inscribed on the right parietal with a number (from 1 to 35) and the words ‘Colecção de Timor’. =

“The collection was to be the focus of a bitter controversy among Portuguese scholars concerning classification of the Timorese as Papuan or Malayan ‘races’. Coimbra student Cunha published a paper in 1894 where he argued that the Timorese were ‘Papuan’ according to the line drawn by A.R. Wallace in the Malay Archipelago (1864). The Porto scholar, Mendes de Correia, disputed this classification in 1916, insisting that the Timorese were Malayan or Indonesian – in terms of the colonial anthropology that had supplanted museum-based studies of crania on which Cunha’s argument was based. A former colonial officer then joined the fray casting aspersions on the authenticity of the collection. He evoked the story of skulls having been gathered from a sacred tree at Cová in 1895, after a notorious defeat of government forces. Roque argues that the processes of classification and story-telling were still more complex imbrications of a series of historical agents. He deftly unravels the processes of purification that extended to Portuguese severed heads which were carefully recovered and provided with redemptive national heroes’ burials in Lisbon. It is difficult to imagine a starker contrast with the punitive conversion of enemy heads destined to become scientific specimens in Coimbra. =

Book: “Headhunting and Colonialism. Anthropology and the Circulation of Human Skulls in the Portuguese Empire, 1870-1930" by Ricardo Roque, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

My Father, the Timorese Headhunter

In a Dawan village in West Timor, one traveler posted on Escape Artistes: “Kores holds his father’s weapons proudly in his hands. A short, broad machete, wrapped up in ikat cloth and string, and two crude wooden spears. His sight’s fading now – one eye shut, almost gone the way of his teeth, and there’s a goitre on the back of his skull bigger than either of his round cheeks. Kores can’t chew betel now. He pounds the nut, instead, in a little metal tube, to a consistency he can satisfactorily gum. [Source: Escape Artistes, June 30, 2011 |~|]

“Did your father take heads from women and children?” I ask. “Or just from men?” “Children?” he echoes, and looks to his son-in-law for affirmation. “It’s better he tells you this, because his mind is still strong.” Andreas, Kores’ son in law, answers, “No, we never took children’s heads. Not for eight generations. For eight generations…” he pauses to spit the scarlet betel juice… “We take only the heads of adult men.” |~|

“Before he was allowed to hunt for heads, a man must reach the age of forty. Only the strongest men could hunt — a practice which sounds, in evolutionary terms, like a way of disposing of the community’s alpha males. The greatest warriors, men like the three famous brothers, Oni, Boi and Kao, would be dubbed by the king with the title “Meo” – for all the world like medieval knights on a quest.” |~|

“They stopped head-hunting in Nome in 1942, so the story goes. “With independence,” Kores explains. Head-hunting seems, quite frankly, not to have bothered the Dutch. In the Spice Islands, we learnt that a man could commit mass murder to avenge the death of a dog. In fact, a myriad peoples across East Indonesia knew no law beyond their own tribal adat until, often, many decades after independence.” |~|

Timor’s Last Headhunting Village

The Escape Artistes traveler posted: “We’re in Timor – Indonesian Timor – in a village called Nome, supposedly the last head-hunting village that’s left here. It’s a peculiar place. Low, circular beehive huts, their smoke-blackened thatch descending almost to the ground, line a bright clay path, framed by sugar palms and, incongruously, eucalyptus. The village sits around what must once have been a most spectacular fort. A wall of jagged coral rock, cannibalised now for gardens and paths, stands only a metre high, though it once stood half as high again. A couple of archetypal Wild West cactuses sit on top of it – the remains of a formidable line, a type of natural razor wire. Cliffs drop away 60 or 70 metres on three sides, shaded by trees that shield defenders but offer the most spectacular view. [Source: Escape Artistes, June 30, 2011 |~|]

“This is where they plan the attack,” Aka, our guide, explains, as we stand by the shady platform where the headhunters held their councils. “If they are coming from the north, they measure with a stick towards the north, and if the fingers don’t reach to the central pole, the man will die.” One of the young guys from the village demonstrates, whirling the stick around and stretching. “That’s the only way?” I ask. “No,” he says. “They can try a second time. And if that fails, they ask the eggs. If there is blood in the egg, the man will die.” I nod. We pose for photos on a sort of totem throne under a strangling fig...and here houses the souls of the tribal ancestors. |~|

“What did they do with the heads?” Z asks. “They give them to the king.” I rephrase, and Aka translates into Dawan. “When they take the heads, where do the bodies go? Where do the heads go?” “The king takes the heads, the Nope of this kingdom. The heroes wait with them for four days and nights inside the fort, and then they bring them to the king.” “The bodies?” “They leave the bodies there.” “What happens to the heads?” “The king! He keeps them.” “What happened to the heads when they weren’t allowed to hunt them any more?” asks Z. |~|

“Were there other villages hunting heads here?” “Only Nome.” “So, no one else took heads? Only you?” Only them. Only their warriors went out in search of other villages’ menfolk. Though the two other kings in the region had their headhunters, too – the Nome people say. When the warriors came in, heads slung over their shoulders, blood coagulating from their severed necks, the whole village, men, women and children would celebrate, eating, drinking and dancing in the fort. |~|

Holidays and Festivals in East Timor

The Christian church and home services and life-cycle event ceremonies are common. Marriages and funerals are regarded as occasions to strengthen lineage alliances. Local lineage ceremonies are held to mark life-cycle events such as births and events on the agriculture cycle such as planting. These have been given Christian contexts. There are rituals in which chickens, goats and water buffalo are sacrificed.

East Timor now has public holidays that commemorate historic events in the liberation struggle, as well as those associated with the Catholic faith.: January 1 — New Year's Day; March/April — Good Friday; March/April — Easter Sunday; May 20 — Independence Day; August 15 — Assumption; August 30 — Consultation Day Anniversary; September 20 — Liberation Day; November 1 — All Saints' Day; November 12 — Santa Cruz Day Anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991; December 8 — Immaculate Conception; December 25 — Christmas. [Source: easttimorgovernment.com ++]

Celebrating Good Friday and Easter in East Timor

Unofficialeasttimor.com reported: “With Catholicism the religion of choice in East Timor, you can expect a bit of a show over the Easter period. From streets lined with people watching the Palm Sunday processions to people missing work to receive the ash cross on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday- yep, celebrating Easter in East Timor is b-i-g and surprisingly, there isn’t a chocolate bunny in sight (well not yet anyway). I went to a Catholic primary and high school and feel pretty ‘experienced’ in how important dates in the Catholic calendar should be celebrated. But, I HAVE NEVER seen or been moved as much as I was when watching the Stations of the Cross in Dili last year. It was achingly beautiful. Admire the incredibly resourceful costumes with Roman soldier helmets made out of soccer balls. [Source: unofficialeasttimor.com, April 2m 2012 **]

“We arrive at the church to learn that the Good Friday mass is behind schedule. With a few thousand other people, we wait outside as the final touches were added to the Roman soldiers’ costumes and the microphones are tested 'koko koko' (test test). 'Why weren't we ready to begin?' somebody (probably a foreigner) asks. Well, you see, the answer is: Jesus hasn't arrived yet! And then Jesus arrived and it was literally all stations go! As we moved through each section of the performance it didn't take long to realise that they couldn't have picked a more perfect Jesus. He was well worth the wait. With each disappointment on his journey, Jesus' face was awash in emotion. Exactly as you'd expect it to be. An East Timorese friend sensing my appreciation of his performance told me that: "They always get the same guy to play Jesus." **

“The outdoor roving performance ran for well over two hours. The most comprehensive Stations of the Cross I'd ever seen. Not only were the costumes, props and sets fantastic (as you can see in the photos) but they had everything from artificial sound-scapes to compliment the scenes to actors partaking in actual whipping. Those East Timorese Catholics sure know how to put on a show! **

“But what surprised me most about the performance was the audiences’ reverence, no one laughed in any of the scenes. This might not sound like a big deal, but I’ve never been to a performance in East Timor where the audience hasn’t laughed. In a performance of ‘Romeo and Juliette’ I saw last year, the audience erupted in laughter as Juliette stabbed herself to death. It shouldn't have been funny, it wasn't funny. In a recent show about domestic violence, the audience were in hysterics when the husband was attacking his wife. Again, not really that funny. **

“But today was different, when Jesus died, women wept in the crowd. It was an incredible and moving performance. If you are in East Timor over the Easter break make sure you head to a local church to see one of the Easter services, just don't believe anyone when they tell you what time it starts, things in East Timor always run late.” **

Christmas in East Timor

Rachel and Brendan wrote in their blog Roamin' Catholics in East Timor: “ Christmas Eve we woke up early and got to work. We had to prepare the house for a fifteen-person Christmas party! There was a great sense of community during the day – if there was something that needed done, someone would find it and do it right away. There was so much cooking to do! Much like at home, the Polish spend all day in the kitchen before a holiday because there are many traditional foods. So in between deep cleaning the party area and outside their house we pitched in a lot. [Source: Rachel and Brendan, Roamin' Catholics in East Timor, January 1, 2009 +++]

“Along with cooking in the kitchen there was a fire pit to be dug and Brendan and Therese volunteered immediately! They used a shovel to dig a decent sized hole and found grasses, wood, and coconut pieces to start a fire with. Then they cooked fresh fish in tin foil and it came out perfect! The whole time there were kids along the fence and even in the trees trying to see what was going on. +++

“And besides the cooking and cleaning, there was decorating to do. We were pretty proud of how it turned out. My job was cutting out paper stars so we could put them on the ceiling. When Brendan and Therese were done with the fish they came in to help with the stars – Therese made a big 3-D one we hung in the middle of the room and Brendan helped put the stars on the ceiling. No big lights or flashy decorations, but we were pretty proud. And when there was food on the tables, candles strategically placed along the walls, and people filling the chairs, it was everything we’d hoped for. +++

“Around 6:30 people starting showing up and we drank strawberry Fanta and walked around to meet everybody. We all ate and shared stories about our experiences in East Timor. There was a lot of laughing and fun, and, before we knew it, it was time to head down the street to Christmas Eve Mass. Mass started at 9pm and we were already unofficially late because it was 8:30 and the church was already overflowing with people (literally – there were hundreds of people inside, people standing on sides, and hundreds of people standing and sitting outside the church). Luckily Dogmara had explained the situation to us, so we had brought our own plastic chairs from the house. +++

“We made it just in time to see the nativity play by some of the youth. There were Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, the shepherds, adorable angels in pink tutus with wands that swayed their wands with the songs, and the three wisemen dressed at Timorese kings. Everything was the same as at home, but with the Timorese twist that always keeps things interesting. The Mass was special so it went for more than two hours with lots of beautiful singing and readings from Scripture. Unfortunately, I was so tired from running around all day that I had to fight off falling asleep! After Mass, Brendan and I were exhausted and fell asleep immediately.” +++

Christmas in East Timor

Rachel and Brendan wrote in their blog Roamin' Catholics in East Timor: “We woke early and refreshed and surprised each other with gifts – Then we got ready quick to go to Mass again. In East Timor, what we heard and saw was that the people all go to Christmas Eve Mass, stay up after and have big family get togethers, and then about half of them come back again for Mass at 7:30 in the morning. So we went back and got there early enough to get real seats (the other volunteers were not as ambitious and forgot their chairs, so they ended up standing for two hours again). [Source: Rachel and Brendan, Roamin' Catholics in East Timor, January 1, 2009 +++]

“Mass was beautiful…again. It was nice to have a second chance to enjoy it while we were more awake. Christmas Mass is all about Jesus and there is so much joy! And at the end of Mass on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day they did something very special. It was similar to what we do on Good Friday (the day that Jesus died), when we all go up and put a hand on the cross or kiss the cross to say thank you to Jesus. Here in East Timor, everyone at Mass lined up to kiss baby Jesus! We all came up to the front and kissed a little statue of baby Jesus. +++

“But that was only the beginning of the day. We ate leftovers for breakfast and then worked on wrapping pens and pencils in tissue paper for Christmas presents for the kids.” At the hospital, “we entered the rooms, said our “Boas Festa Natal” to everyone, and passed out school supplies, chocolate, and lollipops to the kids, especially the kids that were patients. Our time at the hospital was all too short, but you could tell that the people and especially the kids appreciated our visit. We walked back across town still processing what we had seen. +++

“But there wasn’t much time to process because we were still going to try to make it to the beach for Christmas! We had heard that the Baucau beach was especially beautiful, so we wanted to see it before heading back the next day. So we packed a picnic lunch and Therese, Dogmara, Chris, Brendan, and I started the hour long hike to the beach. On the way we saw lots of kids just hanging out with their families and friends for Christmas. Most of them just shouted “Malae, malae” (foreigner, foreigner) at us and waved and smiled, but these kids had a slight variation. We finally made it to the beach and the view was worth every bit of the walk. The sand was soft, and the water warm and inviting. After a couple of hours at the beach we were lucky enough to get a ride home with some friends we had met at the Christmas party the night before. We got home just in time to change and head out to the Baucau convent where we had been invited for Christmas dinner.” +++

“We made it to the convent where there was a small, Asian-Christmas feast of rice, noodles, and even some meat. The meat was especially nice, because it’s expensive here, so we don’t get too much of it. Here we are ready to dig in! After dinner Brendan and I started off a singing fest. We wowed them with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (with the kids’ part) and then sang O Holy Night with Therese and Bernedette. We also played a game where you pass around a holly branch as fast as you can while the music is on and when the music stops, whoever has the branch has to stand up and tell the story of their favorite Christmas.” +++

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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