Did native Americans learn scalping from Europeans?

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Dear Cecil: A friendly London cab driver who knew a lot about American history told me Indians never scalped their slain enemies until the white man showed up and taught them. Can you cast some light on this claim? Taylor Waller, UK


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Call it a case of parallel development, Taylor. Scalping — that is, the excision of the scalp and (usually) attached hair of one’s (usually) dead enemies for display, exchange, or (if the victim wasn’t dead) torture — is one of those classic concepts for which no single group can take all the credit. Native Americans didn’t get the idea from Europeans, but the arrivistes encouraged them to bring it to what was arguably its fullest flowering.

The Seneca leader Cornplanter was perhaps the first to suggest Europeans imported scalping, in 1820, but the idea didn’t become prominent till the 1960s and ’70s. By then contrary evidence was mounting, but let’s concede an important point: scalping has a long history in the Old World. Herodotus recorded scalping by ancient Scythians in central Asia, and archaeologists have since unearthed skulls with likely scalping marks at Scythian sites. Evidence indicates Europeans were scalping from the Stone Age till as late as 1036 in England.

Still, Europeans didn’t introduce scalping to America. New World peoples invented it independently, probably multiple times — it’s a natural progression from headhunting, scalps being less bulky than noggins and having fewer dribbly bits. By 1492, whites remembered scalping, if at all, as a quaint defunct custom. When explorers stumbled on the practice in two separate regions of South America in addition to North America, they apparently found it perplexing and couldn’t agree on what to call it, with multiple terms long competing in each European language. In contrast, some native language families possessed common and apparently ancient scalping vocabularies. Explorers described Indians scalping each other in Mexico (1520), Canada (1535), Florida (1563), and elsewhere. In 1540 Simón Rodriguez, of Hernando de Soto’s party, may have become the first white man scalped by Indians.

Since 1940 archaeologists have discovered hundreds of pre-Columbian skulls with scalping marks at North American sites ranging from Georgia to Arizona to the Dakotas. A few predate even the abortive Viking explorations. Many of the skulls come from a single site in South Dakota where almost 500 people were massacred and scalped around 1325 AD, refuting the common contention that scalping in the Plains arose after 1492. At least one instance of pre-Columbian artwork depicts a warrior toting scalps.

Scalping wasn’t universal in North America. Eskimos never scalped. Though generally quite common east of the Rockies before white contact, the practice was rare in parts of the northeast, and in the far west was encountered only sporadically. (Some nonscalping tribes did mutilate their dead enemies, collecting heads or other trophies such as fingers.) The introduction of horses, metal knives, and guns, combined with territorial pressures, probably increased warfare and scalping. But only after the white man put the practice on a solid business foundation, by offering scalp bounties, did it really take off and spread to previously nonparticipating peoples.

Though the Spanish in Mexico had earlier offered head bounties, New Englanders were apparently the first to grasp the usefulness of scalps as proof of death. In 1637 they began paying their Indian allies for either the heads of their Pequot enemies or, when the return distance was too great, the scalps. New Englanders were also first to pay whites for Indian scalps (1675-76). The egalitarian French upped the ante in 1688 by offering to pay for any enemy scalps, white or Indian.

High scalp bounties (up to 100 pounds in 1704) encouraged grave robbing and inspired suspicion that entrepreneurs were killing friendlies for their pelts. Even men of God couldn’t restrain themselves. One chaplain scalped two Indians in the 1720s only to be dispatched by friends of the deceased before he could claim his bounty. Another enterprising minister provisioned scalping gangs in return for a third of the cut.

Because they could be exchanged, captives generally commanded higher prices than scalps, but capture was a riskier proposition. In New Hampshire in 1697 Hannah Dustin and some fellow colonists killed their ten Indian captors, including six children, while they slept. Hannah had the good sense to collect the scalps, earning herself 50 pounds by some accounts.

Europeans didn’t take a backseat to the locals when it came to inventive brutality. Spaniards may have introduced burning alive to the southeast — at least scalping victims were generally dead first. New Englanders displayed the heads of rebel Indians, just as the English did with Irish rebels. Let’s not forget the biowarfare plan to infect Indians with smallpox that I’ve discussed before. (The Straight Dope: Did whites ever give Native Americans blankets infected with smallpox?) European soldiers often raped female captives, whereas by reputation Indians (at least those east of the Rockies) didn’t. I wouldn’t make too much of this, though. Newcomers and natives had their differences, but in their willingness to butcher their enemies they found common ground.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.