gathering information on this practice.
you've heard it before: the North American indigenous people were taught
this practice by the evil Europeans. The tendency to romanticize the "noble
red skin" has led to claims that they certainly never practiced scalping
before Columbus. Well...this revisionist history isn't quite accurate.
Archaeological evidence conclusively proves that the practice existed in all
parts of North American before Columbus. However, there is also little
doubt that the early Europeans encouraged this behavior in both their own
people and that of the native peoples, but it appears that the European
settlers learned the practice from the indians even though scalping is not
restricted to New World indigenes.
paper concerning this question is quoted below:
The anterior portion of a skull discovered at the Rygh
Site (1600-1650 A.D.) by an amateur archaeologist, now a part of a private
collection, is highlighted to show an area of disfigurement in the outer
table of the frontal bone. The smooth, slightly raised, anterior and lateral
margins of the defect present the appearance of reactive new bone formation
at the periphery of an area of resorption of the outer table. All affected
portions of the bone are smooth, indicating post-injury remodeling. The
inner table of the frontal bone was not remarkable. Radiographs were not
diagnostic and gave no clues to ex plain the cause of this abnormality. The
oval shaped pattern of the defect suggests that the injury affected the
pericranium and was limited by this membrane. A direct blow to the head with
injury to the bone's outer table and the pericranium, complicated by
hematoma formation must be considered. However, the most likely possibility
as cause for this injury to the bone several years prior to death of the
individual, is that of non-lethal scalping.
The effect on a person subjected to non lethal scalping is
influenced by a number of factors that include the physical condition of the
individual, the quantity of blood lost, the consequences of accompanying
trauma, and the plane of dissection through which the scalp is removed. If
the scalp is avulsed in the plane between the pericranial soft tissues (galea
aponeurotica and pericranium), healing is more rapid and infection is less
likely, due to protection by the pericranium. If scalping includes the
pericranium or if it is injured during the process, the bone's surface is
exposed, predisposing to infection. Osteomyelitis and meningitis are
Controversy exists today as to the antiquity of scalping
in the Americas, and whether this practice antedated or was introduced by
invaders from Europe. In two national publications within the past seven
years, the origin of scalping in North America has been discussed,
inconclusively. An article in a popular syndicated Sunday suppliment carried
by many newspapers in the United States was entitled, "Don't Blame the
Indians for Scalping." It was reported that, "Scalping began when the Dutch
colonists offered cash for scalps of hostile tribesmen they wanted cleared
out of the New York and New Jersey area." It contended that scalping was
brought here from Europe and had not been practiced prior to European
invasion (95). In another publication a reader responded to an article
relating to scalping at Wolstenholme Towne in 17th century colonial America
(169), "I thought scholars were in agreement that scalping was a European
practice, introduced to the Indians during the French and Indian War. Is
there, in fact evidence to support Indian practice of scalping as early as
Conclusive evidence exists in human skeletons from the
Upper Missouri Basin that scalping was prevalent in this region both before
and after European intrusion. In addition, scalping was not limited to the
dead corpse. In pre-1492 Crow Creek skeletons para-mortem scalping as part
of the massacre was apparent in 271/315 (66%) identifiable frontal bones (Ch
1, Table 1.4). In addition, in this same skeletal cohort residua of scalping
antedating death was in two skulls (360,361). In the Larson village (1785
A.D.) para-mortem scalping cut marks were on 17/71 (23.9%) of the massacre
victims, and evidence of ante- mortem or paramortem scalping was on 5/621
(0.8%) of the cemetery skulls. Deitrick did not find evidence of scalping in
skulls from the Mobridge (MO-1, MO-2) or the Leavenworth Sites (89).
Other historical and archaeological references corroborate
the Upper Missouri River Basin findings that not only did scalping antedate
European contact in the Americas but also the act was not limited to the
dead body. Both in the North American aborigines and in European settlers,
non-lethal scalping with long term survival has been reported (30,63,232).
Bruesch (63) discussed non-lethal scalping in Tennessee during the 18th
"In March of the same year (1777) Frederick Cavlit was
badly wounded and nearly the whole of his head was skinned. Doctor Vance
was sent for and staid several days with him. The skull- bone was quite
naked, and began to turn black in places, and, as Doctor Vance was about
to leave, he directed me, as I was stationed in the same fort with him, to
bore his skull as it got black, and he bored a few holes him- self, to
show the manner of doing it. I have found that a flat pointed straight awl
is the best instrument to bore with, as the skull is thick, and somewhat
difficult to penetrate. and, The scalped head cures very slowly, and if
this kind of flesh [proud flesh] rise in plac- es, higher than common,
touch it with blue- stone water [copper sulphate], dress it once or twice
a day, putting a coat of lint over it every time you dress it, with a
narrow plaister of ointment. and, It skins remarkably slow, generally
taking two years to cure up."
Excerpt from article, "Origins of Scalping":
Troy Case, a North American archaeologist who has written extensively
about scalping, found the practice to have been quite common during
prehistory. But, he notes, solid evidence for scalping did not emerge
until the 1940s. And it was not until the past few decades, with the
advent of more sophisticated dating techniques, that scalping was
unequivocally demonstrated to have had a pre-Columbian origin.
Caseís conclusion is based on an exhaustive osteological study of nearly
1000 skulls from the American Southeast, Midwest, and Southwest. The
largest sample came from Crow Creek Canyon, located on the northern Plains
and dated to the mid-fourteenth century. The site contains evidence of a
large-scale massacre involving a minimum of, incredibly, 486 individuals.
The bones of men, women, and children were found strewn in an area roughly
7 meters square and 1 meter deep. Nearly every skull exhibited evidence of
scalping, as well as other bodily mutilations. Characteristic lesions to
the frontal and parietal parts of the cranium and distinct cut marks
encircling the calvarium were clearly evident. Case surmises that "it is
possible that this deposit was the work of people from the same village or
tribe rather than that of the raiders, but a massacre of such size would
probably leave few individuals to dispose of this large quantity of
remains in such a manner. Therefore, the more likely explanation is that
those responsible for these peoplesí deaths were also responsible for
their internment." 8
Similarly gruesome was the cache of four skulls uncovered at the Vosberg
site in the central Arizona mountains, dated to circa AD 1050-1250. Here,
as at Crow Creek Canyon, all skulls exhibited the characteristic circular
lesions associated with a scalping event.9 At the Fay Tolton site in South
Dakota, moreover, four individuals, including a young child, were found on
the floor of an earth lodge. They had been scalped and apparently left as
they had died, without receiving any kind of mortuary treatment.
Caseís sample also provides evidence that scalping was an equal
opportunity offense. His study found that roughly 40% of the victims were
female and 60% were male.10 In fact, the scalps of females were highly
prized among some known ethnographic groups, and frequently considered an
even greater sign of valor than the taking of a scalp on the battlefield.
Among the Creek, for example, such grisly trophies indicated great courage
and skill on the part of the scalp-taker because it meant he had to
penetrate all the way into an enemy camp without being detected. Nor were
infants spared, as the Fay Tolton site demonstrates. Case states, "Just as
being a woman was no protection from scalping, being a child also appears
not to have always been a deterrent to becoming a victim of this custom.
The youngest prehistoric victim of scalping found in this study was a
child between the ages of five and seven years, and another was a subadult
between 13 and 15 years old."11
His studies have been corroborated by several other archaeological
investigations conducted by various scholars. In Burnett County,
Wisconsin, a skull, which was carbon-14 dated to AD 490-580, was uncovered
from the Spencer Lake Mound. It contained a series of shallow cut marks
circumscribing the crown down through the periosteum (fibrous covering of
the bone) in the hairline area. These wounds are consistent with wounds
related to the removal of the skin (scalping). Like the skeletal material
investigated by Case, this individual was killed and scalped hundreds of
years before European contact. Likewise, evidence of scalping comes from
the famous Moundville site in Alabama, an immense complex of huge earthen
mounds that supported a society of several thousand people, as well as
numerous Hopewellian burial mounds in Ohio. The Skulls unearthed from
these sites show distinct and unambiguous marks made by the scalping
Additional evidence for scalping comes from the written descriptions of
the earliest European travelers--individual explorers who witnessed Native
American cultures in something like a "pristine," aboriginal condition.
When the French explorer Jacques Cartier journeyed down the Mississippi
River in 1535, he encountered several Indian groups that proudly displayed
the scalps of defeated enemies.12 Perhaps even more telling was the
account of French artist Jacques Le Moyne who, in 1564, traveled to
Florida and spent some time among the Timucua Indians. In one of his
famous paintings, Le Moyne depicts the torture, scalping, and killing of
enemy warriors. "They hung the bones and the scalps at the end of their
spears, carrying them home in triumph," Le Moyne reported.13 The painting
even shows Timucuan warriors drying the scalp of a defeated enemy over a
fire. There are many more similar descriptions from other early European
observers, easily verifiable and readily available to any researcher
willing to delve into archival material.
In light of such evidence it is clear that, contrary to historical
revisionists, Europeans did not teach scalping to the Native Americans; in
fact, the opposite is true. Scalping was a practice that Europeans learned
from the Native Americans. It was a practice, moreover, that Indians
practiced long before whites arrived. Nor was it a practice that was
limited to parts of eastern North America, as some scholars have
suggested. Archaeological evidence clearly demonstrates that scalping was
widespread throughout prehistoric North America, ranging from the eastern
seaboard to the southwestern states.
Fields, William. The Myth of Scalping, in Central States Archaeological
Journal, July 1999, p. 153.
Ray, Randy and Mark Kearny. The Great Canadian Trivia Book (Toronto:
Hounslow Press, 1996, p.207.
Farb, Peter. Manís Rise to Civilization: The Cutlural Ascent of the
Indians of North America (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978, p. 115).
Hoxie, Frederick. Indians in North America (New York: Harlan Davison,
1988, p. 824).
Young, Henry J. "A Note on Scalp Bounties in Pennsylvania," in
Pennsylvania History, 24, 1957, p. 209.
J.C.B., Travels in New France, by J.C.B., Sylvester K. Stevens, et. al.,
eds. (Harrisburg: The Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1941, p. 68.
Ibid, pp. 67-68.
Case, Troy. An Analysis of Scalping Cases and Treatment of the Victimís
Corpses in Prehistoric North America, in Journal of North American
Archaeology, June 1998, p. 27.
Ibid, p. 32.
Ibid, p. 45.
Ibid, pp. 45-46.
Axtell, James. Who Invented Scalping, in American Heritage, April 1977, p.
Ibid, p. 98.