Origins of Scalping Revealed Term Paper

Pages: 12 (3018 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 19  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Native Americans

Origins of Scalping Revealed

The European origins of Scalping

The common perception of the North American Indian that has remained dominant in popular culture is that they were the originators of the horrific practice and ritual of scalping.

Before the 1960s most Americans believed that scalping was a distinctive military custom of the American Indians. History books and the popular media all attributed scalping to Indians, who collected the scalplocks of enemies as war trophies and proof of their valor in battle.

Encyclopedia of North American Indians)

However this perception has been questioned on a number of levels, including opposing views from archeological, anthropological historical data sources. The evidence points to the fact that scalping did not originate on the North American continent, but rather was "imported" from Europe. There is a plethora of evidence that points to the earlier practice of scalping in European cultures. This paper will attempt to present an overview of the extant research findings on scalping and will show that that the popular conception of the origins of scalping is in fact erroneous.

2. The argument

The conventions and traditional knowledge of American history asserts that "...the "savage" Indians scalped "civilized" whites in their resistance to the "taming" of the continent."

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Axtell 17) This view implies that the Europeans were unaware and innocent of the practice of scalping before their arrival on the American continent. However this version of history has been "... assailed as a serious distortion. When advocates of the Indian cause, native or white, engage their opponents in court or print, they frequently arm themselves with a new version of scalping's ignoble history. "

TOPIC: Term Paper on Origins of Scalping Revealed Assignment

In contrast to the accepted views of scalping history there have in recent decades been numerous references in research studies to documents and anecdotal evidence which paints a very different history of scalping. This evidence amounts to telling proof that the North American Indians were in fact "taught" the practice of scalping for the white Europeans. As Vine Deloria, a leading Native American scholar, stated in 1969, "scalping was invented by whites, not Indians. 'Scalping,' was 'introduced prior to the French and Indian War by the English.' "

Thornton 160)

Counter to this perspective is the more conventional and generally accepted view that scalping was a rite and practice that can be found in pre-Columbian America. This assertion is based on a few archeological finds which hint at the practice of scalping through physical marks on skulls. However, there is no unanimity that these archeological finds are conclusive proof of the earlier practice of scalping by the indigenous inhabitants of the continent.

Although archaeologists have found a few prehistoric human remains in the Americas that show evidence of cut marks on the skulls, they disagree about whether these marks are evidence of scalping. Absolutely no evidence exists that scalping was a widespread practice in the Americas before European contact. If it was practiced, it was done by very few tribes and then very infrequently.


While there is evidence in pre-historical sites, particularly along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the implications of these findings have not been definitively associated with early cultural usage of scalping rites among the indigenous peoples. The "evidence" of scalping from these finds includes cuts and scratches on the skull vaults of probable victims. However, as Axtell states, "These cuts are, of course, subject to various interpretations, given the existence of postmortem mutilation in many cultural areas. "

Axtell 34) in other words, it is also quite possible that the marks and incisions on the skulls may have been part of another rite or ritual after death.

Modern evidence and the weight of documentation points rather to the possibility that scalping was a well established and prominent part of the early history of Europe; and that this practice was brought to the American continent.. One of the earliest records referring to the extensive practice of scalping is among the Scythians. Later in European History there is reference to the scalping by the Earl of Wessex in the 11 century. This refers to the practice of scalping his enemies. There are also numerous other references to scalping by the English. "...the English paid bounties for Irish heads. Because scalps were easier to transport and store than heads, European headhunters sometimes scalped their victims rather than decapitating them. " (ibid)

Further evidence of the importance of scalping as a particularly European concept is provided by numerous documents that clearly show that promotion of this practice by the early English and French colonists in America. It is also generally accepted that, "During the French and Indian Wars and later during the war between the British and the Colonists, both the British and the French encouraged their Indian allies to scalp their enemies providing them with metal scalping knives." (Examples of falsification of history)

There are also numerous documents and declarations that clearly place the origins and introduction of scalping at the door of Europeans rather than Indian traditions. An example is the assertion by the literary critic and moralist Leslie Fiedler in 1968 that scalping seems not to have been an Indian custom at all until the White Man began offering bounties for slain enemies."

Axtell 18, 19) Environmental writer Peter Farb states that "whatever its exact origins, there is no doubt that [the spread of] scalp-taking... was due to the barbarity of White men rather than to the barbarity of Red men."

Axtell 19)

3. The Scythians

One of the earliest precursors of the practice of scalping in European history is the practice among the Scythians. "... The only non-Indians known to have scalped their enemies were the Scythians, nomadic Eurasian peoples who flourished from the eighth to the fourth century B.C." (SCYTHIA)

Scythia was part of Eurasia. "The location and extent of Scythia varied over time from the Altai region where Mongolia, China, Russia, and Kazakhstan come together to the lower Danube river area and Bulgaria." (ibid)

The following description outlines the practice of scalping which was common among the Scythians. "The Scythians formed well-organized communities, responding to their chiefs with ready discipline. But they were a turbulent lot, delighting in warfare, predatory raids and the scalping of their enemies. "

Daniel and Rice 22)

In B.C. 440: Herodotus, the Greek historian wrote of the Scythians:

The Scythians often scalped their enemies, sometimes making a napkin of the skin and invariably turning the skulls into mugs, mounting them in gold or some other precious material and wearing them suspended from their belts. They used them for drinking blood brother, hood vows 11 or for sealing an oath, pledging themselves in a mixture of wine and blood in which they had first dipped the tips of their swords.

Daniel and Rice 54) cap from the Kurdzhip barrows, Kuban, showing two Scythian warriors. One bolds the severed bead of an enemy. IV -- IIIc. B.C.

Daniel and Rice 54)

There are numerous references to the practices of the Scythians. Importantly, many of these references also relate these practices to the way in which North American Indians practiced scalping. There is also the suggestion in many studies that Indian scalping was a continuation of earlier European forms of the terrible custom.

The ancient Greeks regarded them as "barbarians" for their practice of making napkins from head scalps and for decorating their persons and their horses' bridles with them. When Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wished to terrorize their enemies, rather than scalping the dead they decapitated them and mounted the heads in prominent places, a practice they continued in America.

Scalps and Scalping)

4. Scalping traditions in Europe

There is a long history of scalping in the European history. The practice of mutilation by scalping can be found in the records dating to the 7th century B.C. with special reference to Canute or Cnut. For example, one of the Cnut laws was that if a criminal had committed serious crimes "his eyes are to be put out and his nose and ears and upper lip cut off, or his scalp removed, which ever of these is then decreed by those with whom the decision rests; thus one can punish and at the same time preserve the soul." (Binder, a.) Furthermore, "scalping was a favoured pursuit among the Frankish kings..."

Brooke 63)

This tradition of scalping as a technique of mutilation and a sign of victory over the foe was to surface in later English history. There is documented evidence of the use of scalping by the Earl of Wessex in the 11th century.

Some studies claim that this English custom was later brought to the New World as a technique for dealing with the Indian problem.

In the 11th century, the Earl of Wessex scalped his enemies. When the English and the Dutch came to the new world they brought the custom with them. This activity was brought not so much as an official method of warfare, but as a bounty to ease the anger of… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Origins of Scalping Revealed.  (2005, May 21).  Retrieved September 18, 2021, from

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"Origins of Scalping Revealed."  May 21, 2005.  Accessed September 18, 2021.