(c) The Haddon Library, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Head Hunters: Anthropology and the Skull Obsessed! Part 1

Alfred Cort Haddon- British, Victorian, and Headhunter- and Irish Anthropologist, Charles Browne


Haddon was a marine biologist turned anthropologist in the late 1800s. While working on a coral reef expedition in the Torres Strait Islands, Haddon became interested in the people and customs that he encountered. So, he decided to become an anthropologist. Over many years and expeditions to these islands, Haddon insisted that Christian missionaries and their practices would destroy the culture and traditions of the indigenous peoples. He began to take artifacts from the island in an attempt to “save them from destruction.” He also made recordings of ceremonies and rituals.

“In addition to headhunting and human trophy preparation, the islands showed great diversity in their mortuary practices and treatment of the dead, including mummification and disarticulation and the use of human remains in spiritual divination” (Bonney 2013).

In his “collections,” Haddon also took some of those trophy crania. He believed that his actions were necessary as to preserve the culture and practices of the indigenous people that he felt were threatened due to the influence of missionaries and the spread of Christianity that had already been transforming the cultural landscape of the islands for at least 20 years before Haddon had arrived on his cultural preservation mission. Haddon was actually considered a bit of a radical during his time because his politics took an anti-colonial stance. In fact, in 1895, Haddon delivered a speech lambasting British imperialism and defended those victimized by imperialism. There seems to be a contradiction in his actions and words. Perhaps he believed that his actions were justified.

However, Haddon had received his headhunter reputation in part due to his actions on the islands of Ireland, which again made for interesting contradictions in his anti-colonial, anti-imperial rhetoric. In short, he and his student, Charles Browne, stole over 20 skulls from burial grounds in the Aran Islands and Inishbofin. They also measured and photographed the people of the island.


The collection of skulls stolen by Haddon from Inishbofin on Aran Islands and St. Finian’s Bay in Co Kerry. Photo: Ciarán Walsh

While Haddon seemed to have strong opinions regarding the role of the British and Europe in colonization and its violence, he seemed to be perfectly fine with the theft of skulls for science. Craniometry and racial typology occupied the imagination and scholarship of most European and American anthropologists of the time, and Haddon and Browne seemed to be no exception. When Haddon visited the islands he was struck by the physical differences of the people who lived there and decided measuring their skulls would be a good way to gather data and uncover the origins of the people who lived there. Haddon and Browne had a theory that the western Irish folk looked so different because they were more closely related to African people than non-western Irish folk and they felt, like many at the time, craniometry would yield more answers. They set up a lab to study measurements and proportions of Irish inhabitants from this island who many believed were more ‘primitive’ then the non-Western Irish. Browne took an impressive number of photographs as documentation. He collected skulls from graves and via the image.

‘The anthropologist in his endeavours to unravel the tangled skein of the so-called Irish race’ (Haddon and Cunningham 1892, Browne 1898b)

Anthropometry Inisbofin
Haddon and Browne measuring skulls in Inisbofin Credit: Charles Browne via Trinity College Dublin

Haddon and Browne definitely engaged in the methods and techniques popular in anthropology at the time, but for at least Haddon, his philosophies differed from his anthro peers. Haddon was leading a group of social scientists who argued that all human groups possessed a great degree of genetic variation and could not be confined to skull shape or specific features or such broad sweeping racial categories. They argued that race concepts were wrong and deeply flawed. It seems they spent several years shifting the process of cranial measurements from racial profiling to mapping biomarkers in facial features. Many of these biomarkers continue to be used today.

The skulls and visual ethnography of Haddon and Browne continue to live at Trinity University Dublin. In the past year, there have been discussions of repatriating the artifacts that they stole.


Additional Resources:

  1. Bonney, Heather , “Sorcery and Shipwrecks” , in The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict ed. Christopher Knüsel and Martin J. Smith (Abingdon: Routledge, 25 Nov 2013 ), accessed 11 Sep 2020 , Routledge Handbooks Online.
  2. Coming of the Light – Torres Strait Islands
  3. Huxley, J. S., & Haddon, A. C. (1935). We Europeans: A survey of ‘racial’ problems. London: Jonathan Cape
  4. The Headhunter Project: https://www.curator.ie/heritage-project-management/