Human scalp stretched on a wooden hoop

Possibly from Hudson Bay, North America
18th century AD

Scalping was a ritual and religious activity in some parts of eastern North America, such as Iroquoia. This early example is stretched on a bent wooden hoop and painted red with a schematic face. Scalps were taken after battle, usually from the dead. Scalp locks, plaits or braids were used to decorate clothing such as war shirts by the Plains people.

The Iroquois hung scalps up at home, regarding them as symbolically replacing people lost in war. Elsewhere, scalps were dedicated to the sun, rivers or other spirits and attached to weapons and personal possessions. Scalping was much encouraged during the colonial wars of the eighteenth century, particularly by the British, in return for bounty, as a means of reducing the Algonquian allies of the French. The Americans continued the practice, encouraged by the dollar or two offered by the US authorities on receipt of scalps.

This example may have been the scalp in Hans Sloane's London collection described as 'Indian scalp from Hudsons Bay adorn'd [with] bird & Porcupine quills'.

Stable carbon isotope analysis of the hair suggests that maize formed a major proportion (36%) of the diet of the victim. This suggests that it comes from a member of an agricultural community. It may therefore have been taken by an Algonquian-speaking hunter from an Iroquian-speaking farmer or coastal Algonquian speaking farmer from New England.

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More information


J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)


Diameter: 20.000 cm

Museum number

AOA Q78.Am.39



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