Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99
Height: 117.000 cm
Gift of Prof. C.G. Seligmann
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Skull rack (agibe)
Kerewa (or Kerebo), 19th or very early 20th
From the Aird River delta, Gulf province, Papua New Guinea
The Papuan Gulf lies in the southern coastal part of Papua New Guinea. It is an area of rivers, deltas and tributaries, with mangrove swamps, forests and sago palms. It experiences one of the highest annual rain falls in the world. Some areas of land are fertile.
The Kerewa (or Kerebo) people who live on and around Goaribari Island practised headhunting until the early twentieth century. They believed that the spirit of an individual lives inside the skull, and as thus it was desirable to collect skulls of ancestors and enemies. The power within the skull could be used to benefit the community. Skulls were acquired to inaugurate and protect a new men's house or a war canoe. The making and maintenance of wooden skull racks, known as agibe or agiba ,was part of this. A clan normally owned agibe in pairs - a larger board considered male, the other considered female. The head is normally large in proportion to the rest of the body. The boards were kept in the men's house - a long structure built on piles inhabited by married men. The skulls of enemies were attached to the upright prongs with cane loops, and were heaped onto a shelf in front of the agibe. A man was only entitled to carve an agibe after he had taken a head.
This example is part of a large collection from southern Papua New Guinea, made in 1904 by C.G. Seligmann, one of participants of the Cooke Daniels Ethnographic Expedition. Seligmann published The Melanesians of British New Guinea in 1910, in which he recorded much of his anthropological research conducted during the expedition.
D. Newton, Art styles of the Papuan Gulf (New York, The Museum of Primitive Art, 1961)
C. G. Seligmann, 'A classification of the natives of British New Guinea', Journal of the Royal Anthrop-2, 39 (1909)
A.C. Haddon, 'The Agiba Cult of the Kerewa Culture', Man-2, 18 (1918)