An eleventh-century Arab text, ‘Aja’ib al-Hind, mentions that the inhabitants of islands near Sumatra made use of human heads as a medium of exchange. A fifteenth-century Venetian traveler, Nicolo de’ Conti, found human heads serving as currency on Sumatra. He observed that “In one part of the island called Battrech [Batak] the inhabitants eat human flesh. They keep human heads as valuable property, store up the skull and use it as money. When they desire to purchase any article, give one or more heads in exchange for it according to its value” (Williams, 1997). The practice of using human heads apparently survived for several centuries on Batak. In the nineteenth century white traders on Batak were accused of capturing people, severing their heads, and using their skulls as money to pay for sandalwood.
Borneo is also a place where human heads allegedly served as currency. The evidence is a bit soft, but on occasion the headhunters on Borneo were known to hold out their trophies when the white traders’ goods reached a certain level of temptation.
Human head currency belongs on the fringe of monetary history. Like gold, silver, and copper, human heads were adaptable to ornamental purposes. Ornaments are usually adapted to be carried without tying up hands and pockets, and can serve a dual purpose if the ornaments are acceptable as a medium of exchange. The evolution of articles that serve a dual role as money and ornaments expresses the need to economize on the expenditure of time, energy, and resources.