Study: Skull with ‘execution-style wounds’ spotlights colonial Indonesia

A skull was analyzed with “execution-style” wounds from colonial Indonesia, suggesting that a woman was killed due to enslavement or suspected sorcery, a new study, published in mid-September in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, reported.

The skull was found on Biak Island in the Papua province of Indonesia in 1935 by scientists from Airlangga University in Indonesia.

Only the skull of the victim was available for analysis, but it revealed that the woman was between 26 and 42 years old when she was killed. 

According to the published research paper, “Multiple sharp force trauma injuries were identified on the frontal, temporal, and occipital bones of the cranium.” The team used digital and ultraviolet photography to examine the injuries of the skull. 

Interpreting the pattern of trauma within the context of the colonial period in Papua, it is suggested that this female individual may have been murdered, possibly as a slave taken during tribal warfare. 

Biak Island, 1944. (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

The woman lived between the 16th and mid-20th century during Indonesia’s period under European colonial rule. 

Indonesia under colonial rule

Researchers speculate whether this woman was killed as part of these raids or if she was a victim of inter- or intra-tribal warfare. Lead author of the study, Rizky Sugianto Putri, a forensic anthropologist at Airlangga University, told Live Science in an email that “it’s possible that the woman was killed as part of these raids, but it’s impossible to differentiate if the cranium analyzed in this study belonged to a victim of inter- or intra-tribal warfare, or if they were killed as a slave. However, the execution-style wounds on the cranium support that the individual was kneeling or sitting and was not able to defend themselves actively.” 

Within this time period, female sorcerers were known as ‘mon’ and were highly sought out during raids, indicating that this woman could have been sought out under suspicion of being a sorcerer. 

Although the team of researchers does not know who killed her, it is known that the sharp-force trauma wounds were consistent with a parang, a weapon commonly used by the Papuan tribe in the colonial period. 

Little previous research has been done on this region in this time period. The researchers hope that this study will spark new interest moving forward. 

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