5 interesting facts about mengayau or headhunting culture in Sabah

Now famous as an adventure destination, Sabah has a history quite similar to Sarawak in that it once had a ‘mengayau’ or headhunting tradition which not only included the practice of taking the head, but also preserving it.

Once practiced mostly by the Murut and Kadazandusun people in Sabah, today you’ll find the artifacts and legacy of the headhunters in the Sabah Museum.

Here are five interesting facts you need to know about mengayau or headhunting culture:

Mengayau 3
A small gallery dedicated to the ‘mengayau’ practice in Sabah museum.
1.There were three types of mengayau or headhunting practices back then.

The ownership of the trophies brought back from their mengayau trips would depend on how the head was taken. If a mengayau was carried out by a larger group (usually the result of a tribal war between different communities) the community would keep the heads.

Meanwhile, if the mengayau happened as the result of a feud between a small group of people, the family would keep the head.

On top of that, some men were also known to go headhunting as a proof of bravery. This was in order for the man to bring home a bride.

2. One of the tools used  in mengayau is called ilang sakuit.
Mengayau 4
An ilang sakuit.

Ilang sakuit is often used to cut off the enemy’s head as a symbol of a warrior’s bravery.

It is believed to be originated from Kalimantan and widely used by the Muruts.

Murut headhunters also wore ‘bilong’ on their mengayau journey. It is a wooden armlet used as an arm guard. The Muruts also wore ‘papakol’, an accessory and talisman worn on the calf.

Mengayau 5
The bilong (right) was used as an arm guard while the papakol (left and centre) were worn as accessories on the calf.
3. How and where the skulls are kept were important.

Once the headhunters returned from their raids, the heads had to be kept outside the village for the meantime. The heads were hung from trees or bamboo in what the Kadazandusun from Tambunan and Tamparuli areas called ‘sogindai’. Other headhunters kept them in a temporary hut called ‘sulap’.

After a few days or even weeks, Kadazandusun ‘bobohizan’ or traditional priest would perform an appeasement ritual before the heads could be safely allowed into the village.

A bobohizan’s traditional attire.
4.The skulls were then passed down from generation to generation.

In the olden days, the warriors considered skulls as heirlooms. It was believed that the skulls kept by a family would bring protection to the household. If they were kept by the community, the skulls were there to protect the village from harm and sickness.

5.In Sabah, the Murut were known to be the last of Sabah’s ethnic groups to renounce ‘mengayau’.

Collecting the heads of their enemies played an important role in Murut people’s spiritual belief system. Reportedly, the Murut were the last of Sabah’s ethnic groups to renounce headhunting.

Apart from Sabah, the Murut communities can also be found living in Lawas and Limbang of Sarawak as well as in North Kalimantan, Indonesia.


Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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