National Academy of Sciences publishes observations of SIL anthropologist

Skin of a reticulated python which measured 22.8 feet (6.9 meters). The meat was shared among community members.

From left: Tom Headland, Pompoek Saguned, Edna Aduanan, Headland’s daughter Rachel, Kekek Aduanan (the hunter who shot the snake), Udeng and Resi Kulideg

Photo by Janet Headland

(December 2011) In an article published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, SIL anthropologist Dr. Thomas Headland and Cornell University ecology professor Dr. Harry W. Greene have combined their expertise in herpetology and understanding of hunter-gatherer societies to gain insight into the historical relationship between humans and giant snakes.

Headland and his wife Janet served with SIL in the Philippines for twenty-four years (1962-1986), where they lived and worked among the Agta, a Negrito foraging people living in the Sierra Madre rainforest on Luzon Island. During this time, the Headlands collected a wealth of anthropological data. They also experienced the day-to-day realities of the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which the Agta were able to maintain until the latter half of the twentieth century. Since 1986, the Headlands have made frequent trips to the Agta area to continue their research.

Because the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was the traditional mode of many societies for which there are no written historical records, the Agta community’s interaction with the natural world provides insight into the experience and practices of prehistoric peoples.

Headland and Greene’s article focuses on the Agta people’s interaction with large snakes, particularly pythons. This is a complex relationship with people and pythons hunting the same forest creatures as prey, people killing and eating pythons and pythons attacking (sometimes killing and eating) people. The Agta routinely ate pythons up to 23 feet long.

The data Headland collected on python attacks suggest that the prevailing theory of large snakes eating humans only under exceptional circumstances may need reevaluation. Headland and Green report that 26 percent of Agta men have been attacked at least once by large pythons, and that six fatal attacks on members of the group occurred between 1934 and 1973. The authors conclude that before they had iron weapons such as bush knives to fight off large snakes, the possibility of being killed by pythons was likely a major problem for the Agta and other rainforest-dwelling hunter-gatherers throughout prehistory.

SIL anthropologists conduct ethnographic research, promote cultural awareness and produce tools to assist research and data collection. The SIL Language & Culture Archives contain over 100 publications by Headland and a large collection of anthropology resources produced by SIL personnel.

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