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Is it possible to survive scalping?

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Posted October 28, 2019

Scalping is an ancient practice of cutting or tearing a part of the human scalp from the head. You’ve probably heard of scalping from old American westerns, but is is actually not exclusively just American phenomenon. Scalping was performed as a ritual or a torture in a big part of the world. But did you know it was not a method of execution?

Scalping was a ritual and a way to get a bounty. Image credit: Peter S. Duval via Wikimedia

It is pretty hard to imagine what sort of pain did scalping cause, but it was not lethal. More about that later – not it is important to remind you that scalping is not just a part of Native American culture. Scalping was performed in Europe, Asia and Africa throughout the ages.

For example, Scythians, nomadic people who lived to the north and west of the Black Sea back in 9-2nd century B.C., were famous for scalping. Soldiers used to behead enemies they defeated in a battle and bring those heads to their king, who would then pay for every enemy killed. Then that head would be scalped. Scythians used these scalps to decorate their saddles and clothing – the more scalps a soldier had, the more respect he got.

Scalping Knife and Sheath – Native Americans actually used the same knife for everything. Image credit: Henry L. Batterman Fund and the Frank Sherman Benson Fund via Wikimedia

But, of course, scalping was very common in American continent. Native Americans used to scalp their enemies for centuries before Europeans came. Of course, Colonial wars made this practice particularly well-known and widespread. Violence creates violence and it is not our goal to educate you who started what. The fact is that Europeans were scalping as well. In fact, in many cases bounties were offered for Indian scalps, which encouraged some people hunting Native Americans.

But it was not even just white vs. indian type of thing. In 1746 British colonists started paying Indians for the scalps of French-allied Indian men, women, and children. In some cases Indians were also paid for bringing French scalps as well. French were not saints either as during Father Le Loutre’s War and the Seven Years’ War they offered payments to Indians for British scalps. It was wild times and they lasted for quite a lot – even in 19th century in Colorado you could get 25 USD for an Indian scalp with the ears on.

Robert McGee, scalping survivor. Image credit: E.E. Henry via Wikimedia

But let’s come back to the subject of surviving scalping. It is actually possible. Many scalped soldiers died from other injuries – they were already defeated when they were scalped. But some people survived. For example, Robert McGee was scalped as a child in 1864, but survived that and grew to be an old man. Many people were scalped in freak accidents in Amazon river region by motor boats – a lot of them survived it as well.

Scalping technically isn’t lethal. Injuries are severe, but a person can survive. But, of course, in the time of war these people had little chance.

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