Skull Rack (agiba)
Skull Rack (agiba)

Kerewa Skull Rack (Agiba)
19th century or Earlier
Sculpture (wood, paint)
Saint Louis Art museum


Possibly the most important of sacred objects and most advanced art form (according to "Skull Art in Papua New Guinea") found in New Guinea are the flat, board like objects (figures) created for display of human skulls known as agiba or agibe. The Kerewa people of southeastern New Guinea believed the skulls held the spirit of the deceased within and provided security for the family. These agiba, also known as skull racks, were only to be carved after a male had taken the head of an enemy or ancestor, and these represented the vitality and martial prowess of the tribe. Skull racks belonging to some tribes have been found to contain several hundred skulls from a single agiba!

Descriptive Analysis

Agibas are traditionally constructed form the natural resources that surround the people of New Guinea. The board-like objects are usually created on a medium of primarily wood and are decorated with paint as well as natural shells and seeds. Many of the boards are anthropomorphic with a relatively large head in and stylized limbs. The skulls are hung from the prong like limbs by rattan (Palms) for display. Often times these will be displayed in pairs of male and female, the larger piece of art known to be the male, and can hold several hundred skulls. The very big eyes, mouth and smile on the skull racks are to show how lively the agibas are. The repetitive hook motif is used in nearly all skull racks, and represents the hooks used to hang the skulls from.

Formal and Contextual Analysis

In the past, head hunting was a common practice in New Guinea culture. These people thought the removal of the head of a slain enemy would allow the person who killed them to control the spirit and power of that person. The skulls of family, friends and even foe were considered to hold the spirit (imunu) of those deceased and were to be highly regarded and honored, in return the spirits would sustain or benefit the community. The images, zigzag, and chevron patterns found on Agibas have been linked to a form of genaeology and were ritually repainted which would reinvigorate the Agiba with power. The offering of enemy skulls promoted vitality to the community which allowed positive connections between the living and the dead. The Kerewa people created the skull racks. It's believed that the Kerewa men who practiced head hunting had about 700 skulls in their homes, where they would be kept on small platforms. They also believed that once the skull rack has been repainted by the "father of the agiba" it re-infused the power of the agiba. To keep a positive connection between the living and the dead, offerings were given for the ancestors, such as enemy skulls and ritual acts (Werness, 2000, p.162).
Kerewa skull rack
Kerewa skull rack

Lot 69 (Skull Rack)
Garibari Island, Papua New Guinea
John J.Klejman
44 1/4 inches high
The skull rack is believed to contain the spirit of an individual inside. Whether the spirit be of an ancestor or an enemy, the spiritual and mystical powers of the deceased were thought to be gained by the owner of the skull rack. The Kerewa people believe that keeping the skull around can help keep the community together. It has a big head and smile which shows how lively the skull rack is. This carved picture is painted red, black and white and it is made out of wood. There is a skeletal pattern on the trunk of the body, which consist of chevron shaped ribs and genealogy patterns. Some believe that the little black circle in the middle could be a navel or a door opener to another realm of life. That would make it possible for the ancestors and the living to communicate.

Skull Hook (Agiba)

Common in several places around the world in the pre-colonial era, headhunting is the act of taking someone's head after you have killed them. There are several theories as to why this practice was done, many of which suggest it was done for religious and spiritual reasons. However, other scholars suggest it could of also been done to symbolize/celebrate becoming a man, or even for prestige! During colonization, most headhunting practices were eradicated, but head hunting lasted until 1920 in Papua New Guinea ("Skull Art in Papua New Guinea").


New Guinea
It is believed that the first inhabitants of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, arrived nearly 40,000 years ago. New Guinea is often associated with, or referred to as, Papua. Papua was the new name the British gave it in 1905, when they had control of the territory.



Newton, Douglas. "New Guinea Art in the collection of the Museum of Primitive Art." Greenwich,CT. The New York Graphic Society. 1967.

Werness, B. H. "The Continuum Encyclopedia of Native Art." New York, NY. The Continuum International Publishing Group. 2000.

Skull Art in Papua New Guinea. Dir. Sabine Jell-Bahlsen. Ogbuide Films,1999.

Horsley B, C. "African, Ocean and Pre Columbian Art", 2008.

"Skull Hook (Agiba) [Kerewa people, Pai'la'a village, western Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea] (1978.412.769)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. (April 2008) “Curious Expeditions: Traveling and Exhuming the Extraordinary Past”

__****__ The British Museum “Headhunting” "Papua New Guinea"