Photos: The last generation of tattooed headhunters in Myanmar

Myanmar’s Naga tribes subscribe to a complex patchwork of customs, intertwining their animist beliefs with warrior traditions that include striking tattoo designs, which can signify tribal identity, life accomplishments or the completion of a rite of passage. But the practice of making tattoos on the bodies of the youth is dying. For instance, among the Konyak tribe, only a handful of the village's former headhunting warriors remain. According to American anthropologist and author Lars Krutak, in some cases, tribes believed they would need the designs to transition to the afterlife.

Updated On Feb 28, 2020 03:36 PM IST 8 Photos
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Houn Ngo Kaw, 75, a tattooed Konyak tribeman, at Longwa village, Myanmar. People in the region subscribe to a complex patchwork of customs, intertwining their animist beliefs with warrior traditions that include striking tattoo designs, which can signify different forms of tribal heritage. However, this tradition is losing its popularity. “I wanted to be one of the last tattooed warriors and I am,” said Kaw with a huge grin. “Of course I’m happy.” (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Houn Ngo Kaw, 75, a tattooed Konyak tribeman, at Longwa village, Myanmar. People in the region subscribe to a complex patchwork of customs, intertwining their animist beliefs with warrior traditions that include striking tattoo designs, which can signify different forms of tribal heritage. However, this tradition is losing its popularity. “I wanted to be one of the last tattooed warriors and I am,” said Kaw with a huge grin. “Of course I’m happy.” (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Updated on Feb 28, 2020 03:36 PM IST
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Ngon Pok, 80, remembered his father and grandfather returning triumphantly to his village with a human head—and the agony of the tattoo he was given to celebrate their victory. He is a proud member of the Lainong, one of dozens of Naga tribes—many with grisly histories—wedged in a semi-autonomous zone near the Indian border. Pok claims that he must have been six years old when he received his tattoo. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Ngon Pok, 80, remembered his father and grandfather returning triumphantly to his village with a human head—and the agony of the tattoo he was given to celebrate their victory. He is a proud member of the Lainong, one of dozens of Naga tribes—many with grisly histories—wedged in a semi-autonomous zone near the Indian border. Pok claims that he must have been six years old when he received his tattoo. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Updated on Feb 28, 2020 03:36 PM IST
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Animal skulls displayed outside a house of a Naga tribesman at a village in Sagaing. Tribes and villages commonly waged war over land, and there are reports of warriors hacking off their enemies’ heads for trophies as late as the 1960s. To celebrate, a thorn would be used to drive tree sap under the warrior’s skin to ink a permanent reminder of his headhunting prowess—and his family would often follow suit. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Animal skulls displayed outside a house of a Naga tribesman at a village in Sagaing. Tribes and villages commonly waged war over land, and there are reports of warriors hacking off their enemies’ heads for trophies as late as the 1960s. To celebrate, a thorn would be used to drive tree sap under the warrior’s skin to ink a permanent reminder of his headhunting prowess—and his family would often follow suit. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Updated on Feb 28, 2020 03:36 PM IST
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Nok Tan, 75, a tattooed Konyak tribeman, cooks in his house in a village in Sagaing. The Naga consist of dozens of tribes in a region so isolated that neighbouring villages often speak completely different languages and dialects. Divided between India and Myanmar by a border many deem as artificial, today a proud sense of nationalism unites the disparate tribes. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Nok Tan, 75, a tattooed Konyak tribeman, cooks in his house in a village in Sagaing. The Naga consist of dozens of tribes in a region so isolated that neighbouring villages often speak completely different languages and dialects. Divided between India and Myanmar by a border many deem as artificial, today a proud sense of nationalism unites the disparate tribes. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Updated on Feb 28, 2020 03:36 PM IST
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Ku Myo, 35, a tattooed Lainong tribeswoman, carries her child in their house at Lahel township in Sagaing region of Myanmar. She said her parents were less than impressed after she came home aged 15 with her face tattooed. “I did it without them knowing and they beat me when they found out,” she said, admitting she too would be furious if her children exhibited the same rebellious streak. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Ku Myo, 35, a tattooed Lainong tribeswoman, carries her child in their house at Lahel township in Sagaing region of Myanmar. She said her parents were less than impressed after she came home aged 15 with her face tattooed. “I did it without them knowing and they beat me when they found out,” she said, admitting she too would be furious if her children exhibited the same rebellious streak. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Updated on Feb 28, 2020 03:36 PM IST
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A Naga tribesman checks an old hunting rifle at his home at a village in Sagaing. This region is one of the poorest corners of Myanmar, where many must walk for days to reach the nearest town, few children progress beyond primary school education and only 40 percent of villages boast electricity. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

A Naga tribesman checks an old hunting rifle at his home at a village in Sagaing. This region is one of the poorest corners of Myanmar, where many must walk for days to reach the nearest town, few children progress beyond primary school education and only 40 percent of villages boast electricity. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Updated on Feb 28, 2020 03:36 PM IST
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Khamyo Pon Nyun, Ngon Pok’s wife, said she chose to have geometric designs etched on her arms, legs and face as a teenager. “It was so painful,” Nyun, who is aged 75, remembered. “But I told myself if my mum and my aunts could do it then so could I,” she said, adding with a smile that—unlike her husband—she did not need to be restrained to withstand the pain. The tattoos can signify tribal identity, life accomplishments or the completion of a rite of passage. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Khamyo Pon Nyun, Ngon Pok’s wife, said she chose to have geometric designs etched on her arms, legs and face as a teenager. “It was so painful,” Nyun, who is aged 75, remembered. “But I told myself if my mum and my aunts could do it then so could I,” she said, adding with a smile that—unlike her husband—she did not need to be restrained to withstand the pain. The tattoos can signify tribal identity, life accomplishments or the completion of a rite of passage. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Updated on Feb 28, 2020 03:36 PM IST
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A Naga tribesman stands in front of his house decorated with skeletons of buffalo heads. American anthropologist and author Lars Krutak has travelled the world studying tribal tattoos. “What strikes me as unique is the diversity of Naga tattooing patterns,” he said, adding there are more than 20 tribes that tattoo across both sides of the border. In some cases, people believed they would need the designs to transition to the afterlife, he explained. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

A Naga tribesman stands in front of his house decorated with skeletons of buffalo heads. American anthropologist and author Lars Krutak has travelled the world studying tribal tattoos. “What strikes me as unique is the diversity of Naga tattooing patterns,” he said, adding there are more than 20 tribes that tattoo across both sides of the border. In some cases, people believed they would need the designs to transition to the afterlife, he explained. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP)

Updated on Feb 28, 2020 03:36 PM IST
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