Skulls were the main trading currency used by the Torres Strait Islander people with their Papuan New Guinean neighbours. These trading skulls were acquired in battle and through raiding parties to other islands and the Australian mainland. The skulls of family members, those of important leaders and revered warriors were not traded. Skulls were used in various rituals.
Byerb Ibaik refers to the scraping of the bone above the eye sockets of a skull that belonged to a legendary warrior. A paste was made of the scrapings and fed to young boy babies to imbue in them the skill, courage and other attributes that contributed to the warrior’s fame during his lifetime. The baby and the positioning of its hands seen in the sculpture is a reference to this custom.
The nose and eye sockets of the skulls were filled with bees wax. Pearl shell, in the diamond shape shown in the sculpture, was inserted into the wax in the eye sockets. Fibre and other adornments were attached to the skull to enhance its appearance and desirability as a trading item.