-- As he kept watch over a vigilante checkpoint on the Indonesian half of Borneo island last week, an indigenous Dayak fighter brandished a blood-stained machete and boasted about beheading a Madurese migrant a day earlier.

"This knife has eaten people," he proclaimed.

Asked why he killed the migrant, the fighter pointed to his two-foot-long weapon. "This," he said, "is how our ancestors solved their problems."

For centuries, many native Dayak tribesmen who lived in Borneo's towering rain forests were fearsome headhunters, decapitating opponents to settle property disputes and other problems. Bringing back a head to one's village was seen as a sign of strength for young men. Dayaks believed the dried skulls contained powerful magical powers that could fend off enemies, produce rain and increase rice harvests.

But a little more than a century ago, at the behest of Dutch colonialists and Christian missionaries, tribal leaders agreed to end the practice. From then on, disagreements were to be settled peacefully and lawfully.

Now, though, a new generation of Dayaks has revived the hunting of heads -- with a savage intensity. Upset that settlers from Madura island have taken what Dayaks believe are their jobs and land, thousands of Dayak men armed with spears, blowguns and machetes have gone on a horrific rampage though southern Borneo over the past two weeks, slaughtering more than 400 Madurese.

Many of the victims were decapitated and some had their hearts and livers cut out -- and eaten -- by Dayak mobs. The fighters took dozens of heads as prizes, showing some off as they drove down the road and keeping others in bags at a ramshackle hotel that served as the Dayaks' headquarters.

Dayak community leaders said they had been surprised by what appeared to be a revival of long-abandoned techniques of warfare by young men who are anything but traditional tribesmen. Although many still speak native Dayak languages and live in remote farming villages, they live in a globalized world. They have satellite dishes to watch MTV, wear knock-off Tommy Hilfiger shirts, read newspapers and zip around on motorcycles.

"This is quite amazing," said a top Dayak leader. "There was no education about headhunting, no training in an organized way. Young people only heard stories about violence in the past. It was like the stories of cowboys in America."

Those tales appear to have had a chilling effect. An unemployed engineer named Kamelu who was loitering outside the Dayaks' hotel this week said he planned to distribute 10 recently severed heads being stored in a building next door to nearby villages to "protect the people."

"The heads are very useful for us spiritually," Kamelu said in fluent English. Then he jumped on his yellow Honda motorcycle, saying he had to "go visit some Madurese places."

Some Dayak leaders contend the mystique of headhunting has remained a key component of Dayak culture and religion -- with a tendency to reemerge during times of crisis. They note that during similar flare-ups of ethnic violence in western Borneo in 1997 and again in 1999, Dayaks beheaded hundreds of Madurese.

"It never really vanished," said Onen Usop, a professor of religious studies at the University of Palangkaraya, located in the capital of Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province, where the clashes have taken place. "It is a part of who the Dayaks are."

But anthropologists and others who study Dayak culture argue that the recent wave of decapitations has little in common with traditional headhunting.

In centuries past, severed heads were treated with meticulous care. After the brains were extracted, the heads were cured over a fire. They were then placed in special "head houses" next to the Dayaks' communal long houses. Food and, more recently, cigarettes were deposited inside the head houses for the spirits of the dead, which were believed to continue to inhabit the skulls.

During the recent wave of killings, however, young Dayaks acknowledged they did not perform any traditional ceremonies. Instead, some boasted that their leaders played soccer with one head and disfigured others.

Several anthropologists argue that today's young Dayaks have sought to imitate an ancient tradition simply to scare the Madurese into leaving the province. "There are no real traditions involved," said John Bamba, director of the Institute of Dayakology in neighboring West Kalimantan province. "It's just an expression of anger and frustration."

The tension between the Dayaks and the Madurese began more than 40 years ago, when Madurese settlers began arriving in Central Kalimantan under a government program designed to relieve overcrowding on islands such as Madura, which is about 400 miles south of Borneo. The Madurese, known for their trading prowess, quickly monopolized town markets and local industries. Many Madurese were hired to build roads through Borneo that opened up large parts of the island's tropical rain forest to logging operations.

The Dayaks, who believed the land belonged to everyone, found themselves relegated to poor neighborhoods on the edges of towns. Their traditional methods of subsistence farming, which involved rotating cultivation plots in a 10-year cycle to allow the forest to regenerate, were no longer feasible.

The Madurese, who are strict Muslims, also resented the Dayaks -- who are predominantly Christian but retain many traditional animist beliefs -- for eating pork and keeping dogs.

Although the two ethnic groups had minor clashes over the years, fighting was quickly put down by the police and military during the 32-year reign of former dictator Suharto. But now that Suharto has fallen and Indonesia is struggling to become a democracy, the military and police no longer employ the same tough measures.

The first rumblings of a full-scale conflict began here a few months ago after a Madurese killed a Dayak in a gambling dispute, Bamba said. So many tit-for-tat attacks occurred in the following weeks that locals began calling their town "Texas."

The ethnic tension bubbled over on Feb. 18 in the town of Sampit, about 50 miles away, when a mob of Dayaks killed a group of Madurese. Officials said the mob was encouraged to attack by three Dayaks who were upset that they had lost their jobs in a government reorganization.

After a 10-day orgy of violence in which Dayak mobs effectively took control of a large swath of Central Kalimantan, security forces appeared to regain control of much of the province Thursday. The police and military, which have been criticized for a late and lax response to the crisis, said they were adopting a shoot-on-sight policy concerning Dayak looters and arsonists.

A Dayak man holds a rag to protect him from the stench of a charred van where eight Madurese were burned alive.