How Shrunken Heads Work

While the rest of Ecuador grew increasingly modern under European rule, the Shuar managed to remain isolated and remote, thanks to an uprising in 1599.
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There are very few things more strongly associated with the darkest corners of the most remote jungles than shrunken heads. Probably only cannibalism is capable of evoking more dread and discomforting imagery, yet some anthropologists still dispute whether cannibalism was ever widely practiced as a custom in any culture. There is evidence that humans have, across the globe and at different times in history, eaten other humans. Yet, these instances may have taken place during times of extreme social stress, like famine. The jury is still out on the kind of cannibalism most people assume took place among indigenous tribes.

This is not the case with shrunken heads. Shrunken heads are an actuality. Ritual head shrinking is well known and widely documented -- you can visit them in museums around the world. And its practice isn't spread out across time and space: While groups from Europe, Oceana, North America and Africa have long taken the heads of enemies killed in battle, a single tribe, the Shuar, who live in a region of the Amazon basin that straddles Ecuador and Peru, are the only group known to shrink heads. They continued this practice until as recently as the 1950s.


Much of the world has long held a fearful image of the Shuar tribespeople. The idea of a person who, under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, will drive a spear through your throat, cut your head from your body, and wear it, shrunken, is indeed fearsome. Beginning in 1599, the Shuar were one of the few groups to successfully repel and maintain freedom from colonial rule. In that year, the Shuar killed 25,000 colonists during a revolt. From then on, the tribe lived as it pleased in relative isolation from the rest of the world, warring with one another.

This isolation and the Shuar's practice of creating shrunken heads -- called tsantsas -- has given them a fearsome reputation with the rest of the world. Yet, as with any culture whose practices are viewed as gruesome to most other cultures, a deeper look reveals reasons and explanations that escape first notice. The Shuar shrink the heads of their dead enemies, yes, and such a ritual deserves a deeper look.


The Shuar: Death, Revenge and War

An image of modern Shuar tribespeople.
Courtesy Vinicio Cadena

The culture of the Shuar is deeply rooted in spiritualism, magic and war. An account of the tribe published in National Geographic in 1921 mentions that there's no established priestly class; rather, through the use of hallucinogenic drugs, like the brewed concoction called natema, a Shuar tribesman can directly contact and consult with spirits. This is particularly relevant to the topic of head shrinking, because the Shuar believe that the death of a tribesman is the direct result of a spiritual or magical attack of another, living tribesperson.

This belief forms the basis of the culture of vengeance that largely characterizes the Shuar. Not simply violent death, but death by natural causes is attributed to an unseen, remote enemy attack. The concept of revenge is deeply rooted in Shuar culture. From a very young age, boys are drilled in the standing feuds his family has with other families. He is also taught that not exacting revenge in the form of violence is to welcome retribution from his fallen ancestors [source: Jandial, et al].


When a family member dies -- regardless of the cause -- a tribesman consults a member of the spirit world under the influence of natema to learn the culprit. The answer comes in a vision, and the family sets about recruiting other nearby households to join them in a loose confederation with the purpose of exacting revenge. Over the course of several weeks or months, the group prepares for war, at times even alerting the intended target of its plans.

Ethnographies differ on who is killed during attacks on rival households. An earlier sketch of the Shuar describes them as polygamous and mentions that men from the raiding party may capture women from the targeted household as wives. A more recent history of the Shuar suggests that while a single tribesman is identified as the source of the family member's death is thus the central target for revenge, anyone found with that person may be killed. Indeed, an entire household, including women and children, may be subject to slaughter, although the heads of children aren't taken.

The heads that are taken are removed by cutting the skin at the extreme base of the neck, just above the clavicles and in a "V" shape meeting at a point between the nipples. Once the head is removed, a hair band or vine is passed through the open neck and out of the mouth, creating a loop that makes for easy transport as the warrior swiftly makes his way back home.


Skinning the Victim's Head

Following removal of the skin and scalp, the Shuar discard the skulls of the victims.
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The process of head shrinking is part of the entire sweeping series of actions that led to the death of the target in the first place. It is part of the retribution performed in the death of the family member; there is a methodical process involved and it must be followed for the retribution to be fully carried out.

The Shuar lived spread over a comparatively large geographic area, so raiding parties often traveled for days to carry out attacks. The process of shrinking an enemy's head can't wait until the raiders return home, so the raiders begin the process on the way back. The leader of the party, typically an aged warrior related to the raiders who doesn't attend the raid, meets the raiders at a camp outside the village. He's in charge of leading the incantations and rites associated with transforming the head into a tsantsa -- the ritually shrunken head.


The steps in this process will be carried out in camps along the way back home. At each of the stages in preparation, the party leader -- called the curaka -- presides over the process. The members of the raiding party are attentive to each step, reinforcing the curaka's actions. During this process, and for some time to come, the warriors abstain from certain foods, from sex and from other practices, like hunting alone. There are spirits being held at bay by the process and not following the rituals is dangerous.

The head of the victim is first prepared by cutting from the base of the ear down or from the base of the skull, either way creating a flap that begins to loosen the skin from the skull. Muscles and tissue that connect the skin to the skull are severed with a knife. The skull is generally thrown into a nearby river. The eyes are removed and discarded and the cartilage that anchors the nose and ears are cut away, leaving just the skin and hair that makes up the face and scalp; imagine a rubber Halloween mask. Although separating the skin from the head can take a skilled preparer as little as 15 minutes, enough finesse is used that the facial characteristics of the victim will still be recognizable after shrinking [source: Jandial, et al, National Geographic].


The Process of Head Shrinking

A prepared shrunken head.
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A small ceramic pot created expressly for the processing of this particular head is filled with water and put over a fire. The head skin is inserted into the hot water three times by the leader and then left to simmer for 30 minutes; anything longer than that may lead to the hair coming out. After that, it's removed from the water and placed on a spear to dry. The Shuar view the instruments used in their raids as spoiled after they're used. They leave their spears behind after the raid, they discard the skulls of victims and, similarly, after its single use, the pot used to boil the head skin is discarded.

The boiling action leads to a significant decrease in the size of the skin -- to about one-third its size -- but it is hot pebbles, sand and rocks that complete the transformation. After it dries, the sewing begins. In most cases the mouth is pinned shut using wooden pegs prior to boiling. After drying, the pegs may be left in and the mouth is further sewn shut by threading the top and the bottom lips together using fiber; this fiber is woven in such a way that characteristic strings typically hang down from knots along the lips in completed tsantsas. The eyes of the victim are likewise sewn shut as will the incision that created the initial flap along the back or side of the neck. What results is essentially a pouch, with the base of the neck as the only opening.


This serves as the entrance for inserting hot rocks that are rolled constantly around inside the head to prevent burning the skin and to cure the skin evenly to prevent distortion of facial features. As further shrinking occurs, smaller hot pebbles and finally hot sand are used to complete the curing process. The outside of the skin is held against a flat, heated rock to smooth out wrinkles, much like a clothes iron. A hot blade is pressed to the lips to dry them. Finally the head is dangled over a fire to finish the process, darkening and toughening the skin; charcoal ash rubbed over the skin darkens it further. This dry heat curing stage is carried out over a matter of days.

After a series of steps that takes place over the course of several days and in locations along the way from the raid back home, a tsantsa, a human head reduced to about one-quarter of its original size -- about the size of a fist -- has been created. While the head skin shrinks, the hair is not reduced, lending an odd, characteristic look to the small head with long hair attached.


The Magical Significance of the Shrunken Head

Were they real, the shrunken heads these New Yorkers view with curious interest in a shop window in the 1950s would have been worn by a Shuar warrior in a succession of celebrations before losing their spiritual significance.
Doreen Spooner/Keystone Features/Getty Images

While it is also a matter of practicality in preparation, sewing the eyes and mouth of the victim shut also has a ritual significance. Namely, with its eyes sewn shut, the spirit of the victim can't see and with its mouth sewn shut, it can't call for vengeance from its own family.

The taking and shrinking of a head was, for many years following contact with Europeans, taken as merely a war trophy turned into an adornment. Indeed, the warrior who took the head does in fact wear the tsantsa for between a month and a year. The tsantsa is more than a mere trophy, however. It is both the physical means by which the victim's spirit -- the muisak -- is trapped and kept subservient and tangible proof for the spirit of the warrior's dead family member that he has carried out the necessary revenge.


Upon returning from a raid and over the course of a year, the raiding party and the warrior who took the tsantsa will be celebrated through parties and feasts that last several days, beginning first with "a ceremonial dance at which there is an orgy of wild drinking" [source: Anthony]. One ethnographer estimated the average daily intake of manioc beer for an adult male was three to four gallons (11 to 15 liters); consumption at a celebration would far exceed this amount [source: Harner].

This first celebration is called numpenk, or "his very blood," and the raiding party dances with the tsantsas they took to reenact the battle for the others in the household. Two other feasts -- amianu and napin -- are held to complete the appeasement of the dead and further enrich the social standing of the warriors. Amianu means "fulfillment," and is held approximately a year after the raid [source: McGuiness]. After this celebration, the warrior's obligation to his deceased to exact revenge is fully satisfied.

It is here that the tsantsa, what was once a prized and magical possession, loses all of its value and significance. Once the feasts and celebrations are completed and the dead are appeased, the shrunken head becomes meaningless and may be discarded. In some cases, they become toys for children in the family, but more frequently after Europeans arrived in the area, they were used for currency in trade. It was demand for tsantsas among white settlers that led to an escalation of intertribal warfare and a counterfeit shrunken head trade.


Western Head Collecting and Repatriation of Shrunken Heads

Western collectors, like explorer Lady Richmond Brown, shown with her tsantsas on display in 1925, helped fuel wars among the Shuar waged for the purpose of fulfilling demand for shrunken heads.
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While the Shuar have long been resentful of encroachment and unwanted rule, as the 1599 uprising demonstrates, they're also amenable to visitors and what they consider fair trade. The 1921 National Geographic ethnography on the Shuar reported, "we found them a good natured people and very friendly to us" [source: Anthony].

This helped hasten trade between the Shuar who had tsantsas they considered useless following the ritual celebrations and outsiders who had guns they were willing to trade for the heads. The rate was usually an even exchange: one gun for one head [source: McGuiness]. The demand among Westerners for tsantsas led to an increase in intertribal warfare among the Shuar. Prior to Western interest in tsantsas, warfare among the Shuar was relatively infrequent; by the beginning of the 20th century, raids were carried out on a monthly basis [source: Jandial, et al]. The introduction of guns into Shuar culture only served to bolster this cycle.


The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the peak in the production of tsantsas. While the increased demand is suspected to have led to an increase in head hunting, this increased trade also led to increased exposure to Europeans and contagious diseases. This, in turn, led to an increase in deaths among the Shuar, who suspected witchcraft, which in turn led to increased warfare. Between 1889 and 1911, the population of Shuar in one local area declined by 50 percent because of war [source: Rubenstein].

This demand for heads outside of the Amazon Basin also created a market for counterfeit tsantsas. In Shuar society, there is a remedy for a situation where a warrior successfully kills the person who bewitched and killed his relative but fails to take that person's head. In this case, a warrior may make a tsantsa from a sloth's head as a symbolic stand in. Sloth tsantsas were likely the first counterfeits to enter the global market, since they were authentic insofar as they had been made by Shuar tribespeople. In short order, however, these counterfeits were followed by others made of monkey heads, horse and goat skin and in some cases human heads taken from Ecuadorian morgues.

While private collectors and dealers made up most of the demand, museums commonly obtained tsantsas, by purchasing them, but more frequently as the recipients of donations of shrunken heads from collectors' estates. Museums too were subject to counterfeits; an audit conducted in the 1990s of the Smithsonian's collection found that only five of the 21 examined were authentic Shuar tsantsas [source: Aufderheide].

In recent years, holding counterfeit shrunken heads hasn't been the problem for museums; it's the authentic ones that are proving troublesome.


The Role of Tsantsa in Civilization

Museums, like this one in Pompeii, Italy, are under increasing pressure to repatriate the remains of humans held in collections and exhibited on display.
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While Western adventurers led expeditions funded by wealthy dealers and collectors around the turn of the last century increased demand for tsantsas, Western missionaries were simultaneously seeking to rid Shuar society of them. In large part, the missionaries won this battle. The encroachment of Christianity into Shuar culture brought them further into Ecuadorian society, and when the Shuar Federation was established in the 1950s a lasting peace among the members was established. Still, it's considered an open secret that tsantsa remain an important part of Shuar culture. It's the enemy that's changed; as recently as the 1996 Cenepa war between Ecuador and Peru, Shuar warriors enlisted in the Ecuadorian army were rumored to have created tsantsas from the heads of Peruvian soldiers. These rumors are unsubstantiated and few if any anthropologists believe the Shuar have made a tsantsa in the last several decades. It is strongly believed that the knowledge and the willingness remain among the tribe, however.

In much the same way that the Shuar have had to downplay or keep secret the role that tsantsas still play in their culture as they've become indoctrinated into Western society, so too have museums had to examine the role of tsantsas in their collections. Increasingly, what were once considered exotic objects of prurient interest -- like mummies and skeletons -- have come to be seen as human remains. Because of their conversion from head to ritual object in hands of the Shuar, tsantsas in particular may be viewed as quasi-objects, part human remains, part cultural artifact [source: Rubenstein]. Yet the undeniable fact that they are the heads of a human beings placed on display has ultimately won out; tsantsas are human remains and museums have increasingly had to examine what role they play in their collections.


An exhibit in 1995 at the University of Oslo used the tsantsas in its collection to point out the complicity museum visitors still play today in the violence that took place decades ago [source: Rubenstein]. Other museums are giving their tsantsas back to the Shuar. A trend toward calling for the repatriation of objects -- returning them to their lands of origin -- has taken root. Central to this trend are human remains, which are abundant in museum collections. The National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian was the first to repatriate tsantsas to the Shuar Federation in 1999.

Although other museums, like the Pitt Rivers in England, are publicly considering repatriation, returning tsantsas to the Amazon is slow going. The thrilling interest in shrunken heads among Westerners is long-lived -- and a hard one to shed.


Lots More Information

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