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The Mysterious and Macabre World of Shrunken Heads

When talking about the primitive, remote tribes of the world, one image that is likely to pop up into the head of many is that of savage tribes of cannibals or headhunters. Of course this is not true of all such peoples, but it is a persistent trope of such isolated tribes and is not without its basis in fact. Indeed, one macabre custom that has often been touched upon in the movies and which has embedded itself upon the imagination is that of headhunting and the practice of producing shrunken heads. It is a curious, ofttimes revolting look into a culture thoroughly removed from modern day civilization with its modern trappings and technology, and which never ceases to amaze, puzzle, and disgust, all at the same time.

Throughout history, headhunting itself was not a particularly uncommon practice among various cultures throughout the world, and it was by no means strictly limited to far-flung jungle tribes. The ancient Chinese were known to take the heads of their enemies as a weapon of terror, and Celtic warriors would nail the heads of their enemies up to warn others of their lethality, among others, yet the strangest practice of all has to be that of shrinking human heads down to around the size of a fist, and this is a gruesome custom that was practiced in only one place in the world; the jungles of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon.

The Amazon rainforest

In these vast, uncharted wildernesses the indigenous Jivaro Indians of Northern Peru and Southern Ecuador had for centuries engaged in aggressive headhunting practices. This was a hunter-warrior culture of various individual tribes that believed that the more one killed the more power they gained. The Jivaro had long been seen as fierce warriors by anyone who stepped into their domain, including the formidable Spanish conquerors of the 1600s, who met with stiff resistance from these brave warriors, who refused to be subjugated and who staged an uprising, launching bloody raids and campaigns against their invaders. Indeed, they are the only indigenous people to have successfully resisted the intense colonization from Spain going on at the time, even though their territory was seen as having some of the richest gold deposits ever seen. So complete and merciless was the Jivaro response against the conquistadors that the word “Jivaro” came to be associated with unfettered ferocity, to eventually take on the Spanish meaning “savage.”

This fierce group of people and its myriad separate tribes then melted away into the jungle and obscurity until the 19th century, when Western exploration into the uncharted expanses of the Amazon was en vogue again. These early explorers would come face to face with the savage Jivaro, and be confronted with the rather grotesque practices the people had developed over the centuries; those of the shrunken heads with which the tribes would be forever inextricably associated with. For the Jivaro people, who constantly fought with each other as much as they did outsiders, the shrunken heads, or tsantsa, had deep ceremonial and spiritual significance.

Their society was built on a deeply ingrained sense of violent vengeance, in which the death of one individual required the immediate, decisive blood retribution of one of the offending tribe. A failure to do so was said to unleash a vengeful spirit known as a Muisak, which could cause all manner of trouble, misfortune and death if it ran amok and wasn’t contained. Fallen enemies could also produce these vengeful spirits, and one of the only ways to control the problem was through the practice of decapitating victims and then subsequently shrinking the heads in order to trap the furious spirit inside and keep it from its imminent rampage. This was said to not only prevent the enemy’s spirit from stalking about avenging his own death, but also to make the spirit subservient to the one who shrank the skull. The shrunken heads could also be strung up to serve as a grim reminder for other tribes to keep away. If for some reason the head of a fallen enemy could not be taken, it was said that a sloth’s head could be used in a ritual as a substitute, as sloths were the only other animal that was deemed able to form a vengeful spirit.

Shrunken heads

The process of shrinking a head is perhaps not surprisingly a rather gruesome one. First the flesh on the back of the head is cut open and the skin peeled back to eject the skull, which is then discarded. The eyes and mouth are then carefully and tightly sewn or pegged shut to further restrain the vengeance fueled spirit thought to be roiling and lurking within. When this is done, the head is salted and thrown into a pot of boiling water with a special mixture of herbs permeated with tannins, and left to simmer for a set amount of time, usually around 2 hours. The timing of this is essential to the whole thing, as ideally the head should be shrunken enough and retain its hair, which cannot happen if the time in the water is too short or too long. Once the boiling is complete, the head is removed, turned inside out, and any remaining flesh within scraped away with a knife.

After this, the head is put the right way again and then hot stones inserted within it to further shrink it down and assist in the tanning process of the skin, and still more hot stones, gravel, or sand would be applied to the outside to evenly and clearly lock in the features and keep it from becoming a misshapen mess, an important point since the Jivaro believed that it was all no use if the final product did not at least passably resemble the enemy, although there are various distortions present which are unavoidable remnants of the intense shrinking process. All the while charcoal ash is generously applied to the now dark and rubbery skin in order to further darken it and keep the enemy spirit locked in. Finally, when the head reaches the desired size it is hung over a fire to harden. The whole process can last around a week, and results in a miniaturized head less than 1/3 to 1/4 its original size, which the warrior would proudly wear around the neck. The heads could be used for various ceremonial purposes as well.

Western explorers to the area were simultaneously both disgusted and completely enthralled by this exotic and dark custom of shrinking heads, and many brought the macabre curiosities back with them to exhibit. It was not long before a trade began to burgeon with the grotesque little relics, and the tribesmen began to step up their headhunting raids to meet the demand, seeing a profitable enterprise in selling the heads to the curious Europeans. So intense did the killings become to satiate the desire for shrunken heads, that the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments would eventually enact strict laws against such barbarous practices, and the United States followed suit in the 1940s, by banning the import of such grim souvenirs.

Shrunken heads on display

These new laws and bans did little to staunch the demand for shrunken heads by the curious, and this in turn launched a whole secretive industry built upon the creation of clever fakes and counterfeits, most of which were generated not by the Jivaro, but by enterprising individuals in other areas of South and Central America such as Columbia and Panama. Everything from sloths, to goats, to monkeys or other animals, to even corpses from morgues were used to fashion tsantas for profit. Many of these fakes would even make it into private collections as the real deal, and it is estimated that around 80% of the supposed genuine shrunken heads on display are in fact cleverly crafted forgeries.

In more modern times, DNA analysis has turned up some truly peculiar shrunken heads from the Jivaro region of the Amazon indeed. One such artifact was an old shrunken head that was clearly with red hair and of European ancestry, and another was that of what appears to be a Chinese man. The Chinese one has been dated to 95% accuracy as having been created in the 1600s, which is particularly odd since the Chinese were not known to be present in the region at the time. One wonders just how he ended up there in the remote wildernesses of South America, and more importantly, just what he did to provoke enough ire to be made into a shrunken head. Bizarrely, two shrunken heads from Ecuador were used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials in 1945-46 after World War II, to underline Nazi atrocities and human experimentation. The heads, which were allegedly recovered from the concentration camp at Buchenwald, Germany, were said to be those of two Polish prisoners who had been caught trying to escape and subsequently experimented upon, yet they were deemed to not have been made by the Nazis after all but rather to have been regular ole Jivaro heads.

It is curious just what kinds of customs and traditions become widespread amongst any given people. There are numerous factors that converge here to shape and mold a certain tribe or civilization. What may be considered repugnant or exotically insane for one may be commonplace for another. Perhaps nowhere else are these strange, obscure, and indeed often repulsive practices seen as in those tribes which long remained closed off to the outside world. Here we have a peek into a macabre domain of strange rituals, practices, and ceremonies that we may never fully understand. Yet they serve to further add to the variety of all of the myriad customs, religions, traditions, and cultures that our kind have spawned. Although the shrunken head may now be a thing of the past, it is certainly not without its importance, and remains a compelling bump along the landscape of our very strange species, its civilization, and its far-flung permutations.