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For 1994 film, see Shrunken Heads (film).
Shrunken heads in the permanent collection of "Ye Olde Curiosity Shop", Seattle, Washington state, U.S. These are probably a mix of real and fake.

A shrunken head is a severed and specially prepared human head that is used for trophy, ritual, or trade purposes.

Headhunting has occurred in many regions of the world. But the practice of headshrinking has only been documented in the northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest,[1] and the only tribes known to have shrunken human heads are of the Jivaroan tribes. These include the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna tribes, found in Ecuador and Peru. The Shuar call a shrunken head a tsantsa,[2] also transliterated tzantza.


Shrunken head from the Shuar people, on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

The process of creating a shrunken head begins with removing the skull from the head. An incision is made on the back of the neck and all the skin and flesh is removed from the cranium. Red seeds are placed underneath the eyelids and the eyelids are sewn shut. The mouth is held together with three palm pins. Fat from the flesh of the head is removed. It is here that a wooden ball is placed in order to keep the form. The flesh is then boiled in water that has been saturated with a number of herbs containing tannins. The head is then dried with hot rocks and sand, while molding it to retain its human features. The skin is then rubbed down with charcoal ash. Decorative beads may be added to the head.[3]

In the head shrinking tradition, it is believed that coating the skin in ash keeps the muisak, or avenging soul, from seeping out.

Shrunken heads are known for their mandibular prognathism, facial distortion and shrinkage of the lateral sides of the forehead; these are artifacts of the shrinking process.

Among the Shuar and Achuar, the reduction of the heads was followed by a series of feasts centered on important rituals.


Shrunken head exhibited at the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida.

The practice of preparing shrunken heads originally had religious significance; shrinking the head of an enemy was believed to harness the spirit of that enemy and compel him to serve the shrinker. It was said to prevent the soul from avenging his death.[4]

Shuar believed in the existence of three fundamental spirits:

  • Wakani - innate to humans thus surviving their death.
  • Arutam - literally "vision" or "power", protects humans from a violent death.
  • Muisak - vengeful spirit, which surfaces when a person carrying an arutam spirit is murdered.

To block a Muisak from using its powers, they severed their enemies' heads and shrank them. The process also served as a way of warning their enemies. Despite these precautions, the owner of the trophy did not keep it for long. Many heads were later used in religious ceremonies and feasts that celebrated the victories of the tribe. Accounts vary as to whether the heads would be discarded or stored.

Trade in shrunken heads[edit]

When Westerners created an economic demand for shrunken heads there was a sharp increase in the rate of killings in an effort to supply tourists and collectors of ethnographic items.[5][6] The terms headhunting and headhunting parties come from this practice.

Guns were usually what the Shuar acquired in exchange for their shrunken heads, the rate being one gun per head. But weapons were not the only items exchanged. Around 1910, shrunken heads were being sold by a curio shop in Lima for one Peruvian gold pound, equal in value to a British gold sovereign.[7] In 1919, the price in Panama's curio shop for shrunken heads had risen to £5.[7] By the 1930s, when heads were freely exchanged, a person could buy a shrunken head for about twenty-five U.S. dollars. A stop was put to this when the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments worked together to outlaw the traffic in heads.

Also encouraged by this trade, people in Colombia and Panama unconnected to the Jívaros began to make counterfeit tsantsas. They used corpses from morgues, or the heads of monkeys or sloths. Some even used goatskin. Kate Duncan wrote in 2001 that "It has been estimated that about 80 percent of the tsantsas in private and museum hands are fraudulent," including almost all that are female or which include an entire torso rather than just a head.[4]

Thor Heyerdahl recounts in Kon-Tiki (1947) the various problems of getting into the Jívaro (Shuar) area in Ecuador to get balsa wood for his expedition raft. Local people would not guide his team into the jungle for fear of being killed and having their heads shrunk. In 1951 and 1952 sales of such items in London were being advertised in The Times, one example being priced at $250, a hundredfold appreciation since the early twentieth century. [7]

In 1999, the National Museum of the American Indian repatriated the authentic shrunken heads in its collection to Ecuador.[4] Most other countries have also banned the trade. Currently, replica shrunken heads are manufactured as curios for the tourist trade. These are made from leather and animal hides formed to resemble the originals.

In popular culture[edit]

  • In 1975, Whiting (a Milton Bradley company) released Vincent Price’s Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture Kit.[8]
  • In James Rollins' novel Amazonia, Dr. Favre's Shuar mistress, Tshui, is described as a "witch" who concocts poisons, brews psychoactive tea, and maintains a large collection of shrunken heads. Her process of shrinking one such trophy, which she wears around her neck, is described in great detail.
  • In "A Foot Too Big", an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a villain called Finger carries his mother's shrunken head and talks to it as if she is still alive.
  • In the final scene of the movie Beetlejuice, the titular character manages to annoy a witch doctor to such an extent that the witch doctor shrinks his head as punishment, as both are waiting in an afterlife reception area.
  • In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Lenny Henry voiced Dre Head, a Jamaican shrunken head on the magical Knight Bus.
  • In the animated film Hotel Transylvania, Dracula (Adam Sandler) uses talking shrunken heads in each room's door.
  • In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Captain Jack Sparrow's father Edward Teague keeps Jack's mother in his pocket as a severed shrunken head.


  1. ^ National Geographic's SEARCH FOR THE AMAZON HEADSHRINKERS Documentary, National Geographic
  2. ^ Steven Rubenstein (2006) Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads. Cultural Anthropology vol 22 issue 3 pp. 357-399
  3. ^ Nolan, M.D., Edward J. (1915). Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (Volume 66 ed.). p. 204. Retrieved 18 May 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c Duncan 2001.
  5. ^ Bennett Ross, Jane. 1984 "Effects of Contact on Revenge Hostilities Among the Achuara Jívaro," in Warfare Culture, and Environment, ed. R.B. Ferguson, Orlando: Academic Press
  6. ^ Steel, Daniel 1999 “Trade Goods and Jívaro Warfare: The Shuar 1850-1956, and the Achuar, 1940-1978,” in Ethnohistory 46(4): 745-776.
  7. ^ a b c C. J. Eastaugh, ‘Shrunken Head For Sale,’ The Times (London, 17 July 1952), p. 7. ‘Sales By Auction,’ The Times (London, 4 Sept. 1951), p. 10.
  8. ^ Coopee, Todd. "Vincent Price’s Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture Kit". ToyTales.ca. 


  • Duncan, Kate C. (2001), 1001 Curious Things: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Native American Art, University of Washington Press, pp. 146–147, ISBN 0-295-98010-9 .

External links[edit]

Media related to Shrunken heads at Wikimedia Commons

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shrunken_head — Please support Wikipedia.
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1813 news items

Blogcritics (blog)

Blogcritics (blog)
Tue, 25 Aug 2015 06:30:00 -0700

When the Shrunken Head exhibit is unveiled, resulting in the death of one customer, suddenly the museum is drawing a different kind of crowd. Everyone wants to see the acts of the children but, more importantly, the curiosity known as the Shrunken Head.
Wed, 08 Jul 2015 10:02:38 -0700

Plans for the tiki bar serving barbecue at 59 Commerce Ave. SW in downtown Grand Rapids are on indefinite hold, according to businessman Mark Sellers, who announced the new concept last fall. Sellers, who is busy these days expanding the HopCat craft ...


Tue, 25 Aug 2015 08:04:05 -0700

Only 5 minutes and 40 seconds of 1,207 minutes showed characters of color speaking (that includes the controversial shrunken head, and a centaur). That's only 0.47% of the combined runtime across eight films. In that article, I commented that the all ...

Hartford Courant

Hartford Courant
Fri, 21 Aug 2015 11:45:15 -0700

Another edible gourd is Black Futsu pumpkin, which looks like a shrunken head, dusted in baby powder. What's the appeal? "Probably the Halloween thing," Russo said. "I love the gourds, and it's tough to choose," he said. He grows a lot of them so that ...
Washington Post
Sat, 15 Aug 2015 04:08:54 -0700

Otto's Shrunken Head is built up with pork rinds, pineapple relish and Korean barbecue sauce. Whatever your choice of sandwiches, ask for a salad rather than waffle chips. The former — shredded lettuce and arugula tossed with fresh-cut carrots and a ...


Thu, 20 Aug 2015 12:03:18 -0700

Even more alarming was that one of the longest stretches of a character of color speaking, came by way of a talking shrunken head, hanging from the rearview mirror of the Knight Bus. It's not even an actual person of color: It's a disembodied ...

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Munchies_ Food by VICE
Tue, 18 Aug 2015 10:03:45 -0700

Steve Pang and his fellow cofounders of Otto's Shrunken Head in Manhattan knew that they wanted to put in place a deposit system before they even opened their doors 13 years ago. At Otto's, patrons have the opportunity to pay a $5 deposit to have their ...
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Sun, 03 May 2015 02:22:30 -0700

VerPlanck, who makes VerPlanck & Anchor Distillers white rum at Les Bourgeois in Columbia, had intended to operate Shrunken Head as a tasting room for his rum, but due to legal concerns, could not operate the two so far apart, Hildebrand said, so he ...

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