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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.

Process[edit]

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.

Significance[edit]

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 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 an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a villain called The Finger carries his mother's shrunken head and talks to it as if she is still alive.

Notes[edit]

  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.

References[edit]

  • 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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1340 news items

 
Jefferson City News Tribune
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 ...
 
Washington Post
Thu, 21 May 2015 16:15:00 -0700

A shrunken head or two? Check. I lingered over a case of vintage pharmaceuticals that included a vial of something called nux vomica and another labeled “endocroids.” And I resisted the urge to touch the oddly adorable, five-legged, two-headed calf ...

NJ.com

NJ.com
Tue, 19 May 2015 07:48:45 -0700

"At one of the airports that I've been to, there was a shrunken head," said Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokeswoman. To minimize the chance of forgetting something, officials advise travelers to keep their jewelry to a minimum and carry as few items as ...

Empty Lighthouse Magazine

Empty Lighthouse Magazine
Wed, 20 May 2015 08:00:00 -0700

Drew is all about the new edition to the family which happens to be a doll with an apparently shrunken head and making sure it's safe. After going through a ton of struggles with putting the Baby Bjorn Baby Carrier, he finally get's it all set up with ...
 
Racked NY
Wed, 13 May 2015 13:15:00 -0700

Just started in February of this year, they take place in the back of the East Village tiki bar, Otto's Shrunken Head, and cap off the sweat-fest with a happy hour. Michael Macneal: As co-owner of the cutting edge Soho spin studio, Macneal's "rides ...

Portland Tribune

Portland Tribune
Thu, 14 May 2015 01:21:01 -0700

... behind Ripley Entertainment Inc. The Ripley's website also touts the allosaurus dinosaur skull and an authentic human shrunken head. Museum hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (closed Mondays). For more info: www.omsi.edu.

Vulture

Vulture
Fri, 15 May 2015 13:12:22 -0700

In a steel mask notable for its Neanderthal set of choppers, he looks like a walking shrunken head topped with a white fright wig. This is all awesome, but I actually had a hard time getting past my awe and into the movie. Max isn't just emotionally ...

Willamette Week

Willamette Week
Tue, 28 Apr 2015 11:45:00 -0700

After the first round, Portland's SE Morrison shop Shrunken Head, Berkeley's 510 Skateboards, and the Seattleites of 35th North advanced to the finals. Each jam session, where riders test the competing boards with pitiless trial rides, got gnarlier and ...
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