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Shrunken head from the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

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.

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.[3]

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.[4][5] 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.[6] 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.[3] By 1919 the price in Panama's curio shop for shrunken heads had risen to £5.[6]

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. [6]

In 1999, the National Museum of the American Indian repatriated the authentic shrunken heads in its collection to Ecuador.[3] 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.


  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. ^ a b c Duncan 2001.
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ Steel, Daniel 1999 “Trade Goods and Jívaro Warfare: The Shuar 1850-1956, and the Achuar, 1940-1978,” in Ethnohistory 46(4): 745-776.
  6. ^ 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.


  • 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

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Every time I've been to The Shrunken Head, I was impressed with the service both as a customer and former bartender. The staff fits the vibe and is friendly and informative. On that particular day, every person who walked through the door was greeted ...
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Mon, 14 Apr 2014 15:43:48 -0700

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