An authentic shrunken head is a human head that has been prepared for display.
The manufacture of shrunken heads was formerly the specialty of a number of ethnic groups that practiced headhunting, most notably the Jívaro or Shuar people of present day Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru. Among the Shuar, shrunken heads are called tsantsa.
How it is done
The process of preparing a human head for the shrinking process involved a sort of tanning. The skull was removed from the head: the maker would made an incision on the back of the neck and proceeded to remove all the skin and meat from the cranium. Afterwards, they sewed the eyelids shut and held the mouth together with splinters. Fat from the flesh of the head was removed. The flesh was then boiled in water in which a number of herbs containing tannins were steeped, then dried with hot rocks and sand, while being molded by the preparer to retain its human feature. The eyes and lips were sewn shut, and various decorative beads were added to the head.
Shrunken heads are known for their mandibular prognathism, facial distorsion and shrinkage of the lateral sides of the forehead; these are artifacts of the shrinking process.
The process to reduce the size of the heads was accompanied by a ritual, which culminated with la Fiesta de la Victoria (Spanish for "victory feast") celebrated by the entire community.
Why it was done
The practice of making shrunken heads originally had religious significance; the heads were kept as trophies showing the successful defeat of an enemy, and were believed to harness the spirits of those enemies and compel them to serve the shrinker.
They believed in the existence of three fundamental spirits:
- Nnekas - innate to humans thus surviving their death, later turning into vapor.
- Arutam - protects humans from a violent death and assures their survival.
- Muisak - vengeful spirit, which surfaces when an arutam spirit carrying person is murdered.
To block the last spirit from using its powers, they decided to sever their enemy's heads and shrink them. It also served as a way of warning those enemies.
Trade in shrunken heads
At first, cultural restrictions meant that deaths from traditional conflict were relatively rare, and few shrunken heads were made. When outsiders created an economic demand for shrunken heads, however, there was a sharp increase in the rate of killings in an effort to supply collectors and tourists. A stop was put to this when the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments outlawed the traffic in heads.
Currently, replica shrunken heads are manufactured as curios for the tourist trade. These are made from leather and animal hides carved to resemble the originals. The presence or absence of nose hair is one clue as to whether a shrunken head is authentic or a replica.
The largest collection of authentic shrunken heads is on display at Ye Old Curiosity Shop in Seattle, WA, USA with 7 heads. It also houses the smallest shrunken head in the world which is about the size of a tennis ball.
Last updated: 10-13-2005 12:46:18