Wednesday, 18 January 2017

How to make a shrunken head - The Shuar head hunters

Tucked away in the tropical forests of the Peruvian Amazon lives a sub-tribe of the Jivaro people known as the Shuar. They are mostly known for their practice of head shrinking- a method used on the severed heads of those who are captured during annual head hunting raids in nearby villages.

The heads, which are known as “tsantsa”, were believed to bring good fortune to a warrior; not only because they had succeeded in winning a battle, but also because they had avenged their passed ancestors, who would in return would bless them with fertile land, luck and protection.  
There was also a pressure to attain the heads of rival tribe members, as the neglect to take the head of an enemy would reflect the neglect of a warrior’s deceased relatives, who in anger, would inspire misfortune in the lives of those who finished any raid empty-handed.

So how exactly are shrunken heads made?
-First of all, the skull would be extracted from a large incision made at the back of the head.  It would then be boiled for an hour to shrink it in size and then left out in the sun to dry out.

-When it was dry, it would be reversed and scraped clean.

-Heated rocks and sand would be poured inside, filling the head as if it was a small bag.

-The head would be then emptied, manipulated back into shape, and boiled again over several days until the desired size was achieved.

 -The eyes and mouth would be sewn shut as the Shuar believed that the soul (or “muisak”) of their enemy would be trapped inside the head, so it was imperative that their rival’s life essence could not escape.

(Various shrunken heads, including a sloth. 
Images found at

If the soul of a slain enemy was not contained within the trophy it would be free to pass on over to the other side and battle with the ancestors of the warrior who neglected to trap it.

I found this national geographic video “How to shrink a human head” here [X] if you’re interested. It features a reconstruction of the process.  

In this video a man explains the head shrinking process performed on a sloth.
According to this website “Head-hunter” which you can visit here [X] (And I urge you to, it was invaluable to my understanding of the topic) a sloths head was sometimes used when the enemies head was unattainable after killing. (For example if a warrior killed his enemy but the head could not be retrieved for whatever reason)

I found this print of a Jivaran shrunken head in a book called “The devil and all his works” by Dennis Wheatly. I also stumbled upon this picture of a mummified woman discovered in ancient Peru that you may find of interest.  Maybe I should find out more about her and she could be a post of her own? 

In closing.
I’m not sure what became of the heads after the rituals. Although if you remember this post Imade about the European explorer who collected such items, shrunken heads became something of a valuable oddity to European explorers who began to pay and trade for them, leading to an increase of head hunting and of course fake shrunken heads crafted for profit.

Other posts you may be interested in:
In the 1800's British philosopher and auto icon, Jeremy Bentham [x], who passed away at the ripe old age of 84, was as per his instructions, dissected and preserved for public display. His skeletal remains were posed and clad in his usual attire, padded out with straw and displayed in a wooden cabinet with his name engraved above in gold. The technologies to preserve the head of the cadaver, using methods attributed to that of the indigenous people of New Zealand, didn’t achieve the desired ‘lively’ look his friends were hoping for; and so the shriveled and varnished looking dried head was exchanged for a wax model that resembled the living Bentham more closely. The process of preparing a Maori involved removing the brain and eyes and then padding it out with a fiber crop, and either boiling or steaming the head. It would then be left to dry out in the sun for a week and then shark liver oil would be applied. (READ MORE)

If you’ve ever driven along interstate 10 between El Pasa and Tucson, you might have seen a series of yellow signs with black and red text reading “The thing, what is it?” The only way to know is to shell out 2 dollars and go see for yourself. Despite the remote location of the secretive attraction, many people have been curious enough to take a peak. What they’ll find there is three corrugated sheds with a faux cave aesthetic, each filled with items of curiosity and amongst them a car apparently used by Hitler and a mummified mother and child crafted by Tate himself. Although there were a lot of roadside oddities ran by local people out to make a dime from travelling Americans looking to make a pit stop during a long journey, Tate was well known in the sideshow circuit for his creations- so much so that he even had a mail order catalogue of creations for purchase. (READ MORE)

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