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 head-hunter.com)
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?
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.
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