The Macabre History of Shrunken Heads

shrunken headPhoto: eschipul

I remember celebrating becoming a teenager by watching the movie Beetlejuice. For some reason, the quirky movie made a deep impression on my spirituality and concept of the afterlife – more so than Sunday School. I fondly remember the comical shrunken head in the movie and its morbid directed at its adversaries. It was because of these memories that I was inclined to write this article. Many people have likely heard of shrunken heads, but how much do we really know about them and why they were created in the first place? What’s more, how were they created and how long did it take to make them?

shrunken headPhoto: AHZ

The ancient indigenous tribes of Ecuador and Peru, specifically the Jivaroans, were the people that transformed history with shrunken heads as trophies. The heads were called tsantsas.

The victim was often alive, in the midst of a bloody battle, when he lost his head. As much flesh from the back and chest as possible was carefully preserved when the head was chopped off. This way, the head would not resemble a withered, contorted raisin later on. If no flesh was able to be recovered or preserved, then a vine was used to stretch the skin.

Once the battle was over, the tribesmen would take their bloody, severed heads and head down to the creek. There, they would make slits up the back of the head and remove the skin from the skull. If you have ever taken an anatomy class, you will know that this was very difficult and took a lot of strength. This is because there are a lot of fibrous bands, fascia and cartilage that ‘glue’ the skin and skull together. Once the skull was finally freed from the skin, it was discarded in the river where it became a gift to the anaconda.

shrunken headsPhoto: Joe Mabel

The skin was very pliable at this point. The eyes were kept rounded and in their natural shape with wooden pegs. Later, they would be laced together with leather strips. The lips were sewn shut with jungle fibers.

Sacred boiling pots were used in which to simmer the head for an hour and a half. Too long, and the head would lose its hair; too soon, and it would still be gooey. Timing was everything.

The skin was then turned inside out and the insides of the head scraped out. Any brains that were left were discarded. Then the head was returned to its previous state and sewn shut.

shrunken headPhoto: cloudsoup

Hot stones were stuffed into the head to leatherize the inside of the head, which was still kind of gummy. The remaining head was much like a leather glove. Sand was also filtered in and out of the smaller crevices where the stones could not reach. This was how the tribespeople kept the a head from losing its natural shape, though it was now one third of its original size.

A week-long festival of eating and drinking occurred while the shrinking heads were being boiled. Imagine smelling boiling flesh for a week. One wonders whether the tribal children complained of the smell… Was it dinner, or was it the shrinking heads?

The head was often worn like a jewel on a necklace around the warrior’s neck.

shrunken headPhoto: eschipul

The tribal Jivaroans believed there were three spirits. To quote Wikipedia:

  • “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 an arutam spirit-carrying person is murdered.”

The existence of the last spirit listed was the sole reason for the shrunken heads. The people did not want their victims to prey upon them after being slaughtered. The shrunken heads weren’t kept for long. It wasn’t an accessory or a household decoration as many people believe.

It was also rare for the Jivaroans to make many shrunken heads. True shrunken heads are scarce and many simply did not survive the natural elements and passing of time. However, trade interests in shrunken heads spiked violence in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian areas at the turn of the 20th century. People were beheaded so their attackers could make a quick buck.

shrunken headPhoto: Mauro Luna

Hence, in the 1930s, the Ecuadorian and Peruvian governments made it illegal to sell, own or trade shrunken heads. The U.S. followed suit in the 1940s. However, though shrunken heads were banned, it didn’t stamp out interest in them.

It is estimated that 80% of shrunken heads on the black market are fakes. Many are made from leather or the heads of monkeys. There is not a lot collectors can do about being conned over the fakes because of the highly illegal nature of having a shrunken head to begin with.

Despite the penalties, people continue to this day to have a morbid fascination with the peculiar physiological attributes of shrunken heads.

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