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Shrunken Heads - Tsanta

The real thing or a clever fake?


The famed shrunken heads of the Jivaro tribes of Ecuador and Peru (see photo )are called tsantsa.

The Jivaro tribes, particularly the Shuar were always at war with each other, and in addition to the opportunity to avenge wrongs, they raided each other for wives and goods. They shrank the heads of their enemies as battle trophies.

Since they killed off so many of the men in battle, the tribes were polygamous, living deep in the rain forest around the headwaters of the Amazon. For details, read Head-Shrinking and the Purpose of Tsantsa.

When the Spaniards arrived, the Jivaros resisted their incursion into their territory with such enthusiasm that the Spaniards, after 25,000 of them were reportedly slaughtered in 1599, retreated and left them alone. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that news of the head-hunting techniques and trophies reached the outside world. The explorer explorer F.W. Up de Graff recounts an expedition in Head Hunters Of The Amazon, subtitled Seven Years Of Exploration And Adventure , in which he accompanied a war party and witnessed the killing, decapitation and grisly shrinking process.

Following his accounts, a lively trade in shrunken heads popped up, and the Jivaros began providing heads for sale. Profiteers, usually taxidermists, in other countries, including Panama, horned in on the trade by creating their own heads, using animals or unclaimed bodies.

After decapitating their victims, the Jivaro raiders either strung a strip of bark through the mouth and out the neck and carried them by the bark or by the hair back to their war camp.

Next, they sliced and stripped back the skin of the skull down the back from crown to neck. The skull was thrown away and the skin turned inside out. After scraping the inside of the skin clean, the head was placed inside a special pot and simmered until clean and reduced to two thirds its natural size.

With the head now shrunken in size, the warrior sewed the back of the head closed. He did the same with the eyes and the lips, often leaving strips of bark or plant fiber extending from the mouth.

He placed hot pebbles or hot sand inside the head and shook it around to complete the drying cycle. While this was going on, he molded the face with a hot knife to look like the dead enemy. Sometimes the hair was cut short to fit the shrunken head, or left long as a carrying handle.

The finishing touch came with dying the head a blueish black color with plant dyes, and attaching a cord to wear the trophy around his neck.

Returning home with his trophies was cause for celebration. Raiding warriors showed off their heads, increasing their prestige within the tribe and assuming whatever qualities the victim might have possessed. When the demand for shrunken heads as curios, the Jivaros supplied them.

In addition to human heads, the Jivaros shrank the heads of tree sloths, believing them to the most like man.

Now I wonder: was the shrunken head I played with as a toddler in Ecuador the real thing or a clever fake?

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