How Did They Do It? Shrunken Heads

How Did They Do It? Shrunken Heads

Have you recently returned from a raid in a neighbouring tribe? Collected the heads of your enemies and unsure about how to go about transferring the power of the avenging spirits to your loved ones? Well, don’t you worry, with this easy to follow step by step guide on how to make your own shrunken head you’ll be harnessing the power of your enemies’ spirits in no time!

What Are Shrunken Heads?

Shrinking heads was practised by the Jivaroan tribes located in the upper region of the Amazon, particularly the Shuar tribe. The shrunken heads or tsantsa were prepared either for ritual ceremonies or for trade. Believing the heads to be sacred objects which held powers that could be transferred to the tribe and harnessed by the slayer himself, Shuar warriors carried out raids on neighbouring tribes specifically to get heads. Though, for the most part, the Shuar lived peacefully with their neighbours.

Map of South America
Credit: Pitt Rivers Museum

During the late 19th Century Westerners became fascinated with these curious objects and began trading guns for heads. Tsantsas began turning up in Museums, curiosity shops and in the homes of the wealthy. Headhunting, instead of being a sacred religious practice, was now driven by Western demand, losing much of its cultural meaning. The more guns, the more heads could be traded. Euro-American’s completely ignored their role in the increased headhunting and instead used the shrunken heads to affirm their false belief that cultures outside of the West were savage. The demand for shrunken heads became overwhelming so trade in fake shrunken heads rose to meet the demands. Today it is estimated that around 80% of surviving shrunken heads are fake.

So, I know you must be wondering, how did they do it?

How Did They Do It?

Step 1.

The Shuar warrior that made the kill would first decapitate the victim. Taking the head not only showed outsiders that they were to be feared but also showed the ancestors that they had taken blood revenge. An incision was then made in the back of the head and the skull and brain were removed. This would leave them with a human skin mask worthy to rival the craftsmanship of Ed Gein.

Step 2.

Shrunken head with mouth closed. Credit: Daderot

Next, the eyelids and incision holes were sewn shut and wooden skewers were placed through the mouth, sealing it shut. This would prevent the enemy spirit (muisak) from escaping. They believed that the muisak would seek to kill its murderer or the murderer’s family if it got out.

Step 3.

Now it would be time to boil the head in a special pot for about an hour. Herbs containing tannins, which preserve skin, are added to the water. The Skewers piercing the mouth are removed.

Step 4.

The skin is then used as an envelope or sack as hot rocks would be placed inside until the skin shrank. When the skin got too small for the rocks, hot sand was used until the head shrunk to about the size of a fist.

Step 5.

Hot flat stones were used at this point to iron out the skin to give it shape and seal the features. Balsa wood charcoal was used to darken the skin as Shuar believed that this would keep the spirit inside. The skin is then left to harden and dry.

Step 6.

Decorative Shrunken Head at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Credit: Narayan k28

Holes were made through the top of the now shrunken head and a thread is pulled through so it can be worn as a necklace during the tsantsa ceremony. A true statement piece for the fashion forward.

Tsantsa Ceremony

After warriors returned home they would host a feast attended by many in the tribe where they ate, drank copious amounts of beer and danced. The ceremonies have also been described as the pinnacle of the Shuar’s social lives. The feasts represented not only their victory in battle but also were the centred around the rituals that transferred the power of the muisak to the family of the murderer to increase food production. After the ceremonies, the warrior would either keep the shrunken head as a keepsake or they would simply discard of them.

Despite the fact that the heads were used as a way to perpetuate the Western belief that these people were uncivilised, the tsantsas remain truly amazing indigenous cultural artefacts.


References

  1. Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads by Steven Lee Rubenstein
  2. Shuar Migrants and Shrunken Heads Face to Face in a New York Museum by Steven L. Rubenstein
  3. How are Shrunken Heads Made? By The Straight Dope
  4. Ask a Mortician- Shrunken Heads
  5. Heres exactly how shrunken heads are made
  6. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Volume 66. p 204.

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sierra
Guest

Very interesting article, loved reading it

Tanya Connor
Guest

Actually SO cool, we called things like this social studies here in Canada(BC) I always loved learning things like this

Nkem
Guest

This seems weird to us but certainly had its place in history! Pretty gross and cool I think, haha.

haley
Guest

what an interesting post. I love learning about new things! thank you for sharing

A.J. Sefton
Guest

Fascinating! People are weird though, aren’t they? Whoever first thought of doing something like this?

Laurie Stone
Guest

OMG. Remind me not to make enemies of people in Peru or Ecuador!

Jennifer
Guest

Ok, that is was interesting! I never knew how shrunken heads were made. (Unless we’re talking about the kind carved out of apples!)

L J
Guest

creepy, love it

Elaine
Guest

I’ve always wondered how they did it! So very interesting. But I have to wonder what particular person was like “You know what, I want to shrink this a**hole’s head down and wear it around my own neck because I can.” To come up with this process is intense too.