Shrunken Heads
Headhunting Occurred in Many Regions of the World



 
Shrunken Heads
Headhunting Occurred in Many Regions of the World

A shrunken head is a severed and specially prepared human head that is used for trophy, ritual, or trade purposes. Headhunting occurred in many regions of the world.

But the practice of headshrinking has only ever been recorded in the northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest.

In the Amazon rain forest the only tribes known to have shrunken human heads are the Shuar (mainly), Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna, collectively classified as the Jivaroan peoples of Ecuador and Peru.


Among the Shuar, a shrunken head is known as a tsantsa, also transliterated tzantza.

After World War II, shrunken heads were found at the Buchenwald concentration camp that were alleged to have been of prisoners.

One of them was subsequently presented as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials by U.S. Executive Trial Counsel Thomas J. Dodd even though none of the accused was specifically charged with shrinking these heads.

The process of creating a shrunken head begins with removing the skull from the head. An incision is made on the back of the neck and all the skin and flesh is removed from the cranium.

Red seeds are placed underneath the eyelids and the eyelids are sewn shut. The mouth is held together with three palm pins.

Fat from the flesh of the head is removed. It is here that a wooden ball is placed in order to keep form. The flesh is then boiled in water that has been steeped with a number of herbs containing tannins.

It is then dried with hot rocks and sand, while molding it to retain its human feature. The skin is then rubbed down with charcoal ash. Decorative beads are added to the head.

In the headshrinking tradition, it is believed that coating the skin in ash keeps the muisak, or avenging soul, from seeping out.

Shrunken heads are known for their mandibular prognathism, facial distortion and shrinkage of the lateral sides of the forehead; these are artifacts of the shrinking process.

Among the Shuar and Achuar, the reduction of the heads was followed by a series of feasts centered on important rituals.

The practice of preparing shrunken heads originally had religious significance; shrinking the head of an enemy was believed to harness the spirit of that enemy and compel him to serve the shrinker.

It was said to prevent the soul from avenging his death.

Shuar believed in the existence of three fundamental spirits:
  • 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.
 
A shrunken head is a severed and specially prepared human head that is used for trophy, ritual, or trade purposes.

But the practice of headshrinking has only ever been recorded in the northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest.

The practice of preparing shrunken heads originally had religious significance; shrinking the head of an enemy was believed to harness the spirit of that enemy and compel him to serve the shrinker. 

Since the 1940s, it has been illegal to import shrunken heads into the United States.



To block the last spirit from using its powers, they decided to sever their enemies' heads and shrink them. The process also served as a way of warning those enemies. Even with these uses, the owner of the trophy did not keep it for long. 

Many heads were later used in religious ceremonies and feasts that celebrated the victories of the tribe. Accounts vary as to whether the heads would be discarded or stored.

At first, cultural restrictions meant that deaths from traditional conflict were relatively rare, and few shrunken heads were prepared. When westerners created an economic demand for shrunken heads, however, there was a sharp increase in the rate of killings in an effort to supply collectors and tourists.

The terms headhunting and headhunting parties come from this practice. Guns were usually what the Shuar acquired in exchange for their shrunken heads, the rate being one gun per head.

But weapons were not the only items exchanged; during the 1930s, when heads were freely exchanged, a person could buy a shrunken head for about twenty-five dollars.

A stop was put to this when the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments worked together to outlaw the traffic in heads.

Also encouraged by this trade, as early as the 1870s people in Colombia and Panama unconnected to the Jívaros began to make counterfeit tsantsas. They used corpses from morgues, or the heads of monkeys or sloths. Some even used goatskin.

Kate Duncan wrote in 2001 that "It has been estimated that about 80 percent of the tsantsas in private and museum hands are fraudulent," including almost all that are female or which include an entire torso rather than just a head.

Thor Heyerdahl recounts in Kon-Tiki (1947) the various problems of getting into the Jívaro (Shuar) area in Ecuador to get balsa wood for his expedition raft. Local people would not guide his team into the jungle for fear of being killed and their heads shrunk.

Since the 1940s, it has been illegal to import shrunken heads into the United States. In 1999, the National Museum of the American Indian repatriated the authentic shrunken heads in its collection to Ecuador.

Most other countries have also banned the trade. Currently, replica shrunken heads are manufactured as curios for the tourist trade. These are made from leather and animal hides formed to resemble the originals.

 




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