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Shrunken head

  A shrunken head is a human head that has been prepared for display.

The manufacture of shrunken heads was formerly the specialty of the Jivaro Clan. The clan was divided into four subgroups: Achuar, Shuar, Aguaruna, and the Huambisa. The Shuar were the group that did the most head shrinking of their time. These groups are the ancestors of the people of present day Ecuador and Peru. Among the Shuar, a shrunken head is known as a tsantsa[1], also transliterated tzantza.

After World War II, the shrunken head of a Polish prisoner was found at the Buchenwald concentration camp, where it was displayed in the camp centre to terrify the prisoners. The "shrunken head of Buchenwald," as it was known, was presented as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials by U.S. Executive Trial Counsel Thomas J. Dodd.[2]

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How it was done


The skull was removed from the head: the maker would make an incision on the back of the neck and proceeded to remove all the skin and flesh from the cranium. Afterwards, they placed red seeds underneath the eyelids and sewed them shut. The mouth was held together with three palm pins. Fat from the flesh of the head was removed. The flesh was then boiled in water in which a number of herbs containing tannins were steeped, then dried with hot rocks and sand, while being molded by the preparer to retain its human feature. The skin was then rubbed down with charcoal ash, with the belief that this would keep the musial, or avenging soul, from seeing out. The lips were sewn shut, and various decorative beads were added to the head.

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.

The process to reduce the size of the heads was accompanied by a ritual, which culminated with la Fiesta de la Victoria (Spanish for "victory party") celebrated by the entire community.

Why it was done

  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.

They believed in the existence of three fundamental spirits:

  • Wakani - innate to humans thus surviving their death, later turning into vapor.
  • Arutam - literally "vision" or "power," protects humans from a violent death and assures their survival.
  • Muisak - vengeful spirit, which surfaces when an arutam spirit-carrying person is murdered.

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.

If a man was killed during battle, the warrior who killed shrunk his victim's head in the hope that the warrior could possess the soul of the victim. The more trophies a warrior attained, the more arutam -- or personal power -- he possessed. The only way to attain this power was to shrink the head of the victim. If the head was not shrunken, the victim's avenging soul could return to harm the killer and retrieve his arutam.

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. The heads would either be discarded or given to the children.

Trade in shrunken heads

At first, cultural restrictions meant that deaths from traditional conflict were relatively rare[citation needed], 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[3] . Guns were usually what the Shaur traded 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.

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 boat. Local people would not guide his team into the forest for fear of becoming themselves shrunken heads.

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. Replica shrunken heads, due to their provocative nature, are also popular in the hotrod culture, where they are often seen hanging from rearview mirrors as ornaments.


  1. ^ Steven Rubenstein (2006) Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads. Cultural Anthropology vol 22 issue 3 pp 357-399
  2. ^ Lawrence Douglas, “The Shrunken Head of Buchenwald: Icons of Atrocity at Nuremberg,” Visual Culture and the Holocaust, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001) p. 275.
  3. ^ Bennett Ross, Jane. 1984 "Effects of Contact on Revenge Hostilities Among the Achuara Jívaro," in Warfare Culture, and Environment, ed. R.B. Ferguson, Orlando: Academic Press; Steel, Daniel 1999 “Trade Goods and Jívaro Warfare: The Shuar 1850-1957, and the Achuar, 1940-1978,” in Ethnohistory 46(4): 745-776.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Shrunken_head". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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