Shrunken Heads

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Shrunken head, on display in the Science Museum.

"Shrunken heads" redirects here. For the film, see Shrunken Heads.
Shrunken head from the upper Amazon region, in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

A shrunken head is a human head that has been prepared for ritual use or trade.

Most known shrunken heads were manufactured either by indigneous peoples in Melanesia and Amazon Basin, or by European or Euro-Americans attempting to recreate the practice. In Amazonia, the only people known to have shrunk human heads are the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna, Jivaroan peoples of Ecuador and Peru. Among the Shuar, a shrunken head is known as a tsantsa, also transliterated tzantza.

After World War II, the shrunken heads of two prisoners were found at the Buchenwald concentration camp. One of them was presented as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials by U.S. Executive Trial Counsel Thomas J. Dodd.

Shrunken head from the upper Amazon region, in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford


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 musiak, 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.

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.

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. In the late 1800s and early 1900s whites traded shotguns for tsantsas, thus promoting an escalation in inter-tribal warfare.

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