Head Shrinking and the Shuar of the Amazon Rainforest

James R. CoffeyStarred Page By James R. Coffey, 15th Jul 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/2a3jw39o/
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Culture>General

While head hunting is a practice documented in many areas of the world including ancient China, Mesoamerica, India, Japan, and Africa, the only known head shrinkers are a group of people from the northwestern region of the Amazon rainforest collectively known as the Jivaroan.

The spirit of an enemy

Thought to harness the spirit of an enemy and compel him to serve the desires of the “shrinker,” the practice of shrinking heads is known to have originally held a spiritual significance.

From the 19th Century until very recent times, however, the practice of shrinking heads was extended to trophy hunting, exotic trade, as well as simple curiosity seekers willing to pay exorbitant prices to possess the head of another human being.

The Shuar

While head hunting is a practice documented in many areas of the world including ancient China, Mesoamerica, India, Japan, the Amazon, and various parts of Africa, the only known head shrinkers are a group of indigenous people from the northwestern region of the Amazon rainforest (Ecuador and Peru) collectively known as the Jivaroan peoples. Their most notorious tribe, the Shuar, live at the headwaters of the Marañón River.

Known as creating a tsantsa (or tzantza) to the people of this region, head shrinking began as a solution to preventing an enemy’s spirit from using its retaliatory powers against its executioner. Decapitating and then shrinking their enemies' heads also served as a highly dramatic way to warn enemies of the fate awaiting them should they venture into Jivaroan territory uninvited. And while the ultimate fate of shrunken heads is uncertain, it appears that most were later used in religious ceremonies and feasts that celebrated the victories of the tribe.

Seeking the muisak

The Shuar and their elaborate head shrinking process was first brought to public light in the late 19th century. Although those who made early contact--and survived--with the headshrinkers characterized shrunken heads as "trophies of warfare," the Shuar insisted that they were not interested in the heads themselves and did not prize them as trophies, but rather sought the muisak, or soul of the victim, which was contained inside.

Shuar men believe that control of the muisak (one of three types of spirits that exist in their animistic belief system) would enable them to control their wives' and daughters' manual labor efforts. Since the bulk of calories and carbohydrates in the Shuar diet derives from manioc and the beer (chicha) made from it--which is grown and processed by the women--women's work is crucial to Shuar survival, as well as social life.

Edmundo Bielawski and the head-shrinking process

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Europeans and Americans began trading manufactured goods including shotguns and rifles to the Shuar in exchange for shrunken heads, primarily for their novelty, re-sale value. The result of this sociocultural interference led to an increase in local warfare (including head hunting), as well as a trade-motivated shift in tribal mores. In 1961, during an especially violent period, a man named Edmundo Bielawski filmed the only known footage showing what appears to be the head shrinking process.

This is how the head shrinking process is described by one who witnessed it:

After converging on the enemy camp, the victim (or victims) are killed and immediately decapitated; sometimes decapitated while the victim is still alive. The head is cut off below the neck with a section of the skin from the chest and back taken with it. The executioner then removes the victim’s headband and passes it through the mouth and neck of the head and ties it over his shoulder to facilitate a fast retreat. (Should the victim have worn no headband, the Shuar warrior will substitute a length of vine.)

Once back at the village, a slit is made in the neck and up the back of the head, allowing the skin and hair to be carefully peeled away from the skull. The skull is then discarded in the river, left as a gift to the pani, the anaconda. Then the eyes are carefully sewn shut with native fiber and the lips are closed, skewered with little pegs made of palm. (These will be removed later and replaced with dangling strings.)

Now the tsantsa is immersed in a special sacred boiling pot or cooking jar, simmered for approximately 1 ½ to 2 to hours (Any longer and the hair will fall out.) Upon removal from the pot, the skin is dark and rubbery, and the head has already began to shrink--now about 1/3 its original size. This head is then turned inside out and all the remaining flesh and fat is scraped off. Once clean, the head is then turned right side out and the slit in the rear sewn shut. (It is said to now resemble an empty rubber glove.)

The final shrinking process is accomplished with hot stones and sand, used to sear the interior, which shrinks the head further. These stones are dropped in one at a time through the neck opening while constantly rotating the cavity to prevent scorching, while providing it a general “head” shape. (The warrior tries to maintain the original likeness of the victim's face as much as possible.) When the skin sack becomes too tight for stones, sand is heated and added; sand entering the crevices of the nose and ears where the stones cannot reach. This process is repeated numerous times. Hot stones are later applied to the exterior of the face as well to seal and shape the facial features.

In the final stages, any remaining hair is singed off and the finished product is hung over a fire to harden and blacken. Finally, a heated machete is applied to the lips to dry them. Following the head shrinking process, three chonta pegs (made from heart of palm) are put through the lips and then lashed together with cord. This entire process requires approximately one week to complete.

The last day of work on the head is spent in the forest, a few hours away from the village, where the tsantsa ritual will take place. At that time, the warrior will make a hole in the top of the shrunken head and a double kumai (cord made from palm wood) is inserted and tied to a short stick of chonta palm on the inside so that the head can be worn around the warrior's neck.

Western influence

While it appears that in centuries past, cultural restrictions meant that deaths from conflict were relatively rare events among the Jivaroan peoples--with few shrunken heads actually prepared--Western influence created an economic demand that took decades to normalize. While there is evidence to believe the process still continues today, it appears to be of a much smaller scale than half a century ago and only involving genuine threats to Jivaroan societies.

This link provides a video of the process:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zla-OcFD3O0

References:
http://www.head-hunter.com/prep.html
http://www.stormfrontfilms.com/shrunken_heads.htm
http://www.6theory.com/forum/index.php/topic/12841-head-shrinking-the-purpose-of-tsantsa/

Image credits via: Wikipedia.org

Visit JAMES R. COFFEY WRITING SERVICES & RESOURCE CENTER for more information.

Tags

Customs, Edmundo Bielawski, Head Hunting, Head Shrinking, Head Shrinking And Religion, How To Shrink A Head, Jivaroan Peoples, Maran River, People Of Ecuador And Peru, People Of The Amazon, Ritual, Ritual Tools, Rituals, Shrunken Heads, Shuar, Shuar Of The Amazon Rainforest, Tsantsa Or Tzantza

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author avatar James R. Coffey
I am founder and head writer for James R. Coffey Writing Services and Resource Center @ http://james-r-coffey-writing-services.blogspot.com/ where I offer a variety of writing and research services including article composition, ghostwriting, editing...(more)

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Comments

author avatar Delicia Powers
15th Jul 2011 (#)

Amazing James, thanks for all the history and research, beautifully done!

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author avatar Denise O
15th Jul 2011 (#)

James, great information on the Shuar people. Your very descriptive explanation on how to shrink a head, was well, gross but, I couldn't stop reading it. Fascinating I tell ya. You are for sure my, learn something new everyday thingy. Great research and great writing. Thank you for sharing.:)

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author avatar rama devi nina
15th Jul 2011 (#)

What an amazingly unique topic. As always, this is extremely well researched and professionally presented. Bravo on your star, my friend.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
15th Jul 2011 (#)

Thank you, ladies!

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author avatar Tranquilpen
15th Jul 2011 (#)

An intriguing read my friend, thank you.

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author avatar Crystal Ramsumair
15th Jul 2011 (#)

Wow amazing article congrats on the star page Tranquilpen.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
15th Jul 2011 (#)

Thanks Andre and Crystal. Much appreciated.

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author avatar ppruel
25th Jul 2011 (#)

WOW! are they still existing? I thought this head shrinking is only on movies...Congrats.

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author avatar D in The Darling
26th Jul 2011 (#)

Hey,
I'm getting jitters. Thanks for sharing this powerful piece.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
26th Jul 2011 (#)

Thank you, gentlemen.

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author avatar Mike Powers
31st Jul 2011 (#)

An outstanding historical article. Thanks!

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author avatar James R. Coffey
31st Jul 2011 (#)

Thanks, Mike!

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author avatar bronnamdi
12th Aug 2011 (#)

Thanks for a piece of historical information.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
12th Aug 2011 (#)

My pleasure.

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