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Heads Off in Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador

WARNING: to those that easily get creeped out, you might want to skip this story, or at least brace yourself for what is to follow. Okay, okay, with all the awful things going on in the world nowadays, this may seem tame, but at least make sure you don’t turn out the lights as you read on…

So, uh, what do you know about shrunken heads?

I’m not talking about people who have big egos and get taken down a notch or two, or those that like to talk their heads off. I mean real, live (now that was dumb!)…real, dead shrunken heads.

John and I both have seen all the Tarzan and mad scientist movies as kids, as well as Beetlejuice and the Harry Potter movies with shrunken heads. We’ve also seen fake shrunken monkey heads at carnivals. But until yesterday, when we visited the Museo Pumapungo, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a shrunken head that started out as a live human. Not sure about John.

So we found out that headhunting and head shrinking were practiced by an Amazonian tribe here in Ecuador. Okay, that piqued our attention a bit. Then we found out that the main tribe of headhunters, the Shuar (Jivaro in Spanish), lived about 60 miles from Cuenca. Yikes! And in further expanding our knowledge, we learned that shrunken heads were SOLD at Cuenca’s San Francisco Square, right by the flower market, up until, gulp, the early 1950s! Well, since we wander that area at least twice a week, I thought you’d want to know more about it. 

Don’t get me wrong, we love Ecuador. You might say we are “head over heels” about it. So today we’re going to talk about the head part. Bear with me, it’s really, really cool.

Head displayed in Museo Pumapongo, Creative Commons

History of the Tsantsas

Tsantsa (tzantza) is the Ecuadorian/Peruvian word for shrunken head. When the Spanish entered the Amazonian rain forest areas, in the mid-16th century, they came in contact with the native Shuar peoples. This group of indigenous tribesmen wouldn’t have been such a big deal, to the Spanish conquerors, were it not for two things: gold and shrunken heads!!! Going for the gold, the Spanish ignored former peace agreements and attempted to conquer the Shuar and cruelly forced them to work in the gold mines.

Well, the Shuar people were not having any of that, and in 1599 they revolted against the Spanish, and poured molten gold down the Spanish governor’s throat to metaphorically satisfy his lust for the precious metal. Needless to say, the area was never again completely controlled by the Spanish. 

But remember, the conquerors wanted more than just gold. They craved the shrunken heads that were part of the Shuar culture. So, since conquering the tribe didn’t work, from the 16th to 19th centuries, European and American traders with money and weapons, were “dead” set on making the exchange and getting those heads. In fact, originally the Shuar only did the “shrinking” ritual using the heads or their enemies who were killed in battle, but the demand became so great they started using any heads, as well as, animal heads touted to be human.

Head of European explorer / Wellcome Collection, Creative Commons

Why Shrink?

The Spanish thought that the Shuar were simply barbaric, thinking that the heads were shrunk for no apparent reason. This was not the case.

One of the core tenets of the Shuar religious beliefs, was the idea that each person had multiple souls and the most powerful was the soul of vengeance. If a warrior killed an opponent in battle, the Shuar believed that the soul of the dead adversary would come back from the afterlife and torment the murderer. The Shuar believied that the soul resides in the head. In order to prevent a future life of anguish, they trapped the soul in the head, by actually shrinking the head. The mouth and eyes were also sewn shut, so that no part of the vengeful soul could escape. 

This may seem over the edge and morbid to us, but think about it. Heads have been chopped off throughout history. Executed traitors’ heads were rammed onto spikes and displayed in front of the Tower of London. Ditto for medieval Samurai warriors in Japan. And don’t forget the French guillotine

To the Shuar, it was a necessary ritual so that the souls of the deceased were compartmentalized in the shrunken head. The head itself was of no value. Rarely were they hung up to display, but rather were thrown away or given to children to play with. (Now that’s creepy!) The only time the heads became valuable, to the Shuar, was when outside collectors and capitalists created the demand. The heads were then akin to gold.

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull / Wellcome Collection, Creative Commons

How Was it Done?

Not that we’re going to post this process in our Recipes section, but we were curious to find out how a full sized human head could be shrunk down to the size of a fist. Aren’t you?

Here’s the process.

Initially the head is removed from the body. Duh.

Next an incision is made at the base of the neck and the skin is literally peeled away to remove the skull. Hot stones, sand or a wooden ball are placed into the cavity left by the skull, so that the shape of the head is retained.  Next, the head is boiled in a broth of water and secret herbs. Of course, sometime during this procedure the eyes and mouth are sewn shut so that the soul cannot escape. 

The facial features are then molded back to the shape of the original head, because that is lost during the boiling process. The miniaturized head is cured over an open fire to give it a distinct leathery texture, and then decorated. 

Teens Coming of Age and the Sloth

I guess you might call it “practice,” but at the age of 16, Shuar boys decapitated sloths and shrunk the heads as a ritualistic ceremony as a rite of passage from boy to manhood.  The Shuar believed that power is transferable and highly fluid. The power of a warrior, arutam wakai (warrior soul), could only be obtained by making a tsantsa. It is also believed that the power spirit is not only transferred to the young man that acquired the head, but also to the women and children that helped in the shrinking process. 

Seattle Curiosity Shoppe, Seattle, Washington – I, Jmabel, Creative Commons

Faking It

During the 19th century, when wealthy collectors rushed to purchase shrunken heads and proudly displayed them, it is estimated that roughly 80% of them were fakes, being made of animal skins. Oh my.

Want to hear something even weirder? As I was doing research for this story, I found that you can buy a shrunken head on Amazon!!! Advertised as “shrunken head real leather rawhide replica, 5 inch size, no skull.” What?

Obviously, the demand for tsantsas is alive and well in the 21st century! Go figure. 

Museo Pumapungo

There are five heads displayed at the Museo Pumapungo, on the third floor of the building. They are real – DNA authenticated! If you ever visit Cuenca, it’s definitely something you won’t want to miss. 

While we were there, we were fortunate enough to see a Salvador Dali exhibit that was displayed in the “art” section of the museum. 

From shrunken heads to melting clocks, we learned a lot and were thoroughly entertained. 

Makes Me Scratch My Head…In Conclusion

The more we travel, I find it absolutely fascinating as we learn about the customs and traditions of the people who, have lived in and, are currently inhabiting a particular region. What may be repugnant and exotically macabre to one person, may be commonplace to another. Even though we may never fully understand the rituals, practices and ceremonies of a given group of people, through travel, we have been allowed to “peek” into life practices that are way outside our comfort zones. And, I’m so grateful for that. 

Although the shrunken head may be a thing of the past, it certainly has a place of importance in history. And I have to wonder, who is more “civilized,” the tribe that perfected the shrinking process and created the heads for religious reasons, or the shrunken head crazed, capitalistic collectors that coveted them. Makes you go hmmmm….

Photo credits: Shrunken head images on story banner, found a Museo Pumapungo / Wellcome Collection, Creative Commons

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2 Responses

  1. Have missed a number of your posts over the past year with a busy life this end, but this makes up for what I missed. Living life and history around the Americas through your posts.

    1. Well, we are doing the same for everything you and Jane are doing! Our stories just don’t include snow, and swishing down slopes! We sure hope our paths cross again. We miss you guys! And thanks for reading our “stuff!”

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