How are shrunken heads made?

Dear Cecil: Cecil, I’ve got a question for you that has me stumped. How are shrunken heads made? I’m sure they have to take the skull out, but how? And why do certain cultures shrink human heads anyway? Headhunter Joe, via AOL


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Another wholesome topic. But if I don’t explain this stuff, who will? Headhunters can be found in various parts of the world, but the only people I know of who actually shrank heads (supposedly the practice has been stamped out) were the Jivaro of Ecuador and Peru, who live in the remote rain forest around the headwaters of the Amazon. The heads, called tsantsa, were to the Jivaro what scalps were to some North American tribes — trophies of battle. The Jivaro tribes were constantly attacking one another, mostly to avenge some real or imagined wrong. The practical goal of these raids was wives and booty — the Jivaro were polygamous, and had to be, or their constant losses in battle soon would have rendered them extinct. But they figured, if you didn’t get a few heads out of the deal, where was the fun?

Shrinking a head involved an elaborate ritual. The explorer F.W. Up de Graff first described this in a chilling account of an 1897 Jivaro raid on which he and several other Europeans tagged along. The raiders attacked another clan’s compound. Having slain some of the inhabitants and scared off the rest, they set about chopping the heads off the fallen. One victim was a woman who had the misfortune of not being dead. Untroubled by this, one raider held her down, another pulled back her head, and a third went to work on her neck with a stone ax. This proved to be slow going, so the Jivaro asked to borrow the author’s machete. Up de Graff turned it over, rationalizing that it would put the victim out of her misery; besides, the Europeans were outnumbered, though they had rifles and the Jivaro did not. (Up de Graff’s account can be found at Seven Years of Exploration and Adventure.)

After the butchering was completed, the raiders carried the heads back to camp, either by the hair or by a strip of pliable bark passed through the mouth and out through the neck. They prepared the heads by slicing down the back from crown to neck, then peeling off the skin “just as a stocking is removed from a foot.” The skin was cooked in special pots, after which the incision and other openings were sewn up or plugged. A long process of taxidermy followed in which the head was tanned and stuffed, resulting in a trophy that faithfully reproduced the appearance of the original head, only one-third the size.

Finally the raiders returned home, and the whole tribe celebrated with a series of ritualized drunken revels. These events were the highlight of the Jivaro social calendar and gave the warriors a chance to show off their catch, no doubt the real point of the whole enterprise. Oddly enough, the heads were often discarded later or sold as curios. This became such a profitable business that the Jivaro began staging raids primarily to obtain heads for the tourist trade. Selling heads was made illegal, but new merchandise continued to show up until fairly recently, with choice specimens going for thousands of dollars. (Beware of fakes, however, which can be identified by their overly precise needlework.)

You may be thinking: Those bloodthirsty savages! No argument here, though the Jivaro are said to be hospitable folk when not trying to kill you. (Among other things, they have a remarkable knowledge of medicinal jungle herbs.) Their ferocity did have the advantage of enabling them to maintain their independence and traditional way of life long after most other Native American tribes had come under the European thumb. The Jivaro brutally slaughtered 25,000 Spaniards in 1599; because of that and the inaccessibility of the region they were left alone well into the 20th century. Today, however, they’re threatened by Christian missionaries and land-hungry settlers, and no doubt will ultimately be reduced to selling souvenir heads made in Taiwan.

Cecil Adams

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