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The hidden history of shrunken heads 

Across Europe and America, if you visit a museum with an Ethnography section, you may come across a display of shrunken heads, or Tsantsas, from South America. The heads are no larger than a man’s fist, with lips and eyes stitched up, threads hanging from them, and framed by long black hair. If you haven’t seen one in a museum, then you’ve likely seen one depicted in popular culture, the movies Beetlejuice and more recently Harry Potter both feature shrunken heads in a horror/comedy setting. 

But how did shrunken heads from the Amazon basin find their way into the museums and collections of Britain, Europe and the USA and how did interaction with western societies influence and change this indigenous tradition? 

Who made them? 

Tsantsas were created by the Shuar, Achuar, Awajun/Aguaruna, Wampis/Huambisa, Candoshi-Shampra, who are now collectively known as SAAWC. Europeans historically referred to this group of peoples as Jivaro, however, this became synonymous with being uncivilized or savage, so is considered offensive in Ecuador [1].  

These groups lived in the Amazon, in small villages often based on family groups. They subsisted primarily from hunting, fishing, raising pigs and gardening. They also traded with other indigenous groups, and later with European settlers.  

The Shuar’s primary claim to fame is that they successfully thew off the yoke of the Spanish Conquistadors in 1599, earning themselves a legendary reputation for fierceness and independence. This love of independence is reflected in the structure of their society, which was based on family groups and existed without any centralised authority [2]. 

Family group c1901. Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

More than just a war trophy 

It is fair to say that even now the popular view in the West is that all headhunting cultures took heads as war trophies. And while some did, this is a reductive view, for the SAAWC peoples the head of an enemy killed in combat was much more than simply a brutal material symbol of victory. The power of Tsantsas came from harnessing the power imbued in them from the dead man’s soul for the benefit of the warrior’s family. The process of obtaining and preparing a Tsantsa was complex, time consuming and resource intensive, it was also fraught with danger. This meant that the practice of headhunting was not taken lightly, nor one practiced frequently by SAAWC peoples.  

SAAWC peoples believed that the soul of a man was made up of separate components the Arutam and the Muisak. The Arutam was the soul-power, the spirit, power, and knowledge of the man. A man became Kakaram through killing and this strengthened his Arutam, this power was obtained through raids on other tribes to obtain Tsantsas. So, the best Tsantsas, the most powerful, came from a man who had killed a lot of people and therefore had strong Arutam. However, taking the head of such a man (and it invariably was a man, as a woman was not thought to be possessed of a strong Arutam), a powerful enemy warrior, possessed of such power, required careful rituals, or else his Muisak, his avenging soul which came into being at the point of death, could wreak havoc on his killer [3] [4].

Objets dAmazonie (réserves visitables du musée national dethnologie).  Dalbera from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How were they made? 

The skills involved would be passed down from father to son [5]. The process was both practical and ritual. To ensure the head could be transported away from the enemy village quickly, the skull, brains, muscle were removed, making it lighter to carry. This skin ‘bag’ was then filled with hot sand and pebbles repeatedly until it shrunk to the size of a man’s fist [6]. Shrinking the head was the beginning of the ritual process of trapping power in the artefact.  

A series of rituals and feasts were held, the first of which was a binding ritual. It was crucial to trap the Muisak in the head before it could escape and seek revenge. The Muisak would try and escape through the mouth, so it was vital to sew up the lips of the decapitated head quickly. Similarly, eyes were sewn shut to prevent it from seeing, and the skin was blackened with charcoal [7] [8]. Once the Muisak was trapped, the owner could begin to use the soul- power of the Tsantsa, and transfer it to others, through a series of ritual feasts.  

The feasts could take place over several years, this allowed the owner and his family to grow enough food to feed the many guests that would be expected to attend. The purpose of the feasts was to harness the power of the individual warrior’s Arutam (his skills and knowledge} and pass them on to the women of the owner’s family, so that they would be more productive. The final ritual would expel the Muisak from the head, rendering the physical head less valuable to the village. Sometimes the warrior would keep the head, but more often than not the head, once divested of its spiritual power, would be discarded, or traded away [9]. As the whole ritual process associated with creating and utilising a Tsantsa was a lengthy one, and required extensive resources, it was not done often. 

The Shuar themselves have emphasised that it is not the head per se that interests them [10], it was the soul-power of the warrior, which was contained in the decapitated head, that was their object in creating Tsantsas. However, by the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century the production of tsantsas escalated rapidly. Now women, even children might find themselves targets of head-hunting raids.  

So, how, and why did this tradition change? 

Guns for heads 

In the late nineteenth century, Europeans began to encroach on Shuar lands in search of rubber and cinchona bark, which was used to make Quinine, and this led to more interactions between the Shuar and neighbouring tribes and westerners. Quickly trade began between the groups, the Shuar providing settlers with much needed pigs, deer, salt and occasional Tsantsas, in return for cloth, machetes and guns. The dynamic changed when the settlers began raising their own livestock, the Shuar still wished to trade for goods such as machetes and guns, which made their lives easier, (they did not make their own metal) but the only thing the settlers wanted now was Tsantsas [11][12]. 

Webley & Scott Mk VI. Caliber .455 Collection Paul Regnier, Lausanne, Switzerland. Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12346282

A trade had rapidly grown up around Tsantsas with North American and European Museums, collectors, and souvenir hunters all eager to snap up these curious tribal artefacts. Because the numbers of Tsantsas produced for ritual purposes was so limited, demand soon outstripped supply.  

To meet this demand for Tsantsas, the Shuar and other tribes, massively increase in head-hunting raids, often using the guns they so keenly traded for. Raids involved hundreds of people, and now encompassed the murder of women and even children, who would not have previously been victims as their soul-power was considered lesser than a man’s. Frances Larson notes that the going rate for one gun was one Tsantsa, and commented that the Tsantsas on display in museums show more of the history of “white man’s gun” as an economic incentive for the Shuar to kill [13]. Tsantsas produced for trade would not be ritual Tsantsas, they were produced specifically for the open market.  

This trade in tribal curios led to many fake shrunken heads being created, with some reports of the bodies of the poor-dead in morgues being used to create Tstantsas, along with the heads of countless monkeys and sloths [14]. Some of these fakes even ended up in distinguished museums in North America and Europe.  Charlie Morgan of the Wellcome Collection, estimates that up to 80% of Tsantsas on display could in fact be fakes [15].

The Holy Grail of Ethnography 

From the enlightenment onwards western society has been obsessed with cataloguing everything, from plants and animals to humans. However, in the nineteenth century this drive to understand the world soon became a tool for justifying an ethnocentric world view. The gap created by the end of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the early nineteenth century, was filled the European Imperial Project. Imperialism often wore a paternalistic face, civilised western nations claimed to be improving the lives of less advanced races who were unable to govern themselves.  

Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, shrunken heads (pre-1946). Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This Imperialist project was quick to co-opt science to support colonialist expansion. In a similar way that the pseudo-science of phrenology began as a genuine endeavour to understand how the brain worked but ended up being used to justify eugenics and racism, so ethnographic hierarchies of people (with white Europeans at top of the evolutionary tree, and brown and black races at the bottom) were used to promote a race theory which justified the ‘superior’ races colonising less civilised races. The fall-out from this is still being felt today. 

The position of Shuar peoples, never having been colonised meant they fell into that Holy Grail of Victorian Ethnography: the untouched tribe. A tribe in need of being studied and civilised.  

Education, entertainment, exploitation 

In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Human Zoos or ‘ethnological expositions were extremely popular. These exhibits would have people from traditional societies displayed in a ‘natural setting,’ ostensibly for the education of Western spectators, but in reality, as a way contrasting ‘primitive’ peoples and societies unfavourably to the more advanced nations of the West [16].  

By Henri Sicard and Farradesche Lithographers – Jardin zoologique d’acclimatation, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41478061

People are still drawn to the exotic and the ‘other.’  Museum visitors today, when faced with Tsantsas, often experience a sense of horror and an underlying feeling of cultural superiority, in that the viewer, is perhaps grateful that they do not belong to a culture that could produce such unnerving artefacts, that they themselves live in a ‘civilized’ culture where these things do not happen [17].  

A review by Peter Gordon in 2003, reinforced this view as he found that visitors to the Pitt Rivers Museum often viewed the Shrunken heads for entertainment purposes, using words like ‘gruesome’ ‘barbaric’ and evoked ‘a freakshow element’ [18]. This led the museum to re-evaluate their display and whether it was achieving its intended aims to teach visitors about how other cultures treated their dead enemies. 

This is in part because Tsantsas have come to represent an entire culture, this is all many people will ever know of the SAAWC peoples. Head-hunters have become synonymous with primitive and savage practices that the march of human progress has suppressed. However, this is a distortion of the rich symbolic meaning behind these sacred ritual objects. 

Should the Tsantsas head home? 

At a time when museums are being challenged to de-colonise their collections and address their imperial past, the history of the trade in shrunken heads is a timely reminder of the impact European colonisation had on the indigenous cultures they encountered.  

Greater involvement and dialogue with indigenous cultures whose artefacts, particularly those that constitute human remains, are in western museums has changed the landscape of many museums. Museums, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, have now removed their displays of Tsantsas, and have reconsidered how they present information about indigenous cultures.  This moved has been a polarising one, with some people welcoming the change and others against it.

The debate over the role of Western museums in curating artefacts from the colonial past, especially human remains, is a highly fraught area, with excellent arguments on both sides. There is a vocal lobby for the for the role of museums as conservators of our shared past, and educators, and equally strong lobby against that, and that the views of other cultures and their struggle to regain control over their own identities and heritage should take precedence.  And of course there is also the problem of identifying real Tsantsas from the many historic fakes on display.

The issues of repatriation of cultural objects is a very controversial area, with genuine fears of great museum collections being broken up and lost forever. Use of modern technologies, such as digitised collections, contextualisation of collections and most importantly, involvement from colonised cultures could be one way to build a bridge between the rights of those cultures that were colonised alongside the valuable role of museums to protect and educate using artefacts from our shared past. I suspect this is an argument that will continue for many years to come, and may never have an outcome that will please everyone.

The last word 

But what of the people whose ancestors made these artefacts, what are their views? Currently SAAWC peoples are engaged in a political and cultural fight for survival against the pressures of mining and the oil industry, sacred objects created by their ancestors, are potent symbol of cultural unity, and many now want them returned.  Federación Interprovincial de Centros Shuar-Achuar now represent the interests of the SAAWC peoples.

The last word should go to Shuar themselves, Indigenous leaders Miguel Puwainchir and Felipe Tsenkush:

“Our ancestors handed over these sacred objects without full realising the implications” [19]

“We don’t want to be thought of as dead people to be exhibited in a museum, described in a book, or recorded on film.” [20]

I would love to hear your views on this topic.  

Modern Shuar dance in Logroño, Ecuador. IJlh249, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


My primary inspiration for writing this article was the chapter on Tsantsas in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Found, by Frances Larson, a fabulously witty, erudite, and thought provoking book.

Byron, C.D., Kiefer, A.M., Thomas, J. et al. The authentication and repatriation of a ceremonial tsantsa to its country of origin (Ecuador). Herit Sci 9, 50 (2021).

Harner, J, The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls, 1984

Houlton,Tobias M.R.and Wilkinson, Caroline M., Recently identified features that help to distinguish ceremonial tsantsa from commercial shrunken heads – ScienceDirect

Larson, Frances, Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, 2015

McGreevy, Nora, Oxford Museum Permanently Removes Controversial Display of Shrunken Heads | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine

Morgan, Charlie, Shrunken Heads Real and Fake, Wellcome Collection Blog, 27 June 2014

Peers, Laura, Shrunken Heads, (Pitt Rivers Museum publication)

Rubenstein, Steven Lee, Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads in Cultural Anthropology Vol. 22, No. 3 (Aug., 2007), pp. 357-399 (43 pages)

shrunken « Bizzarro Bazar

Shrunken heads | Pitt Rivers Museum (ox.ac.uk)

The Pitt Rivers Museum and its Shrunken Heads – Sang Bleu

Wikipedia, Shuar

Wikipedia, Human Zoo


[1] Shuar

[2] The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Oxford Museum Permanently Removes Controversial Display of Shrunken Heads

[6] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[7] Shrunken Heads

[8] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[9] ibid

[10] Shuar, Wikipedia

[11] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[12] Shrunken Heads

[13] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[14] ibid

[15] Shrunken heads real and fake

[16] Human Zoo

[17] Shrunken Heads

[18] ibid

[19] Oxford Museum Permanently Removes Controversial Display of Shrunken Heads

[20] The authentication and repatriation of a ceremonial tsantsa to its country of origin (Ecuador)