How to Shrink a Head: The Shuar Creation of Tsantsa

How to Shrink a Head: The Shuar Creation of Tsantsa

The Spaniards invaded the New World seeking riches. They tortured and maimed, and the religiously inclined Christians did everything they could to stamp out indigenous faiths. They burned shrines and holy places, huacas (sacred places), and mummified ancestral kings, which played an important role in many tribes’ religious practices. The conquistadors (which means conquerors in Spanish) demanded gold, and when some smaller tribes could not supply it or had already turned over what they had, the Spaniards killed or severely injured them. In this way, many of the smaller tribes disappeared, and today we have only a faint understanding of some of their practices, customs, and beliefs. Nevertheless, one indigenous group was able to keep them away. They actually did much more than that; and as such the invaders feared them. The Spaniards called this group the Jívaro, and decided to leave them alone due to their fierce fighting skills and their morbid practice of shrinking heads.

Shrunken Head at Cuenca Museum - Ecuador

Shrunken Head at Cuenca Museum - Ecuador (Photo: Ancient Origins)

A Clash of Cultures

The word Jívaro has no meaning among the indigenous populations for whom it has become a moniker. The Spanish attached this word to a group properly known as the Shuar, the second largest indigenous Amazonian tribe, whose members continue to live the way they always had, unaffected by the outside world.  Today they live primarily in southeastern Ecuador between the Marañón and Pastaza rivers (near Cuenca).  The term Shuar just means people, and their language is unique compared to other languages in nearby areas.  For example, “one, two, three, four, five” is “chikíchik, jímiar, manaint, aínttiuk, uwei.” 


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