How to Shrink a Head: The Shuar Creation of Tsantsa

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Shrunken heads in the permanent collection of

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.” 

When the Spanish invaders used the term Jívaro, it actually referred to four tribes: the Shuar, Ashuar, Aguaruna, and the Huambisa, which had teamed up to drive out the invaders.  In 1599, after the Spaniards had demanded gold and maimed some of the tribes’ people to show they were serious, these four tribes joined forces and stormed Spanish settlements, killing more than 25,000 invaders.  Knowing the European leaders wanted gold, they gave it to one of them: they held him down and poured molten gold into his mouth.  This famous historical episode took place during the Massacre of the Logronos, and some of the ruthless occurrences have gained immortality because of their continued references in movies and television shows, and in both fictional and nonfictional written accounts. 

The Shuar did not just kill the raiders; They also took their heads.  Later, other Europeans found some of these heads, and they were horrified.  Although the faces looked similar to how they had appeared in life, and their features were completely recognizable, the heads were amazingly no larger than the size of a fist.

Shrunken head from the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris

Shrunken head from the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris (courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)

How to Shrink a Head

The Shuar have a long history of shrinking heads.  Anytime they went into battle against neighboring tribes, they brought back warriors’ heads, having cut them off at the base of the neck.  They carried the heads back to their villages with either headbands or vines, which they slipped through the victims’ mouths, pulled through their necks, and then tied them.  They wore the heads like backpacks slung over one shoulder (Flornoy, 1954).  As soon as the warriors were able to, they began the shrinking process. 

Shrunken Head at Cuenca Museum - Ecuador

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