The Tale of the Shrunken Heads and Headhunters

In the depths of the wilds of Amazonia, amidst the dark and dangerous creatures, lurks the most dangerous of them all, the headhunters. Godless creatures preyed on each other for food and shrunken trophies, until the civilizing and christianizing Spanish heroes braved forward.

Or so the narrative goes. In reality, this practice of head shrinking was exclusive to the the “northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest,[1] and the only tribes known to have shrunken human heads are of the Jivaroan tribes. These include the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna tribes, found in Ecuador and Peru. The Shuar call a shrunken head a tsantsa,[2] also transliterated tzantza.”

The practice of preparing shrunken heads originally had religious significance; shrinking the head of an enemy was believed to harness the spirit of that enemy and compel him to serve the shrinker. It was said to prevent the soul from avenging his death.[4]

Shuar believed in the existence of three fundamental spirits:

  • Wakani – innate to humans thus surviving their death.
  • Arutam – literally “vision” or “power”, protects humans from a violent death.
  • Muisakvengeful spirit, which surfaces when a person carrying an arutam spirit is murdered.

To block a Muisak from using its powers, they severed their enemies’ heads and shrank them. The process also served as a way of warning their enemies. Despite these precautions, the owner of the trophy did not keep it for long. Many heads were later used in religious ceremonies and feasts that Ethe victories of the tribe. Accounts vary as to whether the heads would be discarded or stored.

I must admit to not having given much thought to headhunters before coming to Ecuador. After having seen many of the Canari people in villages and cities, I would certainly not equate them with the “savages” encountered by the Spanish peace lovers, at whose hand 50% of the indigenous population were enslaved, and, according to scholar Linda A. Newson, “depopulation ranged from approximately 72-95%; and that total population declined from approximately 1,500,000 to approximately 217,000 by the end of the sixteenth century.”(source) Newson’s study “provides a graphic and devastating picture of what conquest means for the vanquished, how it virtually destroyed every indigenous group with which it came in contact.”

So, what does this, which is not news to a lot of people, have to do with headhunting? Head shrinking  was a practice of dealing with an enemy by controlling the soul of the dead opponent. The subjects were not sought solely for the purpose of shrinking heads. That is until Europeans arrived and started purchasing, or trading for, them for museums and “private collections.”

Tsantsa, the shrunken heads

A shrunken head exhibited at the Museum of the Americas in Madrid.
Tsantsa or shrunken head.

In the 19th century muraiya Shuar became famous among Europeans and Euro-Americans for their elaborate process of shrinking the heads of slain Achuar. Although non-Shuar characterized these shrunken heads (tsantsa) as trophies of warfare, Shuar insisted that they were not interested in the heads themselves and did not value them as trophies. Instead, they sought the muisak, or soul of the victim, which was contained in and by the shrunken head. Shuar men believed that control of the muisak would enable them to control their wives’ and daughters’ labor.[3][4]

Since women cultivated manioc and made chicha (manioc beer), which together provided the bulk of calories and carbohydrates in the Shuar diet, women’s labor was crucial to Shuar biological and social life. In the late 19th century and early 20th century Europeans and Euro-Americans began trading manufactured goods, including shotguns, asking in return for shrunken heads. The result was an increase in local warfare, including head hunting, that has contributed to the perception of the Shuar as violent.[3][4] In 1961 Edmundo Bielawski made the only footage showing what appears to be their head-shrinking process. (Source)


Headhunting became a commercial practice to satisfy the demand of collectors, museums, and even tourists into the 20th century.” At the end of the 1800s, Westerns had created an economic demand for shrunken heads. They became valuable for trade, collectors and to supply tourists. This created a huge increase in the rate and number of killings.” (s0urce)

Hold a shrunken head in your hand like a grapefruit, smell its old leather scent, then close your eyes, and you can almost hear the war drums beating and the shrieks as warriors are cut down and triumphantly beheaded. The smell is a trifle disappointing because you expect smoke from cooking fires or even a trace of the hallucogenics that transported shadowy figures far beyond the Amazon.
It’s all thanks to Billy Jamieson, a beguiling mix of collector, showman and enthusiastic salesman. He saved the museum as it disintegrated into leaky shabbiness, and in the process of financing its purchase sold mummies and coffins for $2 million U.S. to an Atlanta museum. (source)

The notion that colonized peoples were savages and heathens was necessary for the joint project of colonialism and Catholic evangelism. Shrunken heads would surely have confirmed the European notion of the savagery of the Andean and Amazonian peoples, even though there was a spiritual dimension to the practice. In fact, it became an aggressive and systematic practice after the civilized Europeans started collecting heads for decorative and entertainment purposes.


The projection of savagery and evil onto the “exotic others” as a means of exorcising one’s own intrinsic darkness, and the ability of the colonialist explorers and the Catholic Church  to use this projection to justify the practices of domination and exploitation around the globe was a central feature of colonialism. The creation of a market for human heads provides a glimpse of the hypocrisy of these European exploiters.


For further reading:

Linda A. Newson. Life and Death in Early Colonial Ecuador. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. xii + 505 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-2697-5.




4 thoughts on “The Tale of the Shrunken Heads and Headhunters

    1. These are from the Pumapungo Museum in downtown Cuenca. If you are in Cuenca, you must go to the museum! There are some great museums here, as well as splendid architecture. Over all, besides being one large museum, I find the town a bit dull. But that is a big besides! You can keep yourself well-entertained here with artifacts.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s