The South American Shuar people, called Jivaro (meaning savage) by Euro-American traders, practiced ritual head shrinking for many years. Today tsantsa, or shrunken heads are displayed in museums as treasured artifacts of warfare; however, to the Shuar the head-shrinking ritual served a more important purpose. To the Shuar, the tsantsa is used to trap the muisak or avenging soul of slain persons. Tribal conflicts between the Ecuadorian Shuar and their Achuar neighbors often lead to deaths. In order to keep the muisak of a slain person from harming the warrior who killed him, the Shuar practiced a ritual head shrinking. The head of the slain person would be collected and taken back to the Shuar camp, where the skin would then be removed from the skull. The resulting skin pouch would be filled with hot sand or rock to dry and shrink the pouch. The eyes and mouth would then be sewed shut, the mouth with 3 loops indicating the 3-night ritual process of feasts and dancing. Charcoal from balsa wood would then be rubbed on the skin to create a blackened, oily appearance. The Shuar believed that this process would contain the avenging spirit inside the head, preventing it from harming the warrior responsible for his death. After the rituals were complete, the Shuar had varying uses for the tsantsa. Some warriors kept their heads, usually in a private location, only displaying the tsantsa in special circumstances. Other Shuar disposed of their tsantsa in the forest as the ritual purpose of the tsantsa was fulfilled, and the Shuar did not attribute any monetary value to them.
In the late 19th century, Victorian expeditions searching for gold discovered the tsantsa. Intrigued by the gruesome artifacts, traders exchanged guns and steel blades for the heads, many of which found their way into museums like the Sam Noble. While the Shuar were not actively producing tsantsa due to legislation and Catholic missionary influence, the market for the heads encouraged the tribesman to create tsantsa “fakes.” These counterfeits include heads that are from non-human specimens such as monkeys or heads made by non-tribal people, many coming from unclaimed bodies in the morgue. We believe the tsantsa in the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Museum to be a shrunken head not of a human, but of some sort of primate.
These fakes are still on the market today and can be easily spotted if one knows what to look for. For one, the lips of true tsantsa would have been sewn with heavy cotton strings, making three loops. Many fakes were sewn with thin string that indicates their lack of authenticity. Also, the real tsantsa have very fine nasal hair; Skin that was taken from a goat to be formed into a fake tsantsa would not have such hair. There would also be a stitch at the top of the head for a thread-loop for the slayer to hold or hang the head by, which most fakes lack. Also, fakes would lack the smooth oily skin achieved by rubbing it with charcoal.
While the ethical debate surrounding the display of human remains in museums continues, there are still many museums that display their collection of tsantsa heads. These museums include (The SNMONH cannot vouch for the authenticity of these heads) the Lightner Museum, St. Augustine, Florida; Museum Of America Madrid, Spain; Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, England; and the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, Memphis, Tennessee. It is important for visitors to remember that these heads should not be taken out of historical context and in no way offer complete representation of the Shuar culture. Many museums recognize the sensitive nature of these artifacts and have removed their tsantsa from exhibition. Have you seen tsantsa heads in any other museums? We would love to know what you thought of them. Should tsantsa heads remain on display? Comment below!
For more information see:
Rubenstein, Steven Lee
2007 Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads.. Cultural Anthropology 22(3): 357-399
Rubenstein, Steven Lee
2004 Shuar Migrants and Shrunken Heads, Face to Face in a New York Museum. Anthropology Today 20(3): 15–19.
2001 A Price On Their Heads. Geographical.