Shrunken Heads (real and fake)

As part of our development project, the tsantsa (or, shrunken head) normally on display in Medicine Man is in storage. Our replica tsantsa, however, which forms part of our cross-gallery handling collection, can still be seen. This month Charlie Morgan delves into the history and controversy of this erstwhile cultural practice. N.b. although this series is called Object of the Month, real tsantsas are comprised of human remains and we in no way mean to dehumanise them.

Shrunken head, Shuar

Shrunken head, Shuar

At some point in the mid-16th century, Spanish Conquistadors entered the Amazon rainforest and came into contact with the Shuar people. In the epic colonisation of Latin America, one more indigenous group would not have made much of an impact if it had it not been for two factors: gold and tsantsas. To gain the former, the Spanish Empire tore up its initial peace agreements and subjugated the Shuar in a brutal mining system. In 1599, The Shuar – amongst other tribes – revolted against the Spanish, sacked their towns and – as the story goes – to satisfy the insatiable lust of the Spanish governor, poured molten gold down his throat. The area never again came under complete colonial control.

To obtain tsantsas, subsequent expansionists took a different approach. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, collectors would routinely arrive in the borderlands of Ecuador and Peru, laden with money, weapons or both, dead-set on exchange. Europeans and Americans might by that time have grown to fear the Shuar, but they were still utterly obsessed with shrunken heads.

A Shuar shrunken head (tsantsa) from Ecuador.

A Shuar shrunken head (tsantsa) from Ecuador.

Despite that fact that tsantsas have only ever been produced by the Shuar people, it is often assumed that head shrinking was, and is, a globally ubiquitous phenomenon of indigenous groups: Papua New Guinea and parts of Africa being oft-ventured guesses. Yet aside from re-thinking our assumptions of where they might be made, it’s also important to consider the why.

The Spanish colonialists assumed the Shuar were a very warlike people’ because of the 1599 revolt and because they shrunk human heads – both, apparently, for no particular reason. However, while we now know the first was a legitimate act of anti-colonial resistance, we also know that the second was done for a very specific purpose.

Central to historic Shuar belief systems is an adherence to the idea of multiple, yet interlinking, souls, and one of the most powerful is the vengeful soul. Traditionally, if someone were to be killed in battle, the greatest fear of the murderer would be that the dead person’s soul could wreak havoc upon them from the afterlife; in order to prevent this happening the soul would have to be trapped. As the Shuar believed that the soul resides within the head, the best way to do this was to shrink it. Click here to read about the head shrinking process.

While head shrinking may be a unique trait of Shuar history, heads have been removed from foes in numerous places and in most cases they have been prominently displayed. At the Tower of London, heads of executed traitors were rammed onto spikes and in medieval Japan those removed by Samurai would be treated similarly. Not so with tsantsas.

Shrunken heads were produced to trap souls; once done, the soul had no way of escaping. The crucial part was not the end product but rather the process. As such, despite the fact that some heads would be paraded at feasts and hung up on display, others would be thrown away or even given to children to play with. In reality, a tsasnta only attained value as an object in itself when, akin to gold, it was integrated into the global networks of modern capitalism.

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull

Henry Wellcome obtained the shrunken head normally displayed in Medicine Man from the Stevens Auction Room in 1925. It cost £25 but it’s entirely possible that wasn’t just for the head: Stevens was well known to bundle objects together if he knew Wellcome was interested. He would then hike up the price as far as he could. How the head got to the auction in the first place we don’t know, but by the end of the 19th century the Euro-American lust for tsantsas was so extreme that more were being produced for trade than for the trapping of souls. Collectors would trade guns for heads and the guns would create heads to be traded for guns. For those that try to explain indigenous practice through colonial ideas of ‘modernity’ vs. ‘backwardness’, this is problematic because if head shrinking was a ‘backward’ practice it was far more escalated by ‘modernity’ than limited by it.

There is one final caveat. While the collecting of tsantsas was often very destructive it would be a mistake to see the Shuar as just passive victims. One aspect of the trade can be better explained by our replica tsantsa than by the real one. The shrunken head in our handling collection is made out of animal skin but is otherwise produced in exactly the same way that a human one would be (and looks remarkably similar). At the height of 19th century trade, wealthy collectors would often purchase tsantsas and put them on display, unaware that what they had been sold was made of animal skin. It’s estimated that this applies to 80% of all shrunken heads ever displayed. Like most objects in Wellcome Collection, the tsantsa tells more than one story.

Charlie is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

6 thoughts on “Shrunken Heads (real and fake)

  1. Thanks for this piece on Shuar tsantsa cultural practice and history. Just to add to this a majority of the heads that were shrunk were that of the Achuar by the Shuar people so to state that head-shrinking is a “Jivaroan” cultural practise is slightly incorrect. Most when they speak of the Jivaro as well are referring to the Shuar, probably mostly because of their population size in comparison to other groups and due to Michael Harner’s studies of the group. I think it should be noted that Jivaro is also a slightly racist term and should not be used to identify the Shuar.

    Also in the process of head-shrinking the eyes and mouth are sewn shut shut as the heads weren’t seen as inanimate objects but actually powerful entities that could harm the living if they were able to see or speak.

    It is also worth nothing that it is not necessarily incorrect to describe the Shuar as bellicose as warfare against neighbouring tribes (the Achuar) was actually an integral part of their culture and sustained their life force or soul or in their language, arutam.

      • Of course- the theory on the history of the word Jivaro is that the Spanish spelled Shuar incorrectly in the 16th century but whatever the development of the word the word Jivaro does not really mean Shuar. In Ecuador the word has racist connotations as Euro-Ecuadorians use it to mean “savage” and apply it in very derogatory ways. The Shuar do not use this word to describe themselves and find it an insult.

        Jivaroan is often used colloquially to describe the groups that you referred to as they have closely related languages and had (have) similar subsistence and settlement patterns and political organisation. Many Anthropologists have used Jivaroan as an overarching term but it isn’t really used by modern scholars as many of the groups do not want to be considered under an such a broad term as they each have different experiences with colonisation and of course a different understanding of their own identity.

  2. Just to add, it’s similar to how quite often British people refer to Indians or even Red Indians to mean Indigenous people in Canada or the USA. But growing up in Canada if you use the word Indian it is racist, derogatory and should not be used.

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