In the mid to late 19th century science took off and scientists raced around the world to make new discoveries. New concepts like zoology and archelogy peaked peoples interest in far off places. When they got back home from their expeditions they had crates full of interesting and odd things collected from their expeditions. Soon everyone wanted these exotic items as signs of that were both educated and affluent enough to have them. Usually it might have been a fossil or a carving but one of the most prized of these curios was also the most macabre, real human heads shrunken to the size no larger than a tennis ball.
The Shuar are a tribe that still lives on the Maranon River in modern Ecuador and Peru. Most of time they fill their days farming and hunting but in their past family groups would go on raids to kill off their rivals. They would use weapons such as bows and spears with large detailed heads carved out of a signal piece of wood. If the raid was a success all the men would be kill and decapitated while the women would be taken as brides to work the farms.
The Shuar believed that a man had a soul called a muisak. If a warrior’s muisak could be captured then that warrior would have ownership of other warrior’s wives and daughters. However if the muisak was allowed to escape it would seek vengeance. The way to capture an opponent’s muisak was to literally capture their face. That is where the process of shrinking heads comes in. It was believed that the head held the persons muisak for as long as they were preserved.
Making shrunken heads which the Shuar called tsantsa was actually pretty complicated. First a cut was made at the back of the neck and the face was peeled off similar to taking the peel of an orange. After the face was removed it had to be completely cleaned so that only the skin and hair were left. Then the face was tied completely shut and boiled in water with a mix of plants for the exact amount of time that would cause the skin to shrink. The head then had to be dried to finish the shrinking process so hot rocks and sand were put inside them. The head then is covered in ash giving them their dark appearance and decorated. The entire process had to be done extremely carefully in order to preserve it.
As explores started studying the ethnic groups of the amazon they brought the heads back and quickly a disturbing market for shrunken heads erupted. Explores would trade their guns and other weapons for heads making for a vicious cycle of head hunting wars. Eventually things got so bad that the natives and sellers of shrunken heads started making faux ones out of animal leather. Soon the faux outnumbered the real ones, it’s estimated that now 80% of shrunken heads are actually very convincing fakes for the tourist trade.
As late as of the 1950’s supposed real heads could still be bought for a few hundred dollars. Now the sale of real shrunken heads is banned in most countries and the Shuar have stopped the practice. Most real heads have found their way into the hands of museums. So if you find one in your grandparent’s attic it’s probably a fake …. Probably?