When you peel away the layers of normalcy and practicality, this world is actually shrouded in an air of mystery and magic. While magic has been thrown back as a thing of the past, even today there are many fantastical elements that challenge the human intellect.
Just as normalcy and practicality exist in this world of ours, so do weird, incredible things. But not every such obejct is a thing of beauty. In fact, certain objects around us create horror and disbelief in us.
One of such things is a shrunken head. Shrunken heads have existed around us for years, and even today certain native tribes continue this ghoulish practice.
The purpose behind creating and keeping a shrunken head has fluctuated between magic, sacrifice, trophy, ritual, and trade from time to time. In this article, we will look for the different purposes behind shrunken heads, and also learn how one is made.
What Are Shrunken Heads?
Shrunken heads are not replicas. They are real, severed, isolated human heads that are prepared in a special way for display at certain places and on certain occasions. These heads are also called Tsantsas in certain cultures, and serve a variety of purposes for the tribes who create them.
However, the most common and notable one is their use in scaring off an enemy. To understand this statement, you have to know that tribes often engage in domestic wars, inter-tribal rivalry, and duels. Sometimes, tribal people had engaged in a violent altercation with outsiders like Europeans.
During such conflicts, shrunken heads were displayed prominently, acting as both a trophy and a warning to the enemy. It was a silent but emphatic message to any outsider that their personal war could end the same way, with the attacker reduced to a head shrunken and displayed in shame.
Who Made These Horrific Displays?
Even though tales of shrunken heads seem to be a big part of the tribal culture globally, it is only the Jivaro people from Northern Peru and Southern Ecuador who are engaged in the practice of shrinking heads. According to many historical accounts, Tsantsas were made from the enemies’ heads cut off on the battlefield.
Initially, these war souvenirs had ritualistic significance and religious purposes. However, as time passed, the practice evolved into trophy and horror.
Shrink Your Head, Enslave Your Spirit
The Jivaro people of Amazon were fierce, and violence between tribes was common. The tribesmen believed strongly in the concept of revenge, and also believed that if a man was killed on the battlefield, his spirit would come back to haunt and exact revenge from his killer.
Thus, the triumphant warrior on the field would cut off his victim’s head, and shrink it for their personal possession. The Jivaro people believed that if you shrunk the head of your enemy, his spirit would obey you and do your bidding. This was, thus, the ultimate sign of victory on your enemy.
Although the accounts vary, it is believed that even after shrinking a head, a warrior did not possess it for long. He would then leave it at the community feast or at the public worship place, therefore ridding himself of the vengeful spirit contained within.
Take One Human Head…
The process of creating a shrunken head is very elaborate. The warrior would cut his enemy’s head off and bring it to their places of worship. The eyelids are then sewn shut, and the lips are shut with the help of a peg.
Once all this is done, the heads are then put into a big pot over a fire, and left to boil for a specific amount of time. The heat and pressure from consistent boiling shrunk the skull and helped separate the skin and flesh from the bone.
Then the skin and the hair of the head would be carefully separated from the skull, whcih was very important for the final look of the Tsantsas. The remaining flesh on the skull would also be scraped off. The skin slit used to remove the skull would then be sewn closed with care, after turning it inside out.
By the time this process is done, the skin would have turned dark and rubbery, and had shrunk to 1/3 of its original size. This is, however, only half of the entire process.
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After this, the void left by the removed skull is filled with hot stones and sand to increase the temperature and shrink the head from the inside. The process also tanned the flesh inside, which further preserved it, and indeed the process has a lot of similarities with animal hide tanning.
These stones and sand were not removed once the head shrank completely. Instead, more sand and stones were used to seal the head shut. This step also gave a definite shape to the head.
For the next step, the boiled, darkened skin was rubbed with charcoal ash to preserve it and make it darker. This was believed to block the avenging spirit further. Thus, the tribesmen not only sealed the heads shut but sealed an evil spirit inside. No wonder the process was a long one!
The finished Tsantsas were hung over open fire to shrink and harden further. This was the final step of head preservation. The Tsantsas would further blacken. Then the wooden pegs at the lips would be removed. Strings would replace the pegs to seal them shut again.
Forgeries And Souvenirs
Tsantsas or shrunken heads are still very popular on the exotic black market. Shrunken heads are a thing of mystery and are treated as a rarity. Thus, people of other cultures like Europeans, Americans, etc., would want to buy or see shrunken heads.
Even today, many people show interest in buying these souvenirs. However, this interest has allowed a lot of fake Tsantsas to be marketed. Many traders use sloth heads instead of real human heads to create Tsantsas and sell them as authentic ones. Now, this is good because at least no one is dying just to be shrunk! Still, forgery is rampant in the exotic object market.
You can still see real shrunken heads on display at some museums and historical archives.
Top Image: A Tsantsa from Ecuador. Source: Fotos 593 / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri