Shrunken head

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A shrunken head is a real human head that has been prepared for display.

The manufacture of shrunken heads was formerly the speciality of a number of ethnic groups that practised headhunting, most notably the Jívaro or Shuar people of present day Ecuador and Peru. Among the Shuar, a shrunken head is known as a tsantsa.

After World War II, the shrunken head of a Polish prisoner was found at the Buchenwald concentration camp, where it was displayed in the camp centre to terrify the prisoners. The "shrunken head of Buchenwald," as it was known, was presented as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials by U. S. Executive Trial Counsel Thomas J. Dodd.

How it was done

The skull was removed from the head: the maker would make an incision on the back of the neck and proceeded to remove all the skin and flesh from the cranium. Afterwards, they sewed the eyelids shut and held the mouth together with splinters. Fat from the flesh of the head was removed. The flesh was then boiled in water in which a number of herbs containing tannins were steeped, then dried with hot rocks and sand, while being molded by the preparer to retain its human feature. The lips were sewn shut, and various decorative beads were added to the head.

The process to reduce the size of the heads was accompanied by a ritual, which culminated with a "victory party") celebrated by the entire community.

Why it was done

The practice of making shrunken heads originally had religious significance; the heads were believed to enslave the spirits of those enemies and compel them to serve the shrinker.

They believed in the existence of three fundamental spirits:

  • Wakani - innate to humans thus surviving their death, later turning into vapor.
  • Arutam - literally "vision" or "power," protects humans from a violent death and assures their survival.
  • Muisak - vengeful spirit, which surfaces when an arutam spirit-carrying person is murdered.

To block the last spirit from using its powers, they decided to sever their enemy's heads and shrink them. It also served as a way of warning those enemies.

Trade in shrunken heads

At first, cultural restrictions meant that deaths from traditional conflict were relatively rare, and few shrunken heads were made. When outsiders created an economic demand for shrunken heads, however, there was a sharp increase in the rate of killings in an effort to supply collectors and tourists. A stop was put to this when the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments outlawed the traffic in heads.

Currently, replica shrunken heads are manufactured as curios for the tourist trade. These are made from leather and animal hides carved to resemble the originals. Replica shrunken heads, due to their provocative nature, are also popular in the hotrod culture, where they are often seen hanging from rearview mirrors as ornaments.

The presence or absence of nasal hair is one clue as to whether a shrunken head is authentic or a replica. The largest collection of authentic shrunken heads is on display at Ye olde curiosity shoppe in Seattle, WA, USA with 7 heads. It also houses the smallest shrunken head in the world which is about the size of a tennis ball.


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