The Truth About Shrunken Heads

From the talking shrunken heads in Harry Potter to an explorer in the waiting room in Beetlejuice, shrunken heads have been seen in cultural references for decades. What is the true origin of this icon of tribal craft? In this post, I’ll be telling the true history of shrunken heads of the Amazon.

A collection of shrunken heads at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, London (1946)
A collection of shrunken heads at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, London (1946)

Only found in Amazon. Specifically the Jivaroan tribes (Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna). called a tsantsa. They believed that vengeful spirits may come back after you kill someone. By shrinking the head, you trap the spirit and compel it to serve you instead. However, the shrinker often didn’t keep the head to themselves, as they were used for many ceremonies.

Detail of two heads at Wellcome
Detail of two heads at Wellcome

The process began with the removal of the skin. Contrary to its namesake, shrunken heads are actually just shrunken skin. It is treated the same way many cultures treat leather, through boiling and drying. First a wooden ball is placed inside the skin. This is to maintain the shape. Then boiling in a mixture of herbs with tannins, and drying using hot rocks and sand. Finally, the skin is rubbed with ash to prevent the vengeful spirit from escaping.

A shrunken head from the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford Photo by Narayan k28
A shrunken head from the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
Photo by Narayan k28

Though not a common practice originally, when Westerners arrived and began to trade for these heads, the practice increased exponentially. “Headhunting” began in this era, trading a gun for a shrunken head. By the 1930s, the widespread availability meant shrunken heads could be purchased in the US for about $25 (about $350 today). It was at this point that the sale of shrunken heads was made illegal, through both Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments. Now it is illegal almost worldwide.

Today, Jivaro peoples create replica shrunken heads from goat skin, such as this one found on eBay.
Today, Jivaro peoples create replica shrunken heads from goat skin, such as this one found on eBay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *