Tsanta: Shrunken Heads in South America

The real thing or a clever fake?

Shrunken head in Ecuador
••• Rick Rudnicki / Getty Images

Tsanta  are the famed shrunken heads of the Jivaro tribes of Ecuador and Peru (see photo ).

The Jivaro tribes, particularly the Shuar were always at war with each other, and in addition to the opportunity to avenge wrongs, they raided each other for wives and goods. They shrank the heads of their enemies as battle trophies.

Since they killed off so many of the men in battle, the tribes were polygamous, living deep in the rainforest around the headwaters of the Amazon.

For details, read Head-Shrinking and the Purpose of Tsanta.

When the Spaniards arrived, the Jivaros resisted their incursion into their territory with such enthusiasm that the Spaniards, after 25,000 of them were reportedly slaughtered in 1599, retreated and left them alone.

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that news of the head-hunting techniques and trophies reached the outside world. The explorer F.W. Up de Graff recounts an expedition in Head Hunters Of The Amazon, subtitled Seven Years Of Exploration And Adventure, in which he accompanied a war party and witnessed the killing, decapitation and grisly shrinking process.

Following his accounts, a lively trade in shrunken heads popped up, and the Jivaros began providing heads for sale. Profiteers, usually taxidermists, in other countries, including Panama, horned in on the trade by creating their own heads, using animals or unclaimed bodies.

After decapitating their victims, the Jivaro raiders either strung a strip of bark through the mouth and out the neck and carried them by the bark or by the hair back to their war camp.

Next, they sliced and stripped back the skin of the skull down the back from crown to neck. The skull was thrown away and the skin turned inside out.

After scraping the inside of the skin clean, the head was placed inside a special pot and simmered until clean and reduced to two-thirds its natural size.

With the head now shrunken in size, the warrior sewed the back of the head closed. He did the same with the eyes and the lips, often leaving strips of bark or plant fiber extending from the mouth.

He placed hot pebbles or hot sand inside the head and shook it around to complete the drying cycle. While this was going on, he molded the face with a hot knife to look like the dead enemy. Sometimes the hair was cut short to fit the shrunken head or left long as a carrying handle.

The finishing touch came with dying the head a bluish black color with plant dyes and attaching a cord to wear the trophy around his neck.

Returning home with his trophies was cause for celebration. Raiding warriors showed off their tsanta, increasing their prestige within the tribe and assuming whatever qualities the victim might have possessed. When the demand for shrunken heads as curios, the Jivaros supplied them.

In addition to human heads, the Jivaros shrank the heads of tree sloths, believing them to the most like man.

If you are traveling to Ecuador and visiting the colonial city of Cuenca don't miss a stop at the Museo Pumapungo del Ministerio de Cultura.

A large museum housed in a wing of the Central Bank where you can learn about the history of currency in Ecuador. However, it is also home to different indigenous life exhibits in Ecuador, including the shrunken heads. You are not permitted to take photos but here you can learn about the Jivaro tribes and view authentic tsanta.

The museum is large and requires several hours but fortunately, it is free so you can split your visit over a few days.

Museo Pumapungo del Ministerio de Cultura is located just on the edge of downtown Cuenca on eastern Calle Larga, intersecting with Huayna Capac. The museum is open weekdays 8 am-5:30 pm, Saturday 9am-1pm and closed on Sunday.

Interested in indigenous tribes in South America? Check out the Canari People of Ecuador.