The majority of shrunken heads (or tsantsas) were created by warrior tribes of the Upper Amazon basin in South America (in what is now Ecuador and northern Peru), most notably the Jivaro or Shuar.
When most people speak of shrunken heads, these are the heads they refer to. It is worthy of note however that the practise has occurred elsewhere, including Europe and Africa. It is said that even the Knights Templar may have been shrinking heads.
Shrunken heads then, a Rorschach test of sorts. When you look at one, what do you see?
Sadism? Magic? Revenge? Savagery? Bravery? Gratitude? Madness? Yellow ooze?
Shrunken heads cast an eerie spell over all who view them, as well they should. People are fascinated and revolted by them, but it's rare they'll look away too quickly. A combination of atrocity, amusement, art and puzzle, shrunken heads have entranced us for over a hundred years now, and the allure shows no signs of waning.
There's a sort of uncanny valley-like effect going on when we look at shrunken heads. They're obviously human in form but they're equally obviously not human in appearance; they are in fact deeply, grotesquely weird in the true sense of the word.
One can start with the fact that it's a severed head we're talking about after all, with all that that image implies. The head is additionally often misshapen, wearing exaggerated features due to the shrinking process. It likely has its eyes sewn shut, its mouth sewn shut, sometimes with sticks forced through the lips. Finally - and most unnervingly of all - the head is unaccountably small.
How did it get that way? And why? The most thorough explanation as to the method likely comes by way of the San Diego Reader, but in the interest of brevity, I shall quote the Pitt Rivers Museum:
Making a shrunken head was done by removing the skin from the skull. The skull and brain were thrown away. The skin was boiled briefly and then dried with hot pebbles and sand. The features were preserved by shaping the skin with hot pebbles as the skin dried. The eyes and mouth were closed with cotton string, and the face blackened with vegetable dye. The head was then strung on a cord so it could be worn at a ritual feast by the man who had taken it.
The warrior preparing the tsantsa has a skeleton painted on his body. He must take his leave from the tribe until he is 'clean' again. The head-shrinking itself takes two days but the ceremonial feasts which are an important part of the ritual may take place up to a year later.
From William Jamieson's excellent History of the Shuar page:
The reasons behind the ceremonies held with the tsantsa are for the benefit of departed relatives in order to show that the Jivaros are fulfilling their obligations of blood revenge as well as to increase their own prestige. The possession of the trophy enabled the warrior to be singled out in admiration amongst his peers. During this victory celebration, the women captives stood around weeping. Accordingly, if no female captives were taken, proxies were appointed from among their own women to mourn for each tsantsa.
When a vanquished foe's actual head is unavailable for whatever reason, warriors made their tsantsa from the heads of sloths or fashioned a untsuri suara substitute from their victim's hair and a tree gourd.
I recently visited Ripley's Museum in Niagara Falls and was pleased to see that they have kept their shrunken heads out on view. Shrunken heads have, after all, been under re-examination in some quarters as regards their suitability for public display.
At the aforementioned Pitt Rivers Museum* in Oxford, England, Curator Laura Peers caused quite a stir last year when she conducted an "informal review" to see whether the heads on display there should be withdrawn from the viewing collection, or even returned to the closest living relatives (to be determined by DNA).
One local artist, Ted Dewan, was so aghast that he offered his own head (to be 'shrunk' after his death) as a replacement, should the museum's pieces be shipped back overseas; this offer was turned down by the museum, whose spokesperson added, “However, we hope to continue to see Mr. Dewan, alive and well, at the Pitt Rivers”.
Was Pitt going to get rid of its most popular exhibit then? It appeared so. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and the tsantsas will stay (read the library's statement on the heads halfway down this page). In fact, the possibility of their erasure seems to have only strengthened the public's love for these curios, and the museum has recently announced a four million pound extension.
Meanwhile, still in England, the recent opening of (yet another) Ripley's in London leaves little doubt as to the continued appeal of such oddities; press concerning the opening there would suggest shrunken heads were the museum's centrepieces.
In Niagara Falls, by contrast, they're almost tucked away (but nonetheless they're there and that's the important thing. Don't get me wrong. There's even a African "dead skin mask" in the next display, and a mummy's head later on).
Back in 2000, a shrunken head originally acquired by Ripley in 1926 was stolen from the Niagara Falls museum. The thief simply climbed over a fence and smashed the display case. The hair on this head was said to be 30 inches long, making it quite a fine head of hair indeed (estimated worth twenty-five thousand dollars, Canadian); the museum offered a thousand dollars for its return. The tsantsa I saw on my recent visit certainly had very long hair, but whether it was the stolen head of 2000 returned, I do not know.
A Shrunken Head
He's been stitched-up; two gummed, black-threaded eyes
Squint back across the decades in surprise
Through spiteful chinks of sunlight, acrid smoke,
Screwed-up against some wicked tribal joke.
His rictus has been sewn into a smile,
A tight-lipped dandy, puckered into style,
The clearing where his grisly fame began
Still broods beneath the kinks of wood-stained tan.
Flayed leather now,
his features smoked and cured,
His niche in culture gruesomely secured,
The needled grin is fixed, drawn back and set
Bone-dry in its reflective cabinet.
A hundred years ago he strayed alone
Towards this room of ritual skin and bone,
Believed in spirits, drank, was secretive
With knives and fish-hooks, dreamed his seed would live,
Sheathed his penis, sweated half the night
On invocations, prayed, prepared to fight,
And felt, perhaps, the moon's leaf-parted shine
Move up his legs and bathe his severed spine;
His head hacked off, half-baked into this face
That swings and grins inside its airless case.
Hung-up, he seems to twitch at each dropped word,
As if, although we whisper, he had heard,
And stares through us to what we cannot see,
Our unstitched smiles, their pale atrocity.
a poem by John Levett
(1991 UK National Poetry Competition winner)
The Victorian explorers and adventurers who first returned from South America with shrunken heads likely had little inkling of just how popular they would quickly become. Soon shrunken heads became a sort of strange trophy, a guaranteed conversation piece - and it was only a matter of time before enterprising hands began to make shrunken heads not of vanquished warriors but those who had died of old age, natural causes and the like.
It got so any head at all would do. The going price of $25 per was even enough, it is said, to encourage murders - for new heads to shrink and the profit that came with them. Fake shrunken heads became very popular, and are today quite valuable in their own right.
Many of these heads - whether real or fake - wound up in museums and it is there you are likeliest to see them today. Though the demand for a true shrunken head is still strong, the practise ceased by the 1970s and it is the rare head indeed which goes on the auction block nowadays.
Fake heads are still being created in the 21st century, only made from animal skins; if you ever read online of 'shrunken heads for sale', it is likely you are talking about something made of goat, not human.
Horror comics, Hollywood movies and hotrod rear-view mirrors have added up to a modern concept of the severed head that has little if anything to do with the ideas that inspired and explain the originals. In a mere century, popular culture has gone from Victorian morbid fascination and Edwardian fakery to present-day children's books and video games.
Frankly though, I'll take my severed heads any way I can get them.
*Presently closed for renovations, please note. You can visit the museum virtually and take a tour though.
Bonus: More great pictures of shrunken heads here, here (with excellent commentary), and here (and here and here).
And also here and here.