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8 Disturbing Facts About Real Shrunken Heads

Are shrunken heads real? How are shrunken heads made? Although the realities of head shrinking are gruesome, it’s also deeply intriguing. So, if you’ve ever wanted the facts about shrunken heads, here are 8 disturbing ones we think you should know.

Shrunken heads of the Shuar Tribe, from the exhibition Mummies of the World, Houston Museum Of Natural Science

Shrunken heads, also known to natives as tsantsas, are a traditional ritual rooted in superstition and mystery. Here, we’re exploring what they were used for, how they were made, if the practice still exists, and other questions you might have about shrunken heads.

Beware! It can get pretty gruesome, so if you have a weak stomach, it’s probably best to check out some of our other articles.

1. What Were Shrunken Heads Used For?

Shrunken head in The Knight Bus
Shrunken head in The Knight Bus

Tsantsas are severed human heads that were used by tribal cultures in myriad ways. Sometimes, they were used as a trophy. In other cases, tribes might use them to scare off an enemy, using the heads as a threat. These were also used in religious rituals and, recently, they were even used for trade purposes.

2. Which Countries Or Cultures Performed Head Shrinking?

Pwanchir Pitu, Achuar shaman, Jivaroan indigenous person from northern Peru or eastern Ecuador
Pwanchir Pitu, Achuar shaman, Jivaroan indigenous person from northern Peru or eastern Ecuador

Although headhunting was a common practice among many ancient tribes, the act of shrinking those heads has only been found throughout the northwestern Amazonian region of South America.

Known as the Jivaroan people, these tribes in the Amazon region include the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa, and Aguaruna people of modern-day Ecuador and Peru.

 


RELATED ARTICLE:

Similarities between Mayan and Aztec gods and goddesses


 

Jivaro Territory highlighted in red, between Ecuador and Peru, via Wheeler Expeditions, 2016.
Jivaro Territory highlighted in red, between Ecuador and Peru, via Wheeler Expeditions, 2016.

Additionally, there is some evidence that the Aztecs practiced a shrunken head ritual along with tribes in some areas of modern-day Venezuela. It seems to be a tradition that is most-often associated with indigenous South Americans and has been brought into voodoo culture of similar origins.

3. Are Shrunken Heads Real Human Heads?

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull, via Wellcome Museum
Shrunken head compared with a normal human skull, via Wellcome Museum

Yes, they are real human heads. That means that if you’ve seen authentic tsantsas exhibited at museums and in private collections around the world, they would have belonged to actual human beings. Pretty crazy, right?

However, it is now estimated that around 80 percent of all these heads in museum collections are actually counterfeit versions of the tribal token. But more on that later.

4. How Were Shrunken Heads Made?

After a successful hunt, the priests begin the shrinking process, via Real Shrunken Heads, 2017.
After a successful hunt, the priests begin the shrinking process, via Real Shrunken Heads, 2017.

Shrunken head rituals seem to most often be associated with war and the superstitions behind getting rid of your enemy. Headhunter warriors would decapitate enemies of the tribe and, depending on the ritual, the shrinking process could begin right away.

The warrior might remove their headband and thread it through the neck and mouth of the decapitated head for easy transport. The warrior also might make an incision from the back of the neck, all the way up the skull, preparing to remove the skin and hair.

After a successful hunt, the priests begin the shrinking process, via Real Shrunken Heads, 2017.

 


RELATED ARTICLE:

Similarities between Mayan and Aztec gods and goddesses


 

A collection of shrunken heads in display in “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” in Seattle, Washington, via Wikipedia, 2008.
A collection of shrunken heads in display in “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” in Seattle, Washington, via Wikipedia, 2008.

The discarded skulls would often be offered to anacondas, which were seen as spiritual guides in their culture. Then, once the warriors returned to the tribe, the boiling process would begin with lavish celebrations full of eating and drinking.

First, the eyelids were sewn shut and the lips were skewered with sticks. Then, in a large boiling pot of water, the heads were simmered, emerging about a third of their original size with darker skin that was more rubbery and tough.

The process continues as hot stones and sand were placed inside the heads which created a “tanning” effect on the inside and the head was shaped further using additional hot stones until it was molded into the desired shape.

Finally, the heads were rubbed with charcoal or smoked over a fire to blacken, as it was believed that this would keep the avenged soul from escaping the head. Then, the head was placed on a stick or attached to string as a trophy either carried or worn around a warrior’s neck.

5. How Long Does It Take to Make a Shrunken Head?

A Jivaro priest is shown teaching the head shrinking ritual to the future successors of the tribe, via “All that’s Interesting”, 2018.
A Jivaro priest is shown teaching the head shrinking ritual to the future successors of the tribe, via “All that’s Interesting”, 2018.

The shrinking process doesn’t take long at all. The ritual side of things, on the other hand, would usually last a total of about six days. For the heads to shrink, they would be boiled for only about two hours. Boiling it for too long would leave them ending up gooey and destroyed.

Although it doesn’t take an exorbitant amount of time, surprisingly, these were discarded immediately after the ritual and celebrations were complete. But, when tourists and collectors started to become interested, these tribes saw an opportunity to use shrunken heads as goods in trading practices. Otherwise, they were often fed to animals or given to children as toys.

6. Does the Shrunken Head Practice Still Exist?

“Tsantsa” or Shrunken Head of a warrior, via Real Shrunken Heads, 2017.
“Tsantsa” or Shrunken Head of a warrior, via Real Shrunken Heads, 2017.

The trafficking of these heads was outlawed by Ecuadorian and Peruvian governments in the 1930s but there doesn’t seem to be any laws in Ecuador or Peru that prevent shrinking heads outright.

In the 90 years since lawmakers made the sale of tsantsas illegal, it may have still been practiced by the older generations. But the more Western culture and religion seeped into the area, the less these rituals were executed.

Most likely, an authentic shrunken head hasn’t been made in over 20 years.

7. Can Shrunken Heads Be Obtained or Bought Today?

A DNA test is about to be applied on two shrunken heads, via The Irish Sun, 2019.
A DNA test is about to be applied on two shrunken heads, via The Irish Sun, 2019.

Tsantsas from South America were highly sought-after commodities by Westerners, especially during the late 1800s and early 1900s. This meant that tribes actually started killing each other just to meet this commercial demand.

As previously mentioned, the sale of them became illegal by the 1930s which discouraged murder for this purpose. So, if you see them being sold online, you can assume that they’re not actually human heads that were shrunken as a tribal ritual. Still, if you’re enamored by these cultures and superstitions, it might still be something you want to have for yourself, regardless of its authenticity.

8. What Are Shrunken Head Replicas Made From?

Replica of a Tsantsa made with animal skin, via Dead Isled Morgue, 2020.
Replica of a Tsantsa made with animal skin, via Dead Isled Morgue, 2020.

Shrunken head replicas can be made of synthetic materials such as leather or fabric while others are made of animals such as pigs, cows, or chimpanzees. However, the legality of using animals for this purpose is also in question.

As you might imagine, many fake tsantsas are offered and sold as genuine to collectors and casual buyers at relatively high prices. So, even if a seller is claiming to have a real shrunken head, it’s smart to be skeptical of such claims.

Overall, the heads have a gruesome yet interesting history and these artifacts have surely made their way into mainstream culture. Now, you probably associate shrunken heads with voodoo or Harry Potter magic. But hopefully, this sheds some light on their origins.

Shrunken heads of the Shuar Tribe, from the exhibition Mummies of the World, Houston Museum Of Natural Science

Shrunken heads, also known to natives as tsantsas, are a traditional ritual rooted in superstition and mystery. Here, we’re exploring what they were used for, how they were made, if the practice still exists, and other questions you might have about shrunken heads.

Beware! It can get pretty gruesome, so if you have a weak stomach, it’s probably best to check out some of our other articles.

1. What Were Shrunken Heads Used For?

Shrunken head in The Knight Bus
Shrunken head in The Knight Bus

Tsantsas are severed human heads that were used by tribal cultures in myriad ways. Sometimes, they were used as a trophy. In other cases, tribes might use them to scare off an enemy, using the heads as a threat. These were also used in religious rituals and, recently, they were even used for trade purposes.

2. Which Countries Or Cultures Performed Head Shrinking?

Pwanchir Pitu, Achuar shaman, Jivaroan indigenous person from northern Peru or eastern Ecuador
Pwanchir Pitu, Achuar shaman, Jivaroan indigenous person from northern Peru or eastern Ecuador

Although headhunting was a common practice among many ancient tribes, the act of shrinking those heads has only been found throughout the northwestern Amazonian region of South America.

Known as the Jivaroan people, these tribes in the Amazon region include the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa, and Aguaruna people of modern-day Ecuador and Peru.

 


RELATED ARTICLE:

Similarities between Mayan and Aztec gods and goddesses


 

Jivaro Territory highlighted in red, between Ecuador and Peru, via Wheeler Expeditions, 2016.
Jivaro Territory highlighted in red, between Ecuador and Peru, via Wheeler Expeditions, 2016.

Additionally, there is some evidence that the Aztecs practiced a shrunken head ritual along with tribes in some areas of modern-day Venezuela. It seems to be a tradition that is most-often associated with indigenous South Americans and has been brought into voodoo culture of similar origins.

3. Are Shrunken Heads Real Human Heads?

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull, via Wellcome Museum
Shrunken head compared with a normal human skull, via Wellcome Museum

Yes, they are real human heads. That means that if you’ve seen authentic tsantsas exhibited at museums and in private collections around the world, they would have belonged to actual human beings. Pretty crazy, right?

However, it is now estimated that around 80 percent of all these heads in museum collections are actually counterfeit versions of the tribal token. But more on that later.

4. How Were Shrunken Heads Made?

After a successful hunt, the priests begin the shrinking process, via Real Shrunken Heads, 2017.
After a successful hunt, the priests begin the shrinking process, via Real Shrunken Heads, 2017.

Shrunken head rituals seem to most often be associated with war and the superstitions behind getting rid of your enemy. Headhunter warriors would decapitate enemies of the tribe and, depending on the ritual, the shrinking process could begin right away.

The warrior might remove their headband and thread it through the neck and mouth of the decapitated head for easy transport. The warrior also might make an incision from the back of the neck, all the way up the skull, preparing to remove the skin and hair.

After a successful hunt, the priests begin the shrinking process, via Real Shrunken Heads, 2017.

 


RELATED ARTICLE:

Similarities between Mayan and Aztec gods and goddesses


 

A collection of shrunken heads in display in “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” in Seattle, Washington, via Wikipedia, 2008.
A collection of shrunken heads in display in “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” in Seattle, Washington, via Wikipedia, 2008.

The discarded skulls would often be offered to anacondas, which were seen as spiritual guides in their culture. Then, once the warriors returned to the tribe, the boiling process would begin with lavish celebrations full of eating and drinking.

First, the eyelids were sewn shut and the lips were skewered with sticks. Then, in a large boiling pot of water, the heads were simmered, emerging about a third of their original size with darker skin that was more rubbery and tough.

The process continues as hot stones and sand were placed inside the heads which created a “tanning” effect on the inside and the head was shaped further using additional hot stones until it was molded into the desired shape.

Finally, the heads were rubbed with charcoal or smoked over a fire to blacken, as it was believed that this would keep the avenged soul from escaping the head. Then, the head was placed on a stick or attached to string as a trophy either carried or worn around a warrior’s neck.

5. How Long Does It Take to Make a Shrunken Head?

A Jivaro priest is shown teaching the head shrinking ritual to the future successors of the tribe, via “All that’s Interesting”, 2018.
A Jivaro priest is shown teaching the head shrinking ritual to the future successors of the tribe, via “All that’s Interesting”, 2018.

The shrinking process doesn’t take long at all. The ritual side of things, on the other hand, would usually last a total of about six days. For the heads to shrink, they would be boiled for only about two hours. Boiling it for too long would leave them ending up gooey and destroyed.

Although it doesn’t take an exorbitant amount of time, surprisingly, these were discarded immediately after the ritual and celebrations were complete. But, when tourists and collectors started to become interested, these tribes saw an opportunity to use shrunken heads as goods in trading practices. Otherwise, they were often fed to animals or given to children as toys.

6. Does the Shrunken Head Practice Still Exist?

“Tsantsa” or Shrunken Head of a warrior, via Real Shrunken Heads, 2017.
“Tsantsa” or Shrunken Head of a warrior, via Real Shrunken Heads, 2017.

The trafficking of these heads was outlawed by Ecuadorian and Peruvian governments in the 1930s but there doesn’t seem to be any laws in Ecuador or Peru that prevent shrinking heads outright.

In the 90 years since lawmakers made the sale of tsantsas illegal, it may have still been practiced by the older generations. But the more Western culture and religion seeped into the area, the less these rituals were executed.

Most likely, an authentic shrunken head hasn’t been made in over 20 years.

7. Can Shrunken Heads Be Obtained or Bought Today?

A DNA test is about to be applied on two shrunken heads, via The Irish Sun, 2019.
A DNA test is about to be applied on two shrunken heads, via The Irish Sun, 2019.

Tsantsas from South America were highly sought-after commodities by Westerners, especially during the late 1800s and early 1900s. This meant that tribes actually started killing each other just to meet this commercial demand.

As previously mentioned, the sale of them became illegal by the 1930s which discouraged murder for this purpose. So, if you see them being sold online, you can assume that they’re not actually human heads that were shrunken as a tribal ritual. Still, if you’re enamored by these cultures and superstitions, it might still be something you want to have for yourself, regardless of its authenticity.

8. What Are Shrunken Head Replicas Made From?

Replica of a Tsantsa made with animal skin, via Dead Isled Morgue, 2020.
Replica of a Tsantsa made with animal skin, via Dead Isled Morgue, 2020.

Shrunken head replicas can be made of synthetic materials such as leather or fabric while others are made of animals such as pigs, cows, or chimpanzees. However, the legality of using animals for this purpose is also in question.

As you might imagine, many fake tsantsas are offered and sold as genuine to collectors and casual buyers at relatively high prices. So, even if a seller is claiming to have a real shrunken head, it’s smart to be skeptical of such claims.

Overall, the heads have a gruesome yet interesting history and these artifacts have surely made their way into mainstream culture. Now, you probably associate shrunken heads with voodoo or Harry Potter magic. But hopefully, this sheds some light on their origins.

Jesus Santillan
Jesus Santillan
Jesus Santillan is a contributing writer and researcher with an emphasis on Mesoamerican civilizations. His studies include a Bachelor's in Anthropology with a focus on archaeology. In his free time he tutors students and writes independently. Jesus is from Zacatecas, and currently lives in San Luis Potosí, Mexico.

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