Everything You Wanted to Know About Shrunken Heads, But Were Afraid to Ask

by Cristian I

Although this practice might be considered gruesome, they’re also artifacts of previous human cultures. They’ve become part of our modern society through voodoo, magic, and other perspective evolutions.

Are shrunken heads real?

Tsantsas are what the tribal cultures call shrunken heads. This item follows a traditional ritual that’s often rooted in mystery and superstition.

Before colonists started moving into tribal areas, the shrunken heads were often part of individualized ceremonies. When people began bringing guns and wanting to trade, these items quickly became a highly desirable, if not macabre, form of currency.

In case you were wondering, tsantsas are real. They are severed human heads that the tribal cultures used in numerous ways. If you conquered someone in battle, it could even be used as a trophy!

Most tribal cultures used them in religious rituals or to scare potential enemies away. Would you want to stick around if someone came at you with a necklace made from shrunken human heads?

Shrunken Heads
Shrunken Heads

Odd Facts About Shrunken Heads You May (Or May Not) Want to Know

Although shrunken heads are a fun tourist product you can find in some parts of the world, it’s not always a fake item. You can find real ones out there made from the faces of real people.

In most jurisdictions, shrunken heads are considered antiques. If you import them from another country, there could be duties and taxes for you to consider. Should you have any questions about legality, you’ll want to discuss what is or is not possible with the local authorities.

Once you get that information sorted, here is what you need to know about shrunken heads and their history.

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

1. Where Was Head Shrinking Performed?

Although most tribes got into some form of headhunting to show off their power and strength, most native cultures didn’t bother with the shrinking part. If you got a scalp, you were considered in good shape when you lived life as an ancient tribesperson.

The primary group associated with head shrinking is the Jivaroan people from the Amazon region. Other tribes that participated in it include the Achuar, Aguaruna, Huambisa, and Shuar. Most of the activities took place in what is now Peru and Ecuador.

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

Historians also believe that the Aztecs practiced some religious rituals that involved shrunken heads. It wasn’t something practiced throughout the empire, although there is extensive evidence of the activities taking place in Venezuela.

The actual practice of shrinking heads isn’t a lost art form these days, but it isn’t practiced in the same way. Since the value of one on the collector’s market is approximately $300 today, you’ll find several people trying to pass off their fakes as originals.

If you can still find an original one, they often trade for several thousand.

2. Are They Real Heads?

If you have seen an authentic tsantsa in a museum, then you looked upon the face of a human that walked this planet before. It’s crazy that people would carry around the tissues and materials of a fellow person as a collectible, but the practice was much more common than many people realize.

Experts estimate that up to 80% of the displays you’ll find throughout the world are counterfeit versions of an original tsantsa.

Shrunken head compared with normal skull
Shrunken head compared with normal skull

You can typically tell if a shrunken head is real or fake by looking at the piece’s overall craftsmanship. Since the Jivaro people (and the other tribes) didn’t have access to modern technology, they used wooden pins to seal the mouths when preparing the tissues for the shrinking process.

Since the forgers are trying to create something as quickly as possible, you’ll see the work of metal pins. That leaves a cleaner penetration through the skin, reducing the rough edges of the tsantsas.

The Jivaro also used a heavy cotton string to sew the back of the neck and the mouth closed when making their shrunken heads. When you see the ones on display in many museums worldwide, you’ll see thin thread used instead.

If you’re thinking about tsantsas, the easiest way to determine if it is real or not is to perform a DNA test. If you don’t get human results back, you know that the product was made for tourism or by a forger.

3. How Did They Get the Heads to Shrink?

Since you’re not going to shrink a human skull, you’ve got to remove the flesh from it to create a tsantsa. After removing the head from the person’s body, the individual would thread it through the mouth and neck to make it easier to transport.

They would also make incisions along the back of the neck, moving all of the way up the skull to remove the skin and hair from the bone.

Once the flesh was taken away from the skull, many of the tribal cultures offered the bones to the local snakes. These animals were often seen as being the spiritual guides for the culture. The eyelids would get sewn shut, followed by the lips getting skewered with sticks.

After that, the priests would let the heads simmer in boiling water until they emerged about one-third of their original size. This process helped to tighten up the stitching, darken the skin, and make the flesh tougher.

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.

Hot stones and sand would get placed inside the head next, creating the tanning effect that would preserve the shrunken heads. During the final step, the priests would add charcoal or smoke them over a fire to create a secondary darkening effect. That would prevent the soul from escaping.

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

It doesn’t take long to make a shrunken head once you set your mind to the process. It’s the rituals that take the most time, with most tribes requiring up to six days to complete the work.

Most people don’t know that the tribes would often discard the heads after completing the ritual. It was only when other people started taking an interest in the product they started getting sold or traded for different items.

If they had leftover shrunken heads in the past, they were often fed to the animals. Children would also play with them sometimes as toys.

Should you ever think of yourself as a poor parent, at least you’re not giving your child the shrunken head of an enemy you might have murdered.

5. Three spirits are believed to be inside tsantsas.

According to the Shuar people’s beliefs, the shrunken heads they produced were part of three elemental spirits that could get unleased under the right conditions.

  • The Wakani spirit was innate to humans, which meant that it could survive any death.
  • With the Arutam spirit, humans could protect themselves from experiencing a violent death.
  • The Muisak spirit was considered vengeful. It would surface when people who carried the Arutam were murdered.

The only way to block the vengeful spirit from using its powers was to sever the head of a fallen enemy. Then that part of the body had to go through the shrinking process to prevent its escape. If they failed to take action by a specific time, it was possible to lose your life in return.

Even when all of the precautions were taken to ensure that the spirits didn’t escape, most trophy owners didn’t keep the shrunken heads for long. If they weren’t used during a feast or ceremony celebrating the victory, they’d be stored or discarded.

Bizarre Shrunken Head
Bizarre Shrunken Head with a stitched mouth and feather headdress

6. Can I Get a Shrunken Head Today?

The legality of shrunken heads is a gray area because of the laws forbidding their export from Peru and Ecuador. The rules don’t ban their creation necessarily, but people are not allowed to ship them outside of the country.

The older cultures could still practice these techniques, but it is a process that’s typically frowned upon by western culture. It is unlikely that a new shrunken head has been made within the past 20 years.

Demand for tsantsas dropped dramatically during the Great Depression because everyone was more focused on taking care of their families and immediate needs. You can find replicas everywhere, including online, but that product is more for decorative purposes only. They use synthetic materials, including fabric, to create the piece.

Even then, it might not be legal to use animal hides to create a fake tsantsa.

Starting in 1999, the National Museum of the American Indian began the process of repatriating the authentic tsantsas it had in its collection. They would end up making their way to Ecuador. Most other countries have already banned the trade of real ones, although replicas are relatively straightforward to find.

Shrunken head model fallen warrior

Are Shrunken Heads Still Collectible Today?

Although this practice might be considered gruesome, they’re also artifacts of previous human cultures. They’ve become part of our modern society through voodoo, magic, and other perspective evolutions.

If you come across one that seems to be real and is offered for sale, you’ll still want to proceed with caution. With very few of them coming out of South America in the past few decades, it’s more likely that you’ve got a fake on your hands.

One of the places where you can see the real thing is at Seattle’s waterfront. In the Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, there’s a permanent display that contains several of them.




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