This product was sold for £350.00Ref: 106
A decorative shrunken head
** Please do not read any further if you are a squeamish! **
A shrunken head is a decapitated head of a human that has shrunk during the cooking process by members of the Jivaroan tribes of the northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador and Peru. “WHY?” You may ask! Members of the tribes believed in a vengeful spirit that inhabited the human body called Muisak. To block Muisak from using it’s powers when a person has been killed the heads would be severed and then shrank, they would then be called tsantas. Muisak was thought to take over the control of the soul of the victim. Removing the head from the body showed the ancestors of the warrior that they had successfully fulfilled the obligation to the lineage in taking blood revenge. It also demonstrates to others that Jivaroan tribes were skillful warriors. During battles with other tribes, the headband of the victim would be used as a carrying strap by threading it through the mouth and neck hole! The victim would sometimes still be alive when this decapitation occurred.
“Shrinking” the head would have occurred a few different ways. Sometimes it would happen straight away, and take about 1 week with the warriors working on it while they travelled back to their village. If this was the case, the warriors would meet a safe distance from the village that had been attacked and begin by making a slit in the neck and up the back of the severed head. This allowed the skin and hair to be peeled away from the skull, the latter of which would then be discarded as an offering to the pani, or anaconda, which the tribes considered to be a spirit helper.
Alternatively if the trip home wasn’t a long one, the villagers would have a week long celebratory party of eating and drinking, while the heads were boiling. To start the shrinking process, they eyelids would be sewn shut and the lips held shut with a wooden skewer. The head would then be simmered for about an hour and a half, however the timings are not necessarily exact as it would be until the heads were thought to be soft enough, but not gooey with the hair falling out. Once boiled, the head would be about one third of its original size, and the skin would be dark and rubbery. The skin would then be peeled from the bone and any remaining flesh scraped off. It would them be turned the right way and the rear be sewn together. Hot stones and sand would then be inserted into the cavity to make it contract from the inside. This process acted as ‘tanning’ as you would an animal hide to preserve it.
Once the desired size had been reached, more hot stones would be applied to the outside of the face to seal and shape the features. The skin would be rubbed with charcoal ash to darken it as it was believed that doing so would further prevent the vengeful soul from seeping out.
The finished item would then be hung over a fire to harden and blacken. The wooden pegs holding the lips together would be removed and replaced with string.
The final step would involve a hole being made in the top of the head and sticks and string inserted. This was to enable it to be worn around the warriors neck as a trophy. Once completed, they would be presented to the villagers as a sign of victory and a feast would ensue.
Despite the preparation time and effort, many of the heads would be discarded shortly after the celebrations ended. Initially they were fed to animals, of given to children as toys, but as tourism developed they were taken as fascinating souvenirs and collectables. They then became tradable items – not your usual gift shop purchase!