The Amazon headhunters

Head-shrinking rituals amongst the Jivaro indians

Tales are told of the results of the practice of shrinking heads, which are not without a certain grim irony. There is a story, for example, of a red-headed white man who went into the interior on a trip of exploration charged with the commission of bringing out a dried and shrunken head. It was months after he had departed that a shrunken-head came out, by devious channels, from the jungle, but the head had red hair…


H.E. Anthony, The National Geographic Magazine. October 1921.



Although there were many headhunting cultures throughout the world, only one group is known for the morbid practice of shrinking human heads. This group is called the Jivaro clan and lives deep in the Ecuadorian, and neighbouring Peruvian Amazon jungle.

Jivaro Warrior 1931. Jivaro Warrior 1931.

The Jivaros are the only tribe known to have successfully revolted against the Spanish Empire and to have been able to thwart all subsequent attempts by the Spaniards to conquer them. They have withstood the armies of gold-seeking Incas, and defied the early conquistadors.


The Jivaro tribe are comprised of four sub-tribes. The Shuar, Aguaruna, Huambisa, and the Achuar. Of these, the Shuar, are most commonly referred to when speaking of the Jivaro Indians. The Shuar have achieved their notoriety through their strange practice of head shrinking.


The Jivaro Indians are known to be an intensely warlike and proud group, tremendously protective of their freedom and unwilling to subordinate themselves to other authorities.


The Jivaro's fierce fighting reputation and head-shrinking practice has always discouraged outsiders from entering their territories.




Most Jivaro Indians would consider any victory over the enemy as incomplete, if they were unable to capture the heads of their fallen victims. Possessing the shrunken head, the so called tsantsa, will benefit the warrior's good fortune as well as please the spirits of his ancestors.

Tsantsa from The Dr Cagliostro collection Tsantsa from The Dr Cagliostro collection

The Jivaros also believe that the tsantsa itself possesses tsarutama or magical power.


Most importantly, the reason behind the preparation of the tsantsa is to paralyze the spirit of the enemy, which is trapped in the head, so that it cannot escape and take revenge upon the murderer. The tsantsa ritual also prevents the spirit from continuing into the afterlife where it could harm the soul of dead ancestors. When the warrior kills his enemy, he is not only after the victim's life, but more importantly he seeks to possess the victim's soul. 




Excerpt from an article by H.E. Anthony in The National Geographic Magazine. October 1921.


The head of the victim is cut off, and later, in the seclusion of his hut, the victor prepares it into a lasting war trophy, attaching to it the significance which the North American attached to scalps. The skin is opened up from the base of the neck to the crown, and the skull is removed entire, leaving only the soft, pliant skin.

Shuar tribesman shrinking a head. Photo by Lewis Cottlow 1954 Shuar tribesman shrinking a head. Photo by Lewis Cottlow 1954

The skin is now dipped into a vegetable extract which dyes it a blue-black and probably has some action preservative, and then the cut skin is sewed up along the neck to restore the head to its original form.

The cavity is filled with hot sand or pebbles, after which the head is constantly turned and moved, so that the drying goes on uniformly. When the sand has cooled, hot sand takes its place, and this process may last for several days before the head is completely cured.


Shrinking to an unbelievable degree takes place, but it is so regulated that the features retain their individuality to a great extent, and the finished head is about the size of a man¹s fist.


The lips have been sewed shut with a series of long cotton cords, the exact pattern of this stitching varying with the locality and seeming to have some significance.


H.E. Anthony, 1921 




The rituals surrounding the tsantsas have only been witnessed by outsiders on a few occasions, and our knowledge about these ceremonies are therefor very limited. The information we have, is gathered by explorers and missionaries, active in the Jivaro area. The latest known eyewitness is Polish documentary filmmaker Edmundo Bielawski, who captured footage of a human head shrinking ritual in 1961.


Edmundo Bielawski in the Amazon 1961 Edmundo Bielawski in the Amazon 1961

A successful raid on an enemy village is immediately followed by a series of tsantsa feasts. The tsantsa ritual where divided in three parts, each lasting several days with the second feast separated by an intermission of approximately a year.


The first of these feasts is referred to as "his very blood" or numpenk. This feast is held at the house of a previously appointed wea, or master of ceremonies who had agreed to act as the host.


The second feast is known as fulfilment or amianu, which is celebrated approximately a year later in the house of one of the tsantsa takers. The host of this ceremony usually builds a new house in celebration of the occasion.

Shuar tribesmen. Photo by D. Hibiery 1958 Shuar tribesmen. Photo by D. Hibiery 1958

After several months, if enough resources can be gathered, the third and largest feast is given. This is the final feast and is called napin. The feast includes a ceremony where the pins are removed from the lips and eyes of the tsantsa, and strings are passed through the holes.


The third and final of these feasts is called the napin, which is the largest of all feasts with the head-takers supplying all the food and drink for the next six days. The warriors smeared themselves with blood and danced with the heads of their enemies dramatizing the killing.


With the completion of the third ceremony the spirit of the fallen enemy has lost its strength, and is sent of to the afterlife with no ability to take revenge on its murderer or his ancestors.


Despite the amount of preparation of the trophy and feasts, immediately following the final celebration, the heads were discarded and used as toys by children or dogs and are eventually lost.




By the end of the nineteenth century, very little was known about the Jivaro Indian clans in South America, except for their gruesome practices of taking the heads of their enemies. The shrunken heads, and the mystical ceremonies and myths surrounding them, intrigued adventurers and collectors and compelled them to visit the Jivaro tribes in order satisfy their morbid curiosity.


The sudden contact with the civilized world helped revolutionize the Jivaro's methods of warfare. They began trading firearms and ammunition for shrunken human heads. The Jivaros soon become aware that the demand for their tsantsa was growing, and were quick to comply the traders in order to satisfy their rising need for firearms.


As the gruesome trade escalated, it soon became necessary for the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments to pass new laws prohibiting the traffic of human heads. The laws were intended to discourage tourists and travellers who bought the tsantsa as curios, unaware that their trade was perpetuating warfare against the Jivaros neighbouring tribes. When the tsanta trade reached its peak, the Jivaros demanded a rifle for each tsantsa, which allowed them to expand modernize their headhunt.


In the 1930s shrunken heads was sold in Northern America for approximately $25.00 a piece. This would equal about $300 today.


Soon, the demand for new heads excided the neighbouring population, and the headhunters turned to grave robbery and plundering of morgues.  Also, shrunken head manufactures outside the Jivaro tribes joined the thriving market and the situation soon got out of control.


Jivaro warrior with rifle 1947. Jivaro warrior with rifle 1947.

Towards the end of the 1930th the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments managed to put a stop to the tsantsa trade. However, the tsantsa tradition survived amongst the Jivaros for its original, mystical purposes.

In 1942, Norwegian etnografer Thor Heyerdahl recounts in his book Kon-Tiki that he had difficulty getting into the Jívaro area. Local people would not guide his team into the jungle for fear of getting killed and having their heads shrunk.


Apart from the great los of human life, the enormous tsantsa trade during the first decades of the 20th century caused a horrible and unforeseen problem. In order to produce shrunken heads in great numbers, the Jivaro only preformed the first part of the tsantsa ritual, in which the soul of the slain is captured in the sealed head. The heads was then sold before the vengeful ghost was neutralized in the final ritual.


Many fatal hauntings can be contributed to the carless purchase of an alluring souvenir from the dark jungles of the Amazon…

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