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Judith Miller

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Shrunken Heads

  • Judith Miller
  • 27 Oct 2012

People often ask me what the weirdest thing I’ve ever been asked to value is. Certainly a shrunken head is one of the weirdest! I’m afraid I didn’t know, though I thought it was probably worth a lot of money (if genuine), so I decided to look it up in time for Halloween:

Shrunken HeadThe Jivaro tribes (of which the Shuar are the best known) of Ecuador and Peru are famed for their fierceness and for their ritualistic practice of head-shrinking. To create a shrunken head (also known as a ‘tsantsa’) the skull was removed via an incision made in the back of the head, which was then sewn up, along with the mouth. The head was then boiled with tannin-rich herbs, dried with hot rocks and rubbed with charcoal ash, which reportedly prevented the ‘musiak’ (avenging soul) from escaping, before being stuffed with organic materials. This gory practice would supposedly harness the spirit of the dead person and compel them to serve the head-shrinker, while simultaneously warning off other enemies. The head would be used in a religious ceremony to celebrate the return of a war party, and then discarded, fed to animals, or used by children as a toy. The tribes took heads for revenge and spiritual renewal, and the finished product therefore lost its value at the conclusion of the ceremony.

Head hunter hat

Authentic ritual shrunken heads created for these purposes are relatively rare. However, from as early as 1850, Western collectors created an economic demand for these grisly souvenirs, trading trading firearms and ammunition for shrunken human heads. Consequently there was a distinct increase in the rate of killings. By the 1940s the situation had escalated to such an extent that the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments were forced to outlaw the trade. Today, it is illegal to import shrunken heads into the UK and USA, and many have been repatriated.

As early the 1870s people in Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador began to make counterfeit shrunken heads, using corpses from morgues, the heads of monkeys, or goatskin. Fakes can often be identified by their overly precise Needlework. According to Kate Duncan's book 1001 Curious Things, "It has been estimated that about 80 percent of the tsantsas in private and museum hands are fraudulent," including almost all that are female or which include an entire torso rather than just a head. A genuine human head might set you back £20,000-£40,000 ($35,000-55,000), but animal skin replicas can be bought on eBay for around £10 ($15).

Also shown is a traditional headhunter’s hat, from the Bontoc/Igorot people, North Phillipines, valued at £1,200-1,800 ($2,000-3,000).