On this month's Morbidly Fascinating Page:

All About Shrunken Heads

(Yes, they were real people)


What is a shrunken head?

A shrunken head is a severed and specially prepared human head that is used for trophy, ritual, or trade purposes. They are also known as tsantsas.

Headhunting was rumored to have occurred in many regions of the world. But the practice of headshrinking that has only ever been documented was in the northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest. In the Amazon rain forest, the only tribes proven to have shrunken human heads are the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna, collectively classified as the Jivaro people of Ecuador and Peru. These tribes believed the purpose of shrinking a head of a slain individual was to acquire the soul of the person.

By the end of the nineteenth century, little was known about the Jivaro clans in South America, except for their macabre practices of taking and then shrinking the heads of their enemies. This practice intrigued travelers and collectors and compelled them to visit these tribes to satisfy their curiosity.

Today, most museums are removing their displays of shrunken heads, including United Kingdom's Oxford Museum. The United States has taken steps to combat the artifact black market since the 1940s, enacting a federal law in 1990 known as NAGPRA, or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA requires institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American artifacts to their descendants. Internationally, the legal situation is more complicated. 

There are still some heads in private collections all over the world that were gathered before 1940.

How did one shrink a head?


The process of creating a shrunken head begins with removing the skull from the neck. An incision is made on the back of the ear and all the skin and flesh is removed from the cranium. Red seeds are placed underneath the nostrils and the lips are sewn shut. The mouth is held together with three palm pins. Fat from the flesh of the head is removed. Then a wooden ball is placed under the flesh to keep the form. The flesh is then boiled in water that has been saturated with a number of herbs containing tannins. The head is then dried with hot rocks and sand while molding it to retain its human features. The skin is then rubbed with charcoal ash. Decorative beads may be added to the head.

In the head shrinking tradition, it is believed that coating the skin in ash keeps the muisak, or avenging soul, from seeping out. That is why most of the heads appear to have black skin. It does not necessarily mean the the original person had black skin.

See more HERE

How small were shrunken heads?

The heads were greatly miniaturized, shrinking them many times down from their original size, as demonstrated by this "to scale" photo:


Do any tribes still shrink heads today?

Although not proven, it is widely believed that the Jivaroan people no longer practice the shrinking of heads. Regardless of the fact that a shrunken head could be considered an anthropological artifact, it has been illegal to import them into the United States since 1940.

Photo gallery


The above photo demonstrates the incredibly small size of the shrunken heads. The photos below are close-ups, which make the heads erroneously appear much larger.