The Bizarre Practice of Head Shrinking – article

NEW! Rate this movie! Click on a star to vote
[Total: 0   Average: 0/5]

The bizarre practice of shrinking a human head has an extremely dark history. While numerous cultures have participated in the practice of headhunting, the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Peruvian Amazon Jivaro Indian Tribe did more than just headhunt: they shrunk the heads that they collected.

Before we get into the history of the one and only tribe known to shrink human heads, we will first discuss some fascinating information on the more prevalent practice known as “head hunting.”

A genuine shrunken head from Ecuador [between 1890 and 1930]
The Purpose of Head Hunting

Following battle, the victor removed the head of their adversary; the severed head serves as his trophy. Believe it or not, head hunting has been practiced throughout much of the world.

Here is an original portrait of a British army officer and artist who lived from 1843-1925. 

Horatio Gordon Robley shows off his extremely creepy collection of real preserved human heads

Mokomokai are the severed heads of the Māori people (the indigenous people of New Zealand). In the 1860s, Robley served in New Zealand during the New Zealand land wars. His collection consisted of 35-40 mokomokai. Despite his failed attempt to sell his collection to the New Zealand Government, he was able to sell most of it to the American Museum of Natural History.

Robley’s fascination with the art of tattooing lead him to write text on the subject of moko, Moko; or Maori Tattooing in 1896. Moko is facial tattoos of a Māori to designate their tribal identity. In pre-European Māori culture, moko was a sign of high social status. Generally it was men who had full facial moko. However, high-ranked women were known for having moko on their chin and lip.

The illustration shows a chief who is looking to trade a severed head for firearms and ammunition [1896]
In the early 19th century, with the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand, tribes would trade mokomokai with European sailors, traders and settlers in exchange for firearms and ammunition. In order to get more firearms for defense, tribes would often carry out raids on their neighbours.

They would acquire severed heads for trade. In desperation to trade as many mokomokai as possible, tribes tattooed their slaves and prisoners with worthless designs, instead of moko.

During this period, the severed heads were also considered commercial trade items. They were sold in Europe and America for high prices as they were considered curiosities and museum specimens.

The Mokomokai Preservation Process

  • The head is severed.
  • First, the brain and eyes are removed.
  • Orifices are sealed with flax fibre and gum.
  • The head is boiled or steamed in an oven.
  • The severed head is smoked over an open fire and dried in the hot sun for a few days.
  • Shark oil is used to treat the head. It has been used for hundreds of years as a folk remedy to promote the healing of wounds.
  • Finally, the severed heads were placed in carved boxes and were brought out solely for sacred ceremonies.

Mokomokai were also considered “trophies of war,” as they were often the severed heads of enemy chiefs who were killed in battle.

Others Who Practiced Headhunting

During the 3rd century B.C.E. (300 B.C.E. to 201 B.C.E.), the Chinese state of Qin’s soldiers collected the heads of their fallen adversaries. The collected heads were tied around the soldier’s waist and used to terrorize enemies during future battles.

Throughout the middle ages, the Celts of Europe also participated in the practice of head hunting. The triumphant Celtic warrior took the heads he collected during battle and nailed them to his walls to serve as a warning to others.

The Marind-anim tribe of New Guinea removed the heads of their opponents so they could control their spirits. They also consumed the flesh of their slain opponent.

<a href="" target="_blank">"Chromesun mississippian priest digital painting"</a> by <a href="" target="_blank">Heironymous Rowe</a> is licensed under <a href="" target="_blank">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>
This is a digital painting of a priest from Mississippian culture (approximately 800 B.C.E. to 1600 B.C.E.). In addition to his ceremonial flint mace is a severed human head

The Jivaro Indians and Their Gruesome Practice

Despite the various forms of headhunting practiced around the world, The Jivaro Indians are the only documented group of headhunters that practiced the art of reducing the human head to the size of a man’s fist.
An image comparing the size of a human skull and a shrunken head.

The Jivaroan Indian Tribe

The Jivaroan tribe actually consists of four sub-tribes: Achuar, Aguaruna, Huambisa and Shuar. All of these tribes reside in the Amazon Rainforest: The Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest, to be exact. The Shuar tribe is notorious for practicing the art of shrinking human heads. Once the head is reduced, it is referred to as a ‘tsantsa.’ Transforming a head into a tsantsa was a deadly insult to the slain warrior as well as his entire tribe.  

The Tsantsa

According to the Shuar, the tsantsa possesses power. Initially, the severed head serves as a trophy indicating that the warrior had fulfilled his obligation to his ancestors by taking blood revenge. The tribe believed that the creation of the tsantsa pleased the spirits of their ancestors, who would bestow the tribe with fortune and a bountiful harvest. Accordingly, if the murders of their ancestors were not properly avenged, misfortune would fall upon the tribe. Interestingly, the tribe was much more concerned about the potential wrath of their ancestors than they were of the vindictive actions of an enemy ghost.

The Jivaro believe that by shrinking the head, the spirit (wakani) attached to it becomes trapped inside. Besides keeping the wakani from seeking revenge upon his/her killer, the wakani is also prevented from continuing on to the afterlife. The wakani’s inability to enter into the afterlife prevents it from harming the dead ancestors of the warrior.

The Jivaroan Tribe Considered a Fierce, War-Like Tribe

The Jivaroan Indian Tribe is the only tribe that was successful in its revolt against the Spanish Empire. The tribe endured the Incas, who were in search of gold, and challenged the audacity of the first conquistadors who attempted to disrupt their freedom. According to early Spanish chronicles, in 1599 all four of the Jivaroan sub-tribes came together and raided two settlements. The tribes apparently massacred 25,000 colonial Europeans.

The Logrono Massacre occurred because the Spanish governor of a colony in Ecuador demanded that the natives pay taxes on profits from their gold-trade.  

The anger of the Jivaro tribe was taken out on the visiting governor. Members of the tribe poured molten gold down his throat. This torture session ended quickly once his bowels burst. Directly thereafter, the Spaniards that remained were killed. However, while older women and children were slain, the younger women were considered useful. Therefore, the tribe captured these women and forced them to join their clan. After gathering the items they wanted to keep, the settlement was torched and burned to the ground.

Their reputation as savages who practiced head-shrinking served them well, discouraging outsiders from encroaching upon their territory, despite the fact that they resided in one of South America’s richest regions for gold deposits.  

Although the four Jivaroan Indian Tribes found great success joining together to oppose the Spanish, they never actually united. The tribes were continuously at war with each other. For the majority of the world, wars are fought to gain and/or control territory, for the Jivaro, wars were fought as a means of vengeance.

Shrinking a Human Head

Typically, decapitation occurred directly following the kill; however, there were occasions when the enemy was decapitated prior to death. The decapitation process involved cutting the head off below the neck. In addition, a section of the skin on the back and chest is removed. The victor then uses his woven head-band or a vine as a means to carry his prize. He passes his headband/vine through the neck and mouth of the head, tying it over his shoulder while making a hasty retreat.

Directly following the battle, the warriors gather at an agreed upon location near a river. It is at this point that the process of shrinking the head begins.

  • A slit running from the neck and up to the back of the head is created. This allows the warrior to peel the skin and hair away from the skull.
  • After removing the skin and hair, the skull is pulled free. Upon removing the skull, the warrior also removed the brain, tongue, throat, tonsils, eyes and nasal system. All of which were thrown into the river to serve as a gift to Pani, the anaconda.
  • The eyelids are sewn shut using a very fine fiber.
  • The warrior then closes the lips and skewers them with tiny wooden pegs. Eventually, these pegs are removed and dangling strings applied.
  • At this point, the head is placed in a sacred cooking jar or boiling pot to be simmered for approximately two hours. Timing the simmering is essential because if left simmering too long, the hair begins falling out.
  • Once the simmering process is complete, the skin is rubbery and dark. The head is now much smaller and is about 1/3 of its initial size.
  • The warrior turns the skin inside out.
  • He uses a knife to scrape off any remaining flesh.
  • The skin is then turned right side out.
  • Now, the warrior sews the slit in the back of the head together. Following this step, the feel of the head can be compared to an empty rubber glove.
  • Hot stones and sand are used for the final shrinking process. During this process, the interior of the head is seared and shrinks even further.
  • The warrior drops these hot stones one at a time through the opening of the neck.
  • He continuously rotates the stones inside the head to prevent scorching.
  • As the skin shrinks, rotating the stones becomes difficult.
  • At this point, hot sand is used in place of the stones.
  • This hot sand is able to enter areas that the stones were unable to reach (i.e., the nose and ears).
  • Once the head shrinking process is complete, hot stones are applied to areas of the exterior face to shape and seal its features.
  • The warrior burns off any excess hair.
  • Charcoal ash is rubbed on the face to darken it. The Jivaro also believed that this step insured that the soul of the enemy would remain trapped inside.
  • When the shrinking process is complete and the exterior facial features are addressed, the tsantsa is hung above a fire.
  • As it hangs above the fire, the tsantsa hardens and turns black.
  • The lips are dried by applying a heated machete to them.
  • Once the lips are dried, the pegs are removed and three palm shoots (chonta) are placed through them.
  • The lips are then fastened together using string.
  • The final steps of tsantsa creation are completed in the forest, just a few hours away from the village. The warrior creates a hole in the top of his tsantsa. He inserts a double Kumai through this hole and ties it to the palm shoots inside. Once this step is complete, he can wear his tsantsa around his neck.
  • The entire head shrinking process lasted for about a week. The warriors worked on their severed heads every day on the journey back to their village.

Real vs. Fake

If you are interested in purchasing a fake shrunken head, there are plenty online. Stores such as Amazon and eBay sell them for various prices. While some are made cheap, others are a bit more expensive because they are often made of goat skins, as well as other animal skins.

Is It Legal to Own a Genuine Shrunken Head?

Over the years, tsantsas have become a very popular item with collectors of oddities. Various sources on the web claim that it is illegal to import shrunken heads into the United States. However, some sources say that the trade is legal simply because they are considered antiques.

It is safe to say that if you are interested in acquiring a genuine ceremonial/tribal shrunken head, it is recommended you first contact a lawyer.

If you are interested in acquiring a tourist shrunken head, you won’t have to worry about an illegal purchase. The reason tourist heads are legal is because unlike the ceremonial/tribal heads, the person was not killed specifically for their head. Towards the end of the 19th century, tribes would participate in the shrinking process in order to supply tourists.

How To Tell If a Tsantsa is Real

It you look at the image of the real shrunken head in the subheading of this article titled “Shrinking a Human Head,” you can clearly see that it has eyebrows, eyelashes and even nose hairs.

However, before you conclude that the head is real, also check to see if it has pores and wrinkles. Even if you are 100% sure it is real, it is recommended that you first contact a professional. Also, be careful with shrunken heads that are made to look real (such as those with animal skins).

Kirin Johnson, moviesandmania

This article is based upon Kirin’s previous article at, plus additional information.

Related: The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake | Shrunken Heads

MOVIES and MANIA provides an independent aggregated range of previews, opinions and reviews from a wide variety of credited sources, plus our own reviews, in one handy web location. We rely solely on the very minor income generated by affiliate links and internet ads to stay online and expand. Please support us by not blocking ads on our site. And if you haven't already, why not scroll back up to the top of this post and rate this movie by clicking a star? Thank you.

Leave your comment here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.