A shrunken head is a severed and specially prepared human head that is used for trophy, ritual, or trade purposes. Headhunting has occurred in many regions of the world. But the practice of headshrinking has only been documented in the northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest, and the only tribes known to have shrunken human heads are of the Jivaroan tribes, found in Ecuador and Peru.
The process of creating a shrunken head begins with removing the skull from the head. An incision is made on the back of the neck and all the skin and flesh is removed from the cranium. Red seeds are placed underneath the eyelids and the eyelids are sewn shut. The mouth is held together with three palm pins. Fat from the flesh of the head is removed. It is here that a wooden ball is placed in order 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 down with charcoal ash. Decorative beads are 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. Shrunken heads are known for their mandibular prognathism, facial distortion and shrinkage of the lateral sides of the forehead; these are artifacts of the shrinking process.
The practice of preparing shrunken heads originally had religious significance; shrinking the head of an enemy was believed to harness the spirit of that enemy and compel him to serve the shrinker. It was said to prevent the soul from avenging his death.
When westerners created an economic demand for shrunken heads there was a sharp increase in the rate of killings in an effort to supply collectors and tourists. The terms headhunting and headhunting parties come from this practice. Guns were usually what the tribes acquired in exchange for their shrunken heads, the rate being one gun per head. But weapons were not the only items exchanged; during the 1930s, when heads were freely exchanged, a person could buy a shrunken head for about twenty-five dollars. A stop was put to this when the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments worked together to outlaw the traffic in heads.
Also encouraged by this trade, as early as the 1870s people in Colombia made fake heads using corpses from morgues, or the heads of monkeys or sloths. Some even used goat-skin. Kate Duncan wrote in 2001 that “It has been estimated that about 80 percent of the shrunken heads in private and museum hands are fraudulent,” including almost all that are female or which include an entire torso rather than just a head. Local people would not guide teams into the jungle for fear of being killed and their heads shrunk.
Since the 1940s, it has been illegal to import shrunken heads into the United States. In 1999, the National Museum of the American Indian repatriated the authentic shrunken heads in its collection to Ecuador.Most other countries have also banned the trade. Currently, replica shrunken heads are manufactured as curios for the tourist trade. These are made from leather and animal hides formed to resemble the originals.
After World War II, shrunken heads were found at the Buchenwald concentration camp that were alleged to have been of prisoners. One of them was subsequently presented as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials by U.S. Executive Trial Counsel Thomas J. Dodd even though none of the accused was specifically charged with shrinking these heads.
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