The science of shrinking human heads

I’ve just found a wonderful article on how the Jivaro-Shuar, an indigenous people from the upper Amazon basin, shrink human heads after killing their enemies in battle. It’s from the medical journal Neurosurgery but it’s most fascinating for what it reveals about the complex customs and social relations that surround the practice.

The actual head shrinking is the end point in a raid on an enemies camp which apparently happens periodically, as they are almost always in revenge for being the victim of an earlier raid.

The victim of the revenge raid is not necessarily the perpetrator of the last attack. The new target is picked out by the shaman while under the influence of a hallucinogenic beverage called natéma (apparently a type of ayahuasca).

The significance of this vengeance cycle is remarkably similar to the one described by Jared Diamond in a New Yorker article on violence in the Handa people of New Guinea that we covered earlier this year.

The article does explain the process of shrinking heads, if ever you find yourself with a spare one, as well as the complex ritual and ceremonies that accompany the process and seem to pervade the whole life and identity of the Jivaro-Shuar.

Anyway, on to the head shrinking. After carefully removing the skin from and discarding the skull, a ritual pot is used to heat water.

As the water begins to grow warm, with a command, the headman leads the warriors in the rite: he seizes what remains of the head by its hair and, with the warriors‚Äô hands laid upon his hand grasping the victim‚Äôs head, he dips the head three times in the water. As he does this, he intones, ‚ÄúI dip the head in the boa‚Äôs water.‚Äù The warriors in turn respond, ‚ÄúHe is boiling the head.‚Äù The skin of the head is then placed in the vessel and allowed to steep for 15 to 20 minutes as the participants watch in silence. When the water reaches a boil, the vessel is removed from the fire, and the skin is recovered from the water with a stick and hung up on the tip of a spear to dry….

They retrieve the skin from its place on the spear and bind the hair on its scalp. Eyelet holes are pierced through the base of the neck, transforming the skin into a sort of pouch. The mouth is sewn shut with darts from below as the participants intone: “He is sewing.” The eyelids are sutured closed in a similar manner.

With the enemy’s skin now a pouch with a single mouth, the base of the neck, the skin is dried with heated sand and stones. The sand is heated on a round, hollow plate. The senior member of the party leads the warriors involved in the kill in scooping up the sand with a vessel and pouring it into the head, then shaking the head to drive the sand as far into the pouch as possible. This is repeated for hours as the participants repeat the chant, “I am pouring sand.” A large flat stone is likewise heated in the fire and used, held with the help of a leaf folded for the purpose, on the outside layer of the skin. The head is then complete.

Interestingly, once made, the heads are usually discarded as the significance lies in the process rather than the product.

It’s a completely fascinating article and really worth reading in full.

Link to article ‘The science of shrinking human heads’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

3 Comments

  1. Posted October 9, 2008 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Supposedly real Jivaro shrunken heads are offered on Ebay once in a while. Maybe it’s just as well that they’re not a high demand item. I can just imagine what would happen if the ones offering them found out they could make good money selling them online.

  2. Posted October 10, 2008 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    I knew there was a reason I was subscribed to your blog all these weeks. Now this is something fascinating and easy to grasp. So it’s not a shrunken head at all… it’s a shrunken scalp. I’ve wondered for years how do they shrink the skull. The answer as you showed us is, they don’t. The skull with brains is discarded. That’s strange to me that all they keep is the skin of the head.
    I really enjoyed the “Lord of the Flies” type pictures that came to mind as I pictured people saying “He is sewing” over and over again. Makes me all chicken skins.
    Thanks for this article – amazing hack that I’m sure other science blogs wouldn’t touch. :) Go for it!

  3. St Louis
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Readers interested in this topic may wish to see the Shrunken Man section of Edmund Carpenter’s Two Essays: Chief and Greed, about the Heye Foundation, which once owned two shrunken men. I quote (with permission of the author):
    “Even today, Jivaro shrunken heads enjoy an international market. Thousands enter that market each year. Nearly all are fakes. Monkey or sloth heads may be used, or fur may be mounted over a mold, then trimmed. These are easily detected: eyebrows grow in opposite directions or are ‘brush cut.'”
    Caveat emptor.


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