Ever since my aunt lifted me up to a glass case at the back of Oxfords Pitt Rivers Museum, at the impressionable age of eight, I have been hooked on shrunken heads. Like so many schoolboys before me, my lower jaw dropped as I gazed in awe at the array of miniature human heads, correctly known as tsantsas. There was something wholly captivating about their gnarled features, the sewn lips, little hollow necks and manes of jet black hair. I longed to learn the secret processes, known to a tribe deep in the South American jungle, which enabled decapitated human heads to be shrunk to the size of a grapefruit.
Despite an ongoing debate about whether museums should harbour human remains, the Pitt Rivers Museum still holds five, and the British Museum has at least ten. Interest in the gruesome exhibits remains strong. A roaring private trade in the illicit handicraft has developed, with heads being snapped up by wealthy collectors, many from the Far East and Japan. The genuine article comes from the Upper Amazon, a region on the Pastaza river between Peru and Ecuador. For thousands of years a tribe called the Shuar (misnamed by Western observers as Jivaro, meaning savage), shrunk the heads of their dead enemies. Although historically dozens of tribal societies have taken trophy heads, only the Shuar ever came up with the curious idea of reducing these trophies in size. One possible exception is the ancient Nazcan and coastal civilisations of the Atacama desert, with whom the Shuar share a common ancestry.
The Shuars victims were subject to swift and brutal attacks. During surprise raids on enemy villages, warriors would hack off as many heads as they could. The tsantsa raids were their raison detre. They proved a warriors bravery and the community's superiority. Retreating into the jungle with their fresh harvest of heads, the Shuar would begin work on their trophies immediately. They believed that humans have three souls. One of these the musiak is charged with avenging the victims death. The only way of pacifying the enraged soul was by shrinking the head in which it lay. During decapitation, a knife was used to peel back the victims skin from the upper part of the chest, the shoulders and the back. Then the head was chopped as far as possible, close to the collar bone using a stone-edged knife. The warrior would remove his own headband and thread it through the neck and out of the mouth, making it easier to carry, slung over the shoulder. The face was literally peeled off the skull, before being sewn up into a neat pouch of skin. This was steeped in hot water for a few minutes. Hot pebbles were then placed in the pouch, causing it to shrivel and shrink, taking great care not to damage the features. When the pouch was too small for pebbles, hot sand scooped from a riverbank was carefully swished about inside.
Next, the lips were sewn tightly shut with a strand of twine. A machete blade was heated and pressed against the lips to dry them. Then the facial skin was repeatedly rubbed with charcoal. Sometimes a large red seed was placed beneath the eyelids, filling the hole, preventing the musiak from seeing out. Between four and six days of treatment were needed for the basic tsantsa to be completed, at which time it was about the size of a mans fist. A hole was made at the top of the head and a string attached to it, so that the warrior could wear it around his neck for the celebratory tsantsa feast. As far as the Shuar people were concerned, the tsantsas had no intrinsic value, and they were merely tossed back into the jungle as soon as the avenging souls had been appeased. But once Victorian trailblazers got their hands on the curious trophies, a thriving market began. Search the Internet and you come across plenty of examples. Most of them are fakes, or made for the tourist trade, and are often fashioned from plucked goat skin, which has overly large pores. Genuine tsantsas have delicate nasal hair, and a light oily shine to the skin. Only a finished one will have twine hanging from the lips, which signifies that three enormous feasts have been held in honour of the head. On the Internet you can find black, white, and even Chinese shrunken heads.
They are outright fakes generally made in Guatemalan workshops at the turn of the last century. The Shuar would never have any cause to shrink a foreigners head, because they dont believe that outsiders have souls. On one expedition to the Upper Amazon, I hired a ramshackle boat and made for the remote Pastaza in search of the Shuar. My guide was a veteran of the USA-Vietnam war who told me that the Shuar tribe, made the Viet Cong look like pussy cats. Everyone en route warded us away. The Shuar will chop off your heads, they told us, and drink your blood and eat your brains. When we finally reached Shuar territory late in the evening, a man ran down to greet our boat and present me with a gift of a roasted monkey. In the background we could hear singing, which I was sure was the ancient ballads of the Shuar. Shrunken heads would be nearby. In the dawn light we climbed the steep bank up to the village, where the chief was waiting. He plied us with a strange white creamy beverage, called masato.
Only later did I realise how it is made. Manioc roots are boiled up and mashed with a stick. As they mash, the makers grab handfuls of the goo, chew it, and spit it back into the bowl. The enzymes in their saliva start off the fermenting process. After downing a third bowl of masato, I asked the chief if he had problems with the neighbouring villages. I motioned the shape of a small head with my hands. We love our neighbours, said the chief, they are our friends. We all pray together when the people in the flying boats come. 'Flying boats? The chief nodded. The friendly people from Alabama. They bring us tambourines and little pink pills but best of all, they brought us Jesus. What about war? What about heads? I asked. Why do we need to kill or shrink heads when we have the son of God? he replied. In little more than a generation the ancient ways of the Shuar have been changed forever. Small-scale petroleum projects in the deep jungle are one reason for this. But the overbearing responsibility must be assumed by a variety of missionary groups who have sought to cast the Shuar into the modern world, and to save their souls. Landing in remote jungle enclaves in flying boats, the white man has wrought change on an unprecedented scale.
The Shuar peoples have also been devastated by the measles, tuberculosis, venereal diseases and the common cold. The cures no longer come from traditional plant-based medicines but by handfuls of little pink pills. The only positive factor in terms of population is that the cessation of tsantsa raids has led to a reduction of death through warfare. After a tour of the village, the chief invited us to the makeshift church, built by the missionaries from Alabama. The proud former head-shrinkers stood in neat rows. As the noises of the jungle night echoed around us, the villagers sang Onward Christian Soldiers, translated into Shuar. But although most of the villagers were keen to sing hymns and show off their Shuar Bibles, one man the village shaman was less happy.
The missionaries don't understand what their religion has done, he explained. Head-hunting was a brutal practice, but it was our culture. It developed over a very long time, and had meant much more to us than Jesus and the Bible. The shaman lit a home-made cigar of mapacho, black jungle tobacco, as thick as his wrist. His eyes seemed to glaze over. Head shrinking gave reason to our existence, he went on, exhaling a plume of pungent smoke. Without the head-raiding parties our lives have changed, we are not the same people as we were in our fathers time. We are weaker. We are timid now. But worst of all, we have lost our honour.