The story of shrunken heads

shrunken headThe people of South America known collectively as the Jivaro are well know for their practice of shrinking the heads of their enemies. Raids on alien tribes are carried out specifically to secure tsantsas, or shrunken head trophies. The attacks are usually small and are usually carried out on one house where the victim may be caught unaware. The trophies bring prestige to the head takers and trap the avenging souls of their victims.

The first step is the removal of the head of the unfortunate victim. The skin is cut around the top parts of the chest and back and the head is cut off close to the collarbone. The head taker then passes a vine through the head to carry it, and makes a fast retreat. The head is prepared over 5 or 6 days during brief stops on the return trip home. A slit is made in the back of the head, and the skin is carefully removed from the skull. The skull is then thrown into the river as a "gift to the anaconda". (Harner, The Jivaro, p. 187) The skin is then boiled in plain water for about half an hour. By now it has reduced to about half of its original size. It is then placed over a stick and left to dry.

The skin is now turned inside out, and any remaining flesh is scraped away. It is turned right side out again, and the slit in the back where the skull was removed is sewn together and the mouth is tied shut. Several small rocks are heated in a fire and placed into the skin. They are rolled around inside until cool, dumped, and the process is repeated until the tsantsa has shrunk too much to accommodate the stones. Hot sand is used to continue the shrinking. At this time the head is shaped, and a hot knife is pressed against the mouth to dry it. Throughout the shrinking process the neck must be drawn closed with a string that has been sewn through it so that it will remain proportionate to the head.

The skin is rubbed throughout the process with charcoal dust, purposely darkening it so the previous owner's musiak, or avenging soul, will not be able to see out. By the time the shrinking process is finished, the tsantsa will be about the size of a man's fist. Three palm pins are placed through the lips and tied together, and red seeds are often placed under the eyelids. A small hole is made in the top and a string is passed through so that the tsantsa may be worn.

Three elaborate feasts are now given. The first is for 2 days. The second is much more elaborate, lasting 5 days. Often a year passes before enough resources can be gathered for this feast, which is sponsored by the tsantsa gatherers, who often feel obligated to build new houses just for the comfort of their guests. After several months, if enough resources can be gathered, a third feast is given, even more elaborate than the second. At this time the tsantsa is worked on further. The pins are removed from the lips, and cotton strings (usually two to each lip hole, 2 to 3 feet in length) are passed through the holes. The villagers then chant to expel the musiak from the tsantsa, sending it safely back to its home village. Toucan feathers are hung from the ears as decoration. The tsantsa is kept by the head taker and is often buried with him.

The musiak is regarded as having powers that can be controlled through the tsantsa during the celebration feasts. Most tsantsas are taken from groups outside the tribe, but rarely a member of the same tribe living in a different (very distant or hostile) village is killed. Rather than take his head (which would be considered too antagonistic), some hair is pulled out and attached to a gourd with beeswax. Features are scratched into the gourd, and it becomes a holding place for the musiak. The heads of tree sloths are also occasionally shrunken. They are considered the only animals capable of possessing a musiak.

Fake shrunken heads

Collectors and museums created a demand for shrunken heads. The Jivaro were understandably reluctant to part with such valuable possessions, and at the same time the practice began to wane. The demand became greater as the Tsantsas grew more rare, and the prices offered rose. Many very realistic fakes were crafted from animal skins, which fooled many collectors and museums. Today some of these fakes are still sold as souvenirs. Many of the older fakes are sold as "classic fakes" and are themselves fetching high prices. The image of the shrunken head has been firmly planted in the pantheon of popular American kitsch culture by pulp novels and b-movies, and rubber versions still appear occasionally dangling from the rear view windows of automobiles.

This is a .wav file of a toy shrunken head ad from Pressman Toys from the 1960's. Graciously donated by The Daily.WAV.

Making your own fake shrunken head

Vincent PriceThere are several ways to model a shrunken head. For example, you can craft a nice little replica if you are handy with papier-mache. Or you can do it the classic way, using an apple. This isn't the most realistic version, but it will make a nice little gnarled head, and has the advantage of actually shrinking in the process, adding a random factor to the creation. In the 1960's, there was a kit sold, featuring actor Vincent Price, that provided hair, beads, feathers, etc. to use with apples to make shrunken heads.

Start with an apple. The larger the better. It will shrink quite a bit. Then remove most of the peel using a vegetable peeler. You can leave a little at the top and bottom. Now take a small knife and carve a face. It will take some practice getting it right, but after several attempts you should get a feel for it. Here are some tips:

  • Make the features (nose, mouth) big. Shrinkage will reduce them more than you will realize.
  • Use toothpicks for the details.
  • Round and smooth the surface of the "head" using a rag or paper towel.
  • Try not to gouge too deeply with the knife as cuts left in the surface may be magnified after shrinking.
Once carved, you must "pickle" your apple/head. Immerse it in a solution of cup of salt mixed with about 4-6 cups of water. Adding 2 or 3 tablespoons of lemon juice will keep it from oxidizing. Let it soak for 24 hours. Remove it from the water. Straighten out a paper clip or stiff wire and form a small loop in one end. This will be used to pass a string through. Stick the clip through the top of the apple and down through the bottom. Bend the clip at the bottom to hold it in place. The apple/head is then hung from a string by the clip. You will need to hang it where it will stay dry. After about 2 or 3 weeks, it should be ready.

If you live in a very humid place and your apple shrunken head tends to rot instead of drying, try speeding things up a bit by placing it on the center rack of a warm oven (200 deg. F) until dry.

You can try blackening it with charcoal if you wish. Coat it with a clear matte finish such as polyurethane or shellac to keep moisture from damaging it. If you want it to look more like a "real" Tsantsa, the lips can be sewn with cotton strings, and fake hair can be attached.

Cool site!

Be sure and check out the Hot Toads Shrunken Head Cam, in my humble opinion the coolest use for a webcam anyone has come up with in a while.


We are living in strange times indeed when a disclaimer is necessary for an article such as this. That said, keep in mind that the "story of shrunken heads" is history, not how-to, and that it is considered very bad manners indeed to shrink another person's head, so don't try this at home. I cannot be held responsible for any person's homicidal tendencies. Shrink only apples, please.

© 1997- Brian Carusella All rights reserved.
Quotes and images not my own remain in the
copyright of the originator or else in the public domain.