Shrunken Heads: An Amazonian Tribal Practice

Shrunken heads sound gory and look the part as well. Practiced by the Jivaroan tribes in the northeast regions of the Amazon rainforest, head shrinking is a process most people(not the collectors) can’t seem to stomach. The significance of the shrunken head is believed to be to keep the enemy’s soul trapped and thus preventing it from avenging his death.


What people do not know about head shrinking is that the skull is not involved in the process simply because it defeats the purpose. Skulls don’t shrink. An incision was made behind the neck and along the head and the skin and flesh were removed. The eyelids were sewn shut and the mouth was skewered close with wooden pins.


It was then put into a pot of boiling water and select herbs that imitate the effect of tannins. Once the head was about one-third its original size, the dark rubbery skin was turned inside out and the remaining flesh from the inside was removed and the incision is sewn shut.


To shrink it further, hot stones and sand were put inside the head and some rubbed over it to ‘mold’ it. This removed the leftover moisture and left the head in a ‘tanned’, shrunken state.


The head was then rubbed with charcoal ash to darken the skin and prevent the muisak, a.k.a, the vengeful soul, from seeping out. The shrunken head was then hung over a fire to harden and blacken further. A gruesome tradition that we’d rather not adopt for ourselves.  


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