The History of Tsantsa


A Personal Account of a Head-Hunting Raid

F.W. Up De Graff. Head hunters of the Amazon: Seven Years of Exploration and Adventure, New York: Garden City 1925 p. 273-283

The following passage illustrates a first-hand account of the author's journey during a head-hunting expedition in 1897.

A VICTORY on the battlefield is for these Upper Amazon Indians the signal for the most hideous, the most significant of all their rites to be begin. On that never-to-be forgotten day the whole scene was enacted before our eyes, an experience which it has, perhaps, never been the lot of civilized beings to undergo before or since. That is a sweeping statement, and at the best I am only assuming the probable, but I can only say that neither I nor my fellow explorers were ever able to discover, directly or by hearsay, that this ghastly performance was ever witnessed by any other white men. Certain it is that in all my conversations with prospectors and rubber-hunters, I have never heard of any but the most conflicting conjectures as to the mode of preparation of the Jivaro heads.

The comparatively little that has been written about the process through which they pass - and they are written about the process through which are unique in all the world - has been invariably, as far as my study of the question goes, based on the hearsay evidence, often incorrect in essentials details, of the white or half-caste planters or priests whose lives are spent at stations situated on the fringe of the real Jivaro head-hunters' country, the basins of the Maranon. And Santiago within a radius of some 300 mile from Borja.

It would seem that this rite is so closely guarded a secret, by reason of the inter-racial hatred between white man and brown man, and the obvious natural obstacles in the way of him who would explore these regions, that the ceremony is destined to be a strange set of circumstances, in which chance must play no small part, which will combine to show a white man what we were compelled to observe.

Thus my account of the events of that day constitutes, if I may presumes to say so, an authentic description of a process which has baffled many a commentator on the subject.

Those of the Huambizas, then, who had been fortunate enough to escape from the spears of the raiders had fled to the shelter of the largest of the little group of houses which had been attacked. There cannot have been more than 10-15 of them shut up within its walls, but the Aguarunas had not the spirit to attack them now they were aroused. That is the Jivaro way.

The enemy having left their dead and dying behind them in their flight, the victors dashed forward to seize the most highly treasured spoil of the battle - the heads of the slain enemy. With stone-axes and split bamboo knives, sharpened clam shells (rubbed to a keen edge on sand stone), and chonta-wood machetes, they went from corpse to corpse, gathering and stringing their gruesome emblems of victory.

I must mention that no delicate considerations of sex are allowed to interfere with these rites; a woman who fights, or a woman who refuses to accompany the victorious war-party to their homes and serve a new master, exposes herself by the acknowledged code of warfare among these people to the risk of suffering the same fate as her men-folk. Indeed I myself happened to watch the fate of a Huambiza woman who had fallen in the fight wounded by 3 spears. Little did we imagine what the ultimate issue might prove to be, when we attacked that morning.

The woman lay there where she had been borne down by the spear-thrusts. The Agurunas eager to collect her head, went to work while she was still alive, though powerless to protect herself. While one wrenches at her head another held her to the ground, and yet another hacked her neck with his stone-ax. Finally I was called upon to lend my machete, a far better implement for the work in hand. This was truly an act of mercy, to put the poor creature out of her misery as soon as possible.It was truly a hideous spectacle. But it must be remembered that had we attempted interference, we were but five in a horde of fiends, crazed by the blood and lust. When at last the head was severed it was strung with the one other which had fallen to the lot of our party.

This stringing of the heads is in itself an art, the object of which is to facilitate their transportation. They are strung on thin lengths of pliable bark stripped from some near sapling, which make a first rate substitute for the hempen cord of civilization. These bark ropes are passed through the mouth and out the neck.

The party then set to work to loot the houses from which the occupants had been driven. Nothing escaped the raiders. I was there, in one of the houses with them, and well remember the motley collection of things that we found. There were Peruvian coins, china cups and saucers, a butcher's knife, a number of red bandanna handkerchiefs, all evidently looted from Barranca, a Jivaro hand-loom with a half-finished piece of cloth on it, an iron spearhead and a large number of Jivaro household objects which are to be found in any settlement. Nothing was too small to escape the Aguaruna's attention. They cleaned out the house from end to end, every man keeping for himself all he could lay his hands on. Then they fired the roof, and in a moment the whole house was ablaze, the great heat rosating the decapitated body of the Huambiza woman.

It will be remembered that a party of the Antipas had separated from the main body, as agreed between the indians before the attack, to storm another group of hutments further up the creek. It was ay this moment then that we decided among ourselves to push on after them and see how they faired. We had not gone more than a few yards when we were met by the same party returning, laden with dripping heads. No less than nine they brought; some tied in pairs by their own hair and slung with bark ropes. This gruesome procession was lead by a short,fat,savage laden with his share of the spoils, grinning in triumph, with his teeth stained black and filed to a point, his thick-set shoulders spattered with the blood of his victims, he was a diablical looking creature.

It seems superfluous to mention that these people, like all cowards, are completely devoid of pity. However, they do not indulge in the worst habit of the old North American Indians, that of torturing their prisoners.

In single file the whole party retreated through the forest to the mouth of the creek where the canoes had been left, hurling threats at the Huambizas and admonitions not to follow, as certain death at the hands of the rifle-bearing Chritianos awaited them - all this the merest bluff, it must be said. For in reality they feared an onslaught by their infuriated enemies who were believed to possess some form of firearms stolen from Barranca. To strike further terror to the hearts of the Huambizas, each man of our party indulged in a series of imitations of the human voice guaranteed to give the impression that he was at least six men.

Arrived at our base, with the trophies, prisoners, and three children, we settled down to the preparation of gruesome spoils, destined to be displayed in the glass cases of some great museum or to pass into the collection of a curio hunter at the other end of the world. For, as it happened, they eventually fell to our lot.

While the warriors brought the heads from the canoes to the sand-spit on which they were to be prepared, the children sat round contentedly chewing bananas, all unconcerned at their parents' fate. With the empty canoes drawn up on the sand, outposts thrown out to guard against surprise attack, the sun blazing down on the whole scene, little groups of warriors formed themselves round the heads.

The ceremony commenced with the placing of the heads in the sand, face upwards; each naked warrior in turn seated himself on one of them and the medicine men, of which there were two with the party, commenced to chew tobacco (borrowed from me, I remember). Approaching from behind, one of them took a half-Nelson on the seated warrior, drew his head back, took his nostrils in his mouth, and forced a quantity of tobacco juice up his nose. This strange procedure is not without explanation; it is the local equivalent to an anti-toxin against the baneful influence of the enemy's medicine man, a form of protection which the natives firmly believe makes them immune from the disasters and plagues to which their foes can subject them. (I may mention that my firm resolution to take a personal part in the ceremonies faded before the nauseous picture of this, the first degree of that wild brotherhood. Jack aptly termed this performance "The Bull's Eye Degree."). The effect which this treatment had on the warriors was at once exhilarating and overwhelming - the former on account of their unshakable faith in its merits, the latter because of its natural physical results.

Recovered from their choking and gasping, the privileged few who had merited this nicotinous inoculation by reason of their having participated in the killing of the victims and dipping their spears in their blood, proceeded to peel the heads.

This is done by carefully parting the hair straight down from the crown to the base of the skull, slitting the skin down the line formed by the parting, hard on to the bone of the skull; turning it back on both sides, and peeling it from the bony structure just as a stocking is drawn from the foot. At the eyes, ears, and nose, some cutting is necessary, after which the flesh and muscles come off with the skin, leaving the skull clean and naked but for the eyes and teeth.

The incision or slit from the crown to the base of the neck, was then sewn together again, with a bamboo needle and palm leaf fiber(the chambira from which the hammocks, ropes, fish-lines and nets are made), leaving untouched for the moment the opening at the neck. The lips were skewered, sewn or sealed with bamboo splinters, which held them tightly closed, The eyeholes were closed by drawing down the upper eyelashes. The eyebrows were held from falling by small pegs, props or fiber of bamboo, vertically set between the outer rim of the eyelashes(thus effectively holding them in place) and the shoulders of the corresponding eyebrows. The hole of the nose and ears were temporarily plugged with cotton.

The purpose of these several operations was to hold the features of the face in positions and to seal the openings, so that the head could again be expanded to its normal proportions by filling it with hot sand and thus permit an even contraction of the whole in the further process of curing. The meat at the base of the neck was "basted" with chambria, to prevent its wearing and wasting away by handling in succeeding operations.

In the meantime, several large fires had been kindled and numerous earthware crocks filled with water were placed in readiness.

A description at this point of the ease with which the Jivaros start a fire by means of their primitive methods may be of interest.

A hard-wood stick is made to revolve at high speed by means of a bow whose string is wrapped about it, its lower end resting on a piece of pith. The necessary pressure in the stick is obtained by bearing on a flat stone which fits on the upper end of the stick, held in position by means of a small round hole which serves as a socket. The pressure of the stick on the pith sets up sufficient friction to cause the latter to smolder, when it is easily blown into flame. This simple equipment is packed with every party as we carry matches. But also, on short trips, the Jivaros carry with them a smoldering hornet's nest, at the end of the branch on which it was originally built, which serves the double purpose of a kindlier and of a protection against the swarming myriads of sand-flies and gnats which infest the shores of some rivers during the summer months.

The crocks which are used on thses occasions are made with the utmost care by the medicine men in person, far removed from all human eyes and under auspicious lunar conditions; they are brought carefully wrapped in palm-leaves to insure the impossibility of their being either touched or seen by an unauthorized person until the moment for the ceremony arrives. For every head there is one of these red, baked clay, conical pots, some eighteen inched in diameter by eighteen inches deep; the apex of the cone rests on the earth, the sides being supported by stones; in this way the fire has ample access to the greatest possible surface.

The pots were filled with cold water, straight from the river, and the boneless heads filled with sand placed in them. Within half an hour, the water had been brought to a boiling-point. This was the critical moment. The heads must be removed before the water actually boils, to prevent the softening of the flesh and scalding of the roots of the hair, which would cause it to drop out. The heads, on being removed, were found to have shrunk to about 1/3 of their original size. The water, I noticed, was covered with a yellow grease similar to that which forms when other meats are cooked.

The potes were cast away into the river, too holy to be put to any further use, and the fires were heaped up with fresh logs, to heat the sand on which they stood. For henceforth the sand played an important part in the proceedings.

Meanwhile, those who had been treated, or initiated by the medicine men, namely the participants in the actual kill, were privileged to hold a special ceremony of their own; the naked skulls were taken off, and each group retired a short distance to hold the sacred rites which follow the boiling of the flesh-heads. We were not allowed to participate, as is to be supposed, and furthermore, the temper of the Indians at that particular moment was not conducive to too close an observation of their doings on our part; we were, indeed, convinced by this tome of the very real desire which shone through the eyes of our brothers-in-arms to add five more heads, as well as five rifles and a canoe-load of present, to the day's booty. It would appear that some form of muttered parley took place, a serious businees in comparison with the wild caperings which follow when the skulls are brought back to the main party. The interpretation of these rites was undiscoverable by reason ofthe fact that the Chief, the sole interpreter among the Jivaros, was far too busily occupied with an attempt to persuade me of the absolute necessity of our going down-stream not more than one white man in any single canoe! The childlike simplicity of these people's natures, the blatant transparency of their ruses, is only another proof of their close proximity to animals.

So the skulls were brought back and stuck on spear-heads, the spears standing upright in the ground, and around them took place a dance, celebrated by all and sundry with wild yells, and the throwing of spears across the skulls from one warrior to another. We had to play our part, leaping and shooting our rifles into the air- but not more than two of us at a time exposed ourselves to the obvious risk of some accidental spear-thrust! With all of us in the ring together, the Indians would have made short work of the party.

By now hot sand had been prepared in large quantities. This was poured into heads at the neck-opening and while thus filled they were ironed with hit stones picked up with the aid of palm-leaves. This process, which began that day on the sand-bar, is continued in the ordinary way for some 48 hours until the skin is smooth and hard and as tough as tanned leather, the whole heads gradually shrinking to the size of a large orange. The resemblance to the living man is extraordinary. Indeed, the reduced heads, when skillfully made, are exact miniatures of their former selves. Every feature, hair, and scar is retained intact, and even the expression is not always lost. When perfected, they are hung in the smoke of a fire to preserve them from the depredations of the multitudinous insects which would attack and demolish them. As I noticed that afternoon, however, the preservation of the features in their former shape is not always the object of those who prepare them; some of the Aguarunas were to be seen deliberately distorting them while they were still flexible, as if in mockery of their enemies. They took a particular pleasure in distending the mouth, which accounts for the expression to be seen on many Jivaro heads.

Into the late afternoon the careful preparation of the heads continued. By this time, all were working with a will to cure them, so that a start down-stream could be made that evening. Time and again the cool greasy sand was poured from the half-dried heads, giving out the odor of an evening meal, only to be refilled with a fresh hot supply. Flat stones were always in the fires, being heated for the constant ironing to which the faces were subjected; they slid easily over the skin, like a flat-iron on linen, due to the natural oil which exuded from the contracting pores.

Hot coarse pebbles were substituted for sand in the final process, the heads being constantly tilted from side to side to prevent them from burning the meat, as dice are shaken in a box. The small amount of oil still exuding on the face was now wiped away with fresh cotton as fast as it appeared and the operation continued until all the fat and frease was ""fried out" of the head when it was considered "cured" or mummified; shrunk to the last diminutive size attainable.

Even the captive children were playing round the fires, innocent of the hideous import to them of this, the most tragic moment of their lives. Little did they realize that a in a few years' time they would themselves be called upon to kill and behead their own kin. Already they were friends with their captors into whose family they had emerged forever.

Thus ended a day unique, I verily believe, in the history of exploration.

I will add a few remarks concerning the ultimate fate of trophies whose early history I have told.

The Jivaros never take adult male prisoners, but the women and children who are caught in the periodical raids are given the same standing in the victorious tribe as those who are born into it. Polygamy is forced on the Jivaro peoples by the incessant inter-tribal warfare. But for polygamy they would soon be extinct.

What the scalp is to the North American Indian, the battle-standard and the scalp in undying, that of the Jivaro heads endures only to the end of the great Festival of Rejoicing with which they are honored on the return of the war party to their homes.

During the absence of the warriors their women have made ready vast quantities of giamanchi. This preparation contains just enough alcohol to inebriate when taken in enormous quantities, as the savages do on these occasions. Unlike civilized intoxicants its only action is stupefying. The tom-toms are brought out, and men and women throw themselves into dancing and drinking themselves to sleep. The rhythmic beats of the drums resound through the woods for many a long hour. Only the soporific effect of the liquor suffices to bring the orgy to an end.

Afterwards the heads are shorn of their hair, which is converted into permanent trophies in the form of belts to be worn round the loin-cloths of their distinguished owners in battle or at the feast. The possession of such a trophy singles a man out for special regard. But the heads themselves have now lost their value, as surely as pearls which have died. It is curious that the fanatical jealousy with which they are guarded up to the time of the festival should give place to that complete indifference which allows them to be thrown to the children as play-things and finally lost in river or swamp.

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