The History of Tsantsa

Weirder than taxidermy

Collector Bill Jamieson became fascinated with Ecuador's Jivaro tribe and their hallucinogenic rituals. When he found out they shrunk heads, he was hooked, By Stephen Smith

FRIDAYS, a woman called Fabio comes to clean Bill Jamieson's apartment. She'll swab the kitchen floor, dust the ostrich in the dining room and the coftin in the corridor, maybe walk a vacuum over the zcbra pelt on the living room floor. "Bill has the best stuff." she says. "I love it." Bill is an obsessive collector which means that he has so much stuff it's too much entirely for one person to get around in a day. Lucky for Fabio. Bill's realistic that way. He doesn't ask here to tend the illuminated saltwater aquarium that's housed in the truncatad nineteenth - century hearse at the foot of his bed: there's a fish guy who comes in once a week to see to the well being of the anglefish, the shrimp untl the Filipino electric clam. Nor does Fabio have to worry herself with Jamieson's collection of shrunken heads from tht Amazon jungle; Jamieson handles thos; himself. Of course, they're pretty much as clean as they're going to get, so mostly he ends up taking the heads he likes best out from under their bell jars and admiring their grimaces in the light.

Just so we're clear on this, while the ostrich is full-size but faux, the heads are the real article, human-born. formerly tenanted, gravely downsized - ugly mugs as big as your fist. Jamieson begun his quest for these curiosities last July; that's when his notorious ad went into The Globe and Mail: "AUTHENTIC SHRUNKEN HEADS wanted by collector. Serious calls only." He now has ten of them in his possession. including a gruesome pair he calls the Ramones and a redheaded white mim nicknamed Dr. Livingstone. And the phone's still ringing.

JAMIESON, WHO'S forty-one, has a kind of serenity in his smile, something that might come to your lips if you were afloat sensory deprivation tank. He has a recurrent, high register. non-maniacal laugh. "I'll babble," he says, "so stop me." What he wishes for is space to expnnd his personal museum and if he buys a share of a warehouse with friends, he may soon have it. Until then he'll keep museum. home nnd office crammed into his two-level, heavily deco apartment above a restaurant in the Queen West area.

It takes a moment for the impression of density to replace one of clutter the first time you pass through Jamieson's front door. Before you can get your coat off, you're in curiosity overload: it's like walking into the underlit stash vault of someone who's just bock from plundering a natural history museum with a sideline in decorative thirties furniture.

A glance in the dining room that opens on your immediate right-hand reveals a sleek Parisian dining room set and plumage (the ostrich is here as well as at couple of African death musks onto shrink it and it's yours"'- and there were those who thought they had a shrunken head when it was actually an awkward fake made out of goat or monkey heads. Jamieson has a fruit bowl full of those on his dining room table.

And then there were the serious sellers. The owner of a Queen Street antique store called and Jamieson bought his charter head, a particularly grotesque candidate with gaping nostrils and a mess of raven-shiny hair. Dr. Livingstone - Jamieson's "white guy" - came on a call from Kitchener. "A guy was married to a woman from Ecuador and her family had it in Colombia. I bought it off them sight unseen: they mailed it to me." The major haul (five heads) came from a woman in Germany whose husband had designed nightclubs for Al Capone in Chicago during the 1920s.

How much did he pay? Jamieson recoils from talk of money, for fear of losing bargaining ground when it comes to future acquisitions. The market in shrunken heads is tiny nowadays; sensitive to the implications of displaying human remains (shrunken heads, after all, come from victims of murder), museums don't make a fuss of the ones they have in hand (the Royal Ontario Museum reputedly has two securely in storage - a fact it won't confirm or deny) and aren't much interested in acquiring new ones. Still, Jamieson does have competitors in the field. There's a collector in Baltimore with twelve in his possession, along with twenty-two pieces of mummified remains. Then there's an institutional rival in Ripley's Believe It Or Not chain of outlandish museums. "I try and buy them for two or three thousand dollars," Jamieson will say. "White heads are more valuable. A couple of years ago, Ripley's paid in excess of $15,000 U.S. for a head at an auction in London. The thing is, the trophy had once belonged to Ernest Hemingway."

SHRUNKEN HEADS wear small, pained expressions on their faces. Dr. Livingstone looks like he's been beaten up, which, of course he has. Some of the others look like they're asleep. One or two others appear, uncannily, to be wincing before a blow, as if their last mortal expression has endured. Except for Dr. Livingstone, whose complexion is defnitely pallid, the heads are green in the
face, as if they'd been soaked in tobacco soup, subsequently soot-enhanced and finally grass-stained. "I prefer the ones with the long hair," he says. "I think they're the most effective. From a looks point of view."

What everyone wants to know, of course, is just how you shrink a head. The "recipe" adorns the back of Jamieson's T-shirts; describing it out loud, he manages to make it sound deeply nasty but altogether manageable. "They tried to take the head as close to death as possible," he says. "Sometimes a person wouldn't even be dead and they'd be cutting his head off.

"They were like surgeons. They'd cut the head right up the back of the neck. Basically what they'd do is peel the face off the head. And then they'd turn it inside out and scrape it. Then they would sew the back of the neck up, the eyes shut, the lips also."

The skull and brain they'd discard into a convenient body of water-sacrifice it to the spirit of the anacondawhile simmering the leftovers in a pot of berry-cured water. "Within an hour, an hour-and-a-half, it would just tighten up and shrink to about a third of its size."

Next they'd heat pebbles or hot sand and put them in at the neck and shake them, "just like clothes in a dryer," Jamieson says. "They would do this until the skin became like leather. They'd use charcoal and also berries and rub the face to keep it moisturized, so it wouldn't crack. After they'd gone through the whole process and were happy with the size and everything, they'd hang it over a fire and let it smoke all night. They'd trim the hair to suit."

Jamieson washes his hands after handling his heads; otherwise, he can smell them on his skin. "It's almost like a smoke," he says. "If I don't have them covered, you can smell them. It smells a little musty." When certain squeamish friends are expected, he's been known to hide one or two of his ghastlier exemplars. But mostly the heads aren't an issue. Fabio blithely cleans around them. Jordan, Jamieson's eleven-year-old son who's over every week, actively approves of them: "Shrunken heads are cool." As for dates, he says the collection hasn't scared anyone off yet. "I guess," he says, "the way it works is that I just don't hang out with the kind of people who'd be bothered by them."

To Jamieson, the heads are inert as the ostrich in his dining room or the wood in his front door. "I'm pretty spiritual," he says. "I believe in a lot of things and I believe in other worlds and I believe anything's is possible. But I really believe the heads are just like turtle shells: what was in them is gone. As humans we tend to put ourselves on a pedestal that we're much more than other animals, but really we're not. I think of them in that respect, so it doesn't bother me at all."

Home | Gallery | Jivaro | Tsantsa | Warfare | Origins | Counterfeits | Sources | The Collector/Curator

William Jamieson Tribal Art
Copyright © 1999-2013