Two days later, Jamieson found himself sitting in a village
hut in the jungle eating rat stew and sampling ayahuasca. He
didn't realize it until later, but his native host was none
other than Tukupi, a legendary Shuar warrior and shaman.
their translator - a son of a missionary - Jamieson talked to
Tukupi. The elder never admitted to shrinking heads, but admitted
to taking part in many tsantsa celebrations. "My interpreter
got uptight about my questions," Jamieson says. "Because
we were approaching things that were quite taboo. I don't think
Tukupi had a problem answering these questions; I just think
the interpreter had a problem asking them."
of trapped souls
the Shuar's history of shrinking heads, Jamieson became intrigued.
On his return to Toronto, he transcribed the taped dialogue
and continued with his reading and research. He wanted to obtain
a shrunken head to use as a prop for the screenplay of a film
he planned to make about the expedition.
of yesteryear had a strongly integrated system of social and
religious values associated with warfare. From the time a native
boy was about 6, his father reminded him of his dead relatives
and warned him to take revenge, lest unhappiness be his lot.
society, there was no such thing as a natural death. Every ill
or unfortunate turn was believed to originate from the evil
intent of an enemy. Death, from whatever cause, was invariably
considered to be murder, and, as murder, had to be avenged on
the suspected person or persons responsible. The shaman - in
his powerful position - would hold a ceremony and decide whose
sorcery was at fault. Someone had to be blamed, and the revenge
would often be executed for generations. The result of this
belief system was incessant intertribal warfare.
believed that violent death unleashed a soul bent on revenge,
which was why - after taking a head - they sewed up the lips
and eyelids to trap and paralyze the spirit. They feared tbe
ghosts of dead relatives even more than live enemies, and believed
that making a tsantsa protected them. The possession of a tsantsa
ensured good luck to the owner. It not only contained magic
power, but also secured the good will of the ancestors whose
desire for revenge was now gratified.
successful raid, the head of the enemy was cut off with a sharp
object. Until it was prepared, the head was considered inert
and impotent; it only assumed its magical powers after being
shrunk in accordance with strict rules. Within a day or so of
the kill, and once the warrior was a safe distance away at a
preplanned location, the head was processed.(See recipe.)
war party would return to camp to a celebration of dancing,
songs, hallucinogens and the drinking of chicha a kind of beer
made from a type of jungle yam and fermented with human saliva.
Accompanying this would be numerous magic rites to protect the
warriors from the vengeance of the ghosts of their victims.
Another major celebration - much more costly - would be planned
in secrecy, so as not to let the enemy work any magic that could
aspiration of a young Shuar male was to become a renowned warrior.
When a young brave took his first head, it was a big occasion,
as if he had scored a winning goal. The Shuar believed that
a killer acquired the strength of his victim, and warriors with
many kills to their name were held in awe and greatly feared.
moment of the main celebration arrived, the killer - wearing
the rsanrsa around his neck-would enter the hut. After the head
was properly cursed and insulted by those gathered, the spirit
was quelled, and the head was stuck up on top of a lance. Dinner
the dance would begin - a soul-killing dance - and everyone
would join in. Warriors with blood-smeared bodies would dance
around the rsanrsa, brandishing their lances and dramatizing
the kill. The feasting and rituals continued for three to five
days. Chincha, narcotics and the enemy's head made for a great
however, the Shuar didn't keep the finished shrunken heads.
Since their reasons for taking heads had to do with revenge,
punishment and spiritual renewal, the finished product lost
its value at the conclusion of the ceremony. The rsanrsa was
generally dis,carded, fed to animals, or thrown to the children
as a plaything to be lost.
In the 19th
century, increasing numbers of outsiders arrived in South America.
And, because the practice of shrinking heads has long excited
the imagination of explorers, exploiters, missionaries, seamen
and tourists, shrunken heads - real and fake - made their way
both out into the "civilized" world. There was a demand
for rsanrsas; the going rate was one musket in trade. The Jivaro
- who were used to fighting with bows and arrows, spears and
lances - enthusiastically upgraded their weaponry to muskets
and machetes. A situation was created whereby the various Jivaro
tribes became better equipped to kill their enemies, protect
their families and hunt for food. Whites supplying muskets and
the increased demand for rsanrsas only accelerated the extermination
rate of such enemies.
were genuine Shuar shrunken heads - and so great the demand
- that others attempted to copy the Shuar technique to satisfy
the market. Since the late 1800s, the business of manufacturing
counterfeit shrunken heads has been pursued in parts of Panama,
Ecuador, Columbia and Peru.
Harvey Lee Boswell, the Amerircan seafarer who later owned both
curiosrty museums and sideshows, recalls buying his first shrunken
bought it in a coastal town of Wykiki, Ecuador, in the late
'40s. I traded 20 cartons of cigarettes from some natives. At
the time, cigarettes were 45 cents a carton."
A few years
later, in Panama, Boswell purchased another. "At that time,
I was making $87 a month. Two young boys led me down a dark
alley to meet a shrunken head dealer. While fearing for my life,
I purchased one for $30 and hastily made my way back to the
safety of the ship."
the real head please stand?
shrunken heads came in human. While many of the finished products
displayed in museums and private collections today are counterfeit,
the heads themselves are not; real human heads were used in
the shrinking process. The first reference to this profitable
form of taxidermy was in 1872, when a white man living on the
border near the Shuar learned their method of preparation.
In the '20s
and '30s, a man in the bustling port of Panama started a manufacturing
business. His particular shrunken heads were any and all races,
as he obtained his "raw materials" from the unclaimed
hospital dead. One enterprising Ecuadorian medical doctor made
a side business of shrinking human heads. He is also known to
have shrunk two entire bodies, which used to be on display in
the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York City.
Due to an act prohibiting the display of natives' remains, the
bodies are now stored away and can only be viewed by proven
demand for cheap shrunken heads was also filled by the creative
use of monkey heads or goat skin. Goat skin fitted over a form
worked quite well, as the hair could then be shaved away to
leave eyebrows and eyelashes. Such heads are without nose hair,
and, with goat skin, human ears are very hard to duplicate.
Carneiro is the South American curator at New York City's American
Museum of Natural History. "In the last quarter century,
I've examined over 50 shrunken human heads," he says. "But
I doubt even 5 percent of them were heads prepared by Jivaro
- or Shuar as they're known today."
difficult form of counterfeiting to detect is the occasional
shrunken head that was prepared for trade - or to order - by
the Shuar themselves. In the '6Os, two travelers to the region
asked about shrunken heads. They had to ponder the moral issue
when they were told by their translator, "It would take
about a week."
the heads really rolling
took to his new-found interest with a passion. "I
was into something, but I didn't know quite what. But
I kept reading and studying. 'How am I going to get a
shrunken head? Just one head.' What a weird obsession.
I mean, I'm a guy who takes injured birds to a shelter."
started working on his screenplay while looking for a
shrunken head. He tried running an ad in an Ecuadorian
newspaper but received a terse reply of refusal. Even
without an English translation, he knew what the word
a taboo subject," Jamieson explains. "Especially
down there. The blackest of black magic. So I put an ad
in the national Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail:
'Wanted: Authentic Shrunken Heads. Serious Calls Only.'
In the first week, I got three calls from radio stations.
A station from Chicago got wind of the ad and asked me
if I'd discuss it live on morning radio. They were joking
and wanted to know how much I'd pay for one.
The Canadian Broadcasting Company called Jamieson up and
put him on a radio talk show across the continent. Within
a couple of hours, he received a call. An antique store
coincidentally mere blocks from his house - had a head for
sale. "I had said on the radio that I'd pay two or
three thousand dollars, which is of course what I ended
up paying. The dealer wouldn't touch it; he just pointed
at the box it was in and turned away as I opened it."
Next, Jamieson received a call from a woman in Florida.
"She sold me a head hair over three feet long for
$1,200. It was becoming sort of fun. Then a guy calls
me from Vancouver and says 'My mother has one. I'm going
to ask her to sell the thing to you so I
don't have to inherit it.' I went over there, and on some
shelves - in a plastic case - was the shrunken head of
a child. Very taboo. Thirty years ago they had purchased
it in Macas, Ecuador, a shrunken head boom town in its
day. I bought it, but traded it for a 2,500-year-old Egyptian
mummy's head from Barrister's Gallery in New Orleans.
A CanadaU.S. trade in human heads! Can YOU believe it?
I had three shrunken heads. I was going to pull the ad
out, but I was getting more calls from press and radio.
I received a few crank calls, of course: 'My wife's head
is in the fridge. How do I shrink it and I'll sell her
to you?' But I was having fun and getting interested in
various tribes and the whole subject of head-hunting,
cannibal cultures and human trophy collecting."
Articles appeared in Canadian newspapers and magazines,
and Jamieson found himself in the midst of a hot topic:
writer looking for shrunken heads. Heeven appeared on
a morning radio talk show with a Florida man who runs
a business of mummifying people.
late 1996, Jamieson headed off to the Amazon again, this
time with a camera man. "In my mind, I was thinking
I was doing a documentary. I guess I thought that there
might still be someone alive who had shrunk some heads.
MY anthropologist friend down there [Istenstat] loved
all this; I paid him and he got to do his work. The missionary's
son, Carlos, agreed to take us in."
the last minute, however, lsenstat encountered problems
and had to cancel from the expedition. Jamieson was left
without a translator. "I didn't know what to do.
I had horrible visions of scouring a brothel in Quito
trying to find an English-Spanish
translator. Luckily, there was a South American restaurant
across the street from my home in Toronto. I suggested
to the manager - who has Central American roots and translated
faxes for me - that she head off to the Amazon. She'd
never even been to South America. I sent her off to get
her shots and papers, and five days later she was in monsoons
and rain, covered up to her waist in mud, and getting
eaten by bugs. This woman had never even smoked a joint
in her life, and she's sitting in on an ayahuasca session.
And males from the tribe are jokingly offering to buy
her, after they realized she wasn't my wife.
flew up river as far as we could," recalls Jamieson,
"and then took a boat for a couple more days. All
of a sudden I'm heading into the jungles of South America
again. I had obviously gone to another realm.
lots of parasites in the river. You can't swim without
coming out with bloodsuckers and things sticking to you.
Worst of all, the candtru fish swims up the end of your
penis - it's a little needle-like fish with spikes on
it. If you ever piss in the water, it's drawn to the warmth
and swims up the urinary tract. Once it's in, it can't
come out. Basically that's it; cut your appendage off!"
again, he met and stayed with the tribal eider Tukupi. "I
slept in his hut and got eaten alive by mosquitoes. I was
coming down from ayahuasca, and I could hear these little
cartoon characters talking iieeeee. And it was vampire bats,
said to occasionally bite people, living up in the roof.
You hear these sounds and you don't know what they are.
ate grilled fish," Jamieson continues. "They
just skewer it on a stick. Blackened fish, stews, chicken.
A lot of stuff in a
stew: monkey, boar. It's almost like whatever comes near
camp is dinner."
few days later, they traveled further upriver to visit
an AShuar warrior and shaman named Mukiumpi, one of Tukupi's
previous enemies. In their younger warring years, the
two tribal elders had, between the two of them, killed
more than 40 people including many blood relatives of
each other's families.
documentary, Jamieson envisioned the two former enemies
getting together - kind of like generals on opposite sides
of a great war. But regardless of their current truce, suspicions
still ran high. If one of them got sick or died soon after,
the other would be blamed.
Shuar and AShuar today are very peaceful. Tukupi, a great
warrior and shaman, travels to other villages - ones he
used to war with - and is very well known for his healing
killings still occur, however; a recent murder took place
when a man came home to his hut and found one of his wives
with another man. The woman was murdered. Her brother
was sent by the family to retaliate, and he, too, was
killed. Blood revenge was still called up as the order
of the day, and it became the O.J. Simpson trial of the
jungle. A Catholic missionary intervened, her family was
given some cattle by the husband, and the feuding was
tribal people are self-sufficient, and the budding explorers
stayed as guests. "My guide was paying money, so
there was a little fighting among them to have us. Most
of the people like guests; they were friendly. But a few
men walked by, and you can just tell that a white person
did something to one of their people in the past.
was a little uncomfortable a couple of times. They were
having a celebration and drinking maniac, the homemade
beer. Everybody was getting a little drunk, acting macho
and shooting muskets off. It made me kind of nervous.
But I have nothing but
admiration for these people. I felt a little sad seeing
them in T-shirts, with the encroaching modern ways getting
closer and closer. And I felt as I gave gifts that I was
somehow contributing to the contamination.
best interview was with a missionary who had returned
shrunken heads back to the mourning families. He started
talking about whites coming in and inquiring about shrunken
heads. 'How can they do this?' he wanted to know. It made
me feel guilty about the subject. Some years ago, there
had been a white fellow traveling through there who'd
made the mistake of showing an inordinate
amount of interest in shrunken heads. They were going
to do him harm, and our guide had to sneak him out after
dark. I certainly didn't mention that I had any shrunken
heads. But, the thing is, most of the heads out on the
market were not done by Jivaro."
returning to Toronto, Jamieson continued his research
and collecting. "I bought my fourth shrunken head
sight unseen from a reliable source. On American Express;
they take it every where, you know."
ad then reached a Canadian woman named Gloria Teichert
who was living in Rothenburg, Germany. Her husband, recently
deceased at 92, was the famous deco architect Hans Teichert.
When Gloria met Hans in Chicago in the '4Os, he had been
designing nightclubs, and had even designed for the legendary
gangster Al Capone in the '30s. In later years, he designed
great theaters and
Catholic churches. Teichert had been an art collector
- paintings by the masters and, in that era of Ripley's
famous Odditoriums, acquired five shrunken heads.
arrived in Rothenburg, Germany, and stayed a few days
in Gloria's l,000-year-old haunted monastery, sleeping
in the guest bedroom under a Van Gogh painting. Gloria,
a warm and cordial host, sold him five shrunken heads.
a period of two years, Jamieson had become a human trophy
collector, member of the New York-based Explorers' Club
and a studying anthropologist. He had also gone on four
South American expeditions and was the proud owner of
10 shrunken heads.
many North American museums refuse to show them, and most
auction houses refuse to openly sell them, shrunken heads
can still occasionally be found today through the tribal
art dealers around the world. The Internet always has
a few ads posted. Jamieson never purchased any while in
South America, but he did examine a few. "Even in
the '9Os, discrete and persistent inquiries can still
uncover shrunken heads down there," he confirms.
"I saw two of them - old grayhaired Spanish guys
- definitely not the work of the Shuar. Is it possible
that this trade still goes on today? I don't have that
is my favorite," Jamieson holds up a mustached head
with red hair. "A white guy I call Dr. Livingston.
He has the look of an Englishman - perhaps an intellectual."
The October 1921 issue of National Geographic repeated
the grim story of the lively trade in human heads. A tale
was told of a red-headed white man who had headed into
the Ecuadorian Amazon in search of a shrunken head. At
that time, the going rate of trade was one musket.
explorer never returned. Months later, the shrunken head
of a white man made its way out of the Oriente through
devious channels onto the open market. Possibly the aspiring
collector had become the collected? Some speculated that
the unique red hair color had brought a higher price.
Two muskets, perhaps?
is a Seattle-based writer who writes about modern sideshow
performers and unusual subject matter. His first book,
Circus of the Scars, which chronicles the true odyssey
of a modern sideshow, was released Sept. 6, 1998, by Brennan
Dalsgard Publishers. To contact him, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Goreski also assisted in this article.
"Blood Revenge, War, and Victory Feasts
Among the Jibaro Indians of Eastern Ecuador" by Rafael
Karsten. (Smithsonian institution Bulletin 79,1923).
The Head-Hunters of Western Amazones. by Rafael Karsten,
PH. D. (Helsingfors, 1935).
"Over Treil and Through Jungle in Ecuador" by
H.E. Anthony (National Geographic, October 1921).
Historical and Ethnogrephical Materiel on the Jivaro Indians
by M.W. Sterling (1938).
Head Hunters of the Amazon: Seven Years of Exploration
and Adventure by F.W. Up De Graff (Garden City, N.Y.,
"Warfare, Cannibalism, and Human Trophies" in
Handbook of South American Indians, Volume 5 by Alfred
Me'traux (edited by Julian H. Steward, (1949).
To Drink of Death - The Narrative of a Shuer Warrior by
Janet Wall Hendricks (University of Arizona Press, 1993).
The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls by Michael
J. Harner (Doubleday Natural History Press,1972).
"Little Men - a mystery of no small significance"
by Caroline Alexander (Outside Magazine, April 1994).