The History of Tsantsa


The practice of shrinking human heads - a macabre custom in the Ecuador-Peruvian jungle - was outlawed in the early part of the 20th century. Laws, however, did not curb demand, and new sources were created to provide these uncouth curios for the souvenir trade. JAN T. GREGOR meets with head collector William Jamieson and explores human trophies and head shrinking.

"This is an authentic Jivaro shrunken head," William Jamieson says, holding the formerly tenanted object up in front of a deco light. "Death, yes, but it's also art. Look at these two beauties. I call them the Ramones."

The two heads - each the size of an orange - feature the long black hair that has always been considered a prized attribute by head collectors. Their lips and eyelids are sealed with jungle fiber, and they have the dark facial color of well-cooked meat.

"Look at this sword." Jamieson lifts an artifact from the wail. "It was made to take off a head, which, incidentally, came off quite easily. I love the history of an object - picking up a piece and wondering where it's been, whether it was used in battle."

I flew to Toronto to meet with Jamieson, who went from collecting baseball cards as a child, to art deco and then shrunken heads as an adult. Displayed in his home is much evidence of his passion: a curiosity overload of swords, spears, war shields, skulls, shrunken heads and other human trophies.

Hunting for headhunters

In the history of Latin America, only one tribe successfully rebelled against Imperial rule. The Jivaro - named after the Spanish word for "heathens" - were described as the only race "crueler than nature." Their reputation for unconquerable ferocity is legendary, and they were the only native people of the Americas to successfully resist conquest. In 1599, during raids on two Spanish settlements, the Jivaro killed 25,000 people in one day. Suspecting the viceroy of cheating them on gold transactions, they poured molten gold down the leader's throat until his bowels burst.

Although many other cultures through-out the world practiced head-hunting, the Shuar clan of the Jivaro tribe became famous for their practice of shrinking and preserving human heads.

A shrunken head taken in battle by the Shuar was called a tsantsa (pronounced SAN-SAH). First and foremost, it was a trophy. "Before sports trophies came human trophies," Jamieson explains. "All of our gold cups and medals evolved from human trophies; it goes back thousands of years. David in biblical times brought back the head of Goliath. Back then, you'd go out and wage battle and bring back a hand, scalp, ears or fingers -something small to keep. Now we've calmed it down, and you get a little bowling trophy. My teenage boy has a wall covered with hockey trophies; he loves them. In a head-hunting culture, he'd be preparing to take his first head."

In recent years, Jamieson's interests and studies took a turn to the extreme. "I was guided into this thing," he explains. "I was working a lot, making good money, but lacking a passion in life. I was at a point when...I needed change. Because of an
intense experience - let's just call it a midlife imaginary car crash - I started taking off and seeing the world; planning and going on expeditions. Those experiences changed my life and outlook, especially on death."

Jamieson sought a guide to take him into the Peruvian jungle, with the idea being to sample ayahuasca - a powerful native hallucinogenic used to obtain visions, out of body travel and communication with the other side. Through "friend of a friend" postings on the Internet, he eventually reached Daniel Isenstat, an anthropologist and ayahuascaero from New York who was residing in Iquitos, a city in Northeast Peru and on the Amazon River. lsenstat knew the jungle and agreed to guide Jamieson into the interior in June 1995.

After flying as far as they could into the area known as the Oriente, the small party loaded their gear into a 25-foot river boat. "It was built in the '30s," Jamieson recalls, "and was going to take us up the Amazon. The wooden hull was rotting. We were stuck in shallow water - in this piranha and alligator infested river and the guide was saying, 'We gotta get out and push.' I'm a gringo from Canada; I don't know. But you do get into the spirit of the Amazon."

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.

Through 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."

Trophies of trapped souls

After discovering 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.

The Shuar 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.

In Shuar 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.

The Shuar 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.

After a 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.)

The victorious 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 counteract it.

The greatest 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.

When the 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 was served.

At dusk 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 celebration.

Surprisingly, 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.

So rare 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.

Capt. Harvey Lee Boswell, the Amerircan seafarer who later owned both curiosrty museums and sideshows, recalls buying his first shrunken head.

"I 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."

Will the real head please stand?

Counterfeit 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 blood relatives.

The tourist 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.

Robert L. 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."

The most 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."

Getting the heads really rolling

Jamieson 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."

Jamieson 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 "Ioco" meant.

"It's 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?

"Now 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.

In 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."

At 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.

"We 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.

"There's 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!"

Once 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.

"We 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."

A 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.

For his 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.

The 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 powers.

Isolated 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 eventually settled.

The 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.

"I 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.

"The 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."

On 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."

His 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.

Jamieson 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.

Within 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.

Although 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 answer."

"This 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."

Indeed. 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.

The 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?

Jan T. Gregor 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:

Danielle 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., 1938).

"Warfare, Cannibalism, and Human Trophies" in
the 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).

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