The History of Tsantsa

Authentic and Counterfeit Shrunken-Heads

As the white man began to infiltrate the Jivaro region in the 1850s, spurred on by tales of the head-shrinking practices of the Shuar tribes, a lively trade in human head trophies began. Due to the macabre nature of the shrunken head, many "curio-hunters" have sought out the tsantsa as collectibles, thus generating a sizable business in the manufacture of counterfeit tsantsa.

Imitation tsantsa are classified under two categories, being either non-human or human but prepared by someone other than the Jivaro tribesmen. As the most common non-human fakes are often made out of goat or monkey skin, one must pay particular attention to distinguishing between authentic and replicas. Indications of counterfeit tsantsa are characterized by looking for nasal hairs which is a notable distinction between identifying authentic heads and non-human replicas. In addition to this, it is also quite difficult to duplicate a shrunken human ear. The ear should remain in its original form only smaller. Fakes generally cannot match the intricate details of the human ear. (see photo)

Counterfeit heads prepared by someone other than the Jivaro Indians are usually, much more skillfully prepared through the use of superior equipment, than the actual work of the Jivaros.

Hoping to cash in on the sale of imitation tsantsa, taxidermists are largely responsible for the production of counterfeit trophies. Taxidermists were also known for producing tsantsa by using corpses of the unclaimed hospital dead and fraudulently obtained from morgues.

In order to identify genuine shrunken heads, careful inspection is required. The following illustrates the most common characteristics of how to distinguish between authentic Jivaro shrunken heads and counterfeit shrunken human heads.

  1. The head is less thoroughly shrunk and tends to exude a certain amount of oil
  2. The lips show no sign of perforation which results from the "chonta-wood" pins used by the Shuar during the preparation, as well as the lips are sewn with light threads instead of a heavy cotton string
  3. The top of the head is not pierced for the suspending cord
  4. The facial hair has not been singed off, or the skin polished ( G. E S. Turner. Counterfeit Tsantsa in the Pitt Rivers Museum Man: A Record of Anthropological Science 1944 p.57 )

Tourism is largely responsible for the creation of the demand for shrunken heads, either human or fake .

Listed below is a 1897 account which details a counterfeit head-shrinking process as explained by adventurer F.W Up De Graff :

It has come to the author's attention that there is in Panama a man who makes a business of preparing and shrinking heads, and who has even shrunken two entire bodies, one of an adult, the other evidently of a child; the body of the latter only ten by twelve inches. These heads, human or otherwise, are much more skillfully prepared than the legitimate work of the Jivaros. The slit in the legitimate Jivaro head is drawn together with a very coarse fibre, while the work of this expert is so neatly done that the incision can hardly be noticed. The heads are those of white men, black men, Chinese men and natives, probably selected from unclaimed hospital dead.

In Europe the author has also run across these heads which evidently must have come from the same source. In Panama, where tourists have created a brisk demand for these uncouth curios, heads, either human or monkey, are made to order or sold for $25.00 each. ( F.W Up de Graff p.283)

Remarkably, there are in existence two shrunken human bodies at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian located in New York City, which have been prepared by counterfeiters. These bodies are not however on display due to the stringent laws which prohibit the exhibiting of native human remains in federally funded institutions but they do exist in their collection.

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William Jamieson Tribal Art
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