The History of Tsantsa


OCTOBER 1921, pgs. 328-333



Indian Head-Hunters of the Interior:
An Interesting Study in the South American Republic By H.E. Anthony

Ecuador is a land of great interest to the Northerner, whether he be a scientist or layman; or whether his inclinations lead him to a study of peoples, their customs and traditions, or to the enjoyment of the natural features of the country- the birds, the mammals, the magnificent forests and lofty mountains.

This republic occupies a unique geographical position, astride the Equator, where it extends approximately from one degree thirty minutes north latitude to almost 5 degrees south latitude. Within this comparative short distance are included some of the grandest of the Andean peaks and a multitude of mighty ranges and deep canons.

On the west coast, Ecuador holds a strategic position in regard to the Humboldt Current, that chill invader from southern seas, for it is at this point that the current sheers off to the westward and its influence upon the winds and the climatic conditions of South America is weakened.

The eastern boundaries of the republic lie across Amazonian drainage, and cut the Napo, the Pastaza, and the Paute, all affluents of the worldıs largest river.

The topography is extremely mountainous. Although there are restricted plains in western Ecuador, the greater part of the republic lies along the Andes and their foothills, so that level areas of any great extent are seldom encountered.

The drainage of the country includes a number of large rivers flowing to the eastward, as well as several important western-flowing streams.

Except for a narrow, coastal strip, Ecuador receives abundant rainfall. The year is divided into two seasons-the dry season, and the wet or so called rainy season. The rains generally begin in December or January and last until May or June, the balance of the year having only a scanty rainfall.

In some localities there is a deviation from this order, and on the eastern slopes of the Andes, there are heavy rains in every month of the year. The annual rainfall in some parts of the Oriente may reach as high as 150-200 inches.



The population of Ecuador is made up of three distinct elements. Most of the educated, upper class are of Spanish descent and all of the political offices are filled by men of this type. The great bulk of the population, however, is Indian, the Quichuas, who are themselves the descendants of the Incas.

The third element of the Ecuadorean population comprises the wild and savage Indian tribes of the Oriente, typified by the Jivaro or head-hunters. These latter Indians, while nominally under the government of Quito, are so far removed by the inaccessibility of their home territory that Ecuadorean laws rest lightly upon them, and they are in many respects as primitive today as when America was discovered.

It is to the purely American elements of the population that one looks for strange customs of interest to the northern visitor, and the Indians do not prove disappointing in this respect.

The Indians of the Oriente are much more savage, and uncivilized than their brothren of the western Andes, the Quichuas. The Jivaros come into contact with the whites occasionally, since the country they inhabit is very inhospitable in its climate, its dense, trackless jungles, and to a certain extent in its human population as well. They live in scattered communities along the tributaries of the Rio Napo and the Rio Paute, seldom venturing very far up on the slopes of eastern Andes, but remaining below an elevation of 3,500 feet.



The Jivaro wage a constant warfare among themselves for which polygamy is the direct cause. We were told that when a girl arrives at the marriageable age, about 12-14 years, she is given in marriage by her father to some friend, but most of the wives are gained by the killing of an enemy and the confiscation of the women as the spoils of war. A man may have from 5-8 wives.

The warfare may be against a member of a neighboring tribe or against a fellow Jivaro living at some distance. The women and children of the slain man are adopted into the household of the victor, where they become members of the family and are treated in the same manner as the immediate family, not as slaves.

These Indians have a pseudo-religion which is based on a belief in being called by the Spaniards, el diablo, the devil. He has the attributes of a super Jivaro, is all powerful in everything the under takes, but is not particularly addicted to evil for its own sake.

No important project is undertaken without first consulting el diablo and getting his views. The Jivaros do not appear to have a highly developed priestly class and any man may enter into consultation with him. To do this it is necessary to retire to the seclusion some spot remote from the rest of the Jivaro, and here the would-be communicant prepares himself for the ordeal by dinking a quantity of a certain extract made from a particular variety of bark. The fluid is dark, about the colour of coffee, and contains some very powerful narcotic principle, for it produces a stupor and hallucinations of a different type but in a way comparable to the result of opium or hemp.

While under the influence of this drink, which may be for 4-5 hours, the Jivaro imagines that the devil comes to him and discusses whatever matter is a foot. Inasmuch as the mind of the man is filled with his plans when he takes this narcotic, it is but natural that his disordered reason concocts a fanciful dialogue and arrives at a confirmation of what he really believed when he first came.

If the devil has properly coached his client and the raid is eminently successful, the hut of the victim is surrounded, and when the latter steps out of the door he receives at close range the contents of all the guns in the party. The women and children are hastily captured and the raiders seek the safety of their own neighborhood, with the reasonable assurance that sooner or later they will be raided in a like manner by relatives of the slain man.



The head of the victim is cut off, and later, in the seclusion of his hut, the victor prepares it into a lasting war trophy, attaching to it the significance which the North American attached to scalps. The skin is opened up from the base of the neck to the crown, and the skull is removed entire, leaving only the soft, pliant skin.

The skin is now dipped into a vegetable extract which dyes it a blue-black and probably has some action preservative, and then the cut skin is sewed up along the neck to restore the head to its original form.

The cavity is filled with hot sand or pebbles, after which the head is constantly turned and moved, so that the drying goes on uniformly. When the sand has cooled, hot sand takes its place, and this process may last for several days before the head is completely cured.

Shrinking to an unbelievable degree takes place, but it is so regulated that the features retain their individuality to a great extent, and the finished head is about the size of a manıs fist.

The lips have been sewed shut with a series of long cotton cords, the exact pattern of this stitching varying with the locality and seeming to have some significance.

Within a short time after the preparation of a head, generally within a month, the victor celebrates the event by a ceremonial dance at which there is an orgy of wild drinking. After this dance it may be possible to buy the head from the Jivaro, if his interest can be aroused in an object whose value he understands and appreciates, such as the musket.



Because of the interest aroused in the outside world by tales concerning these head-hunters, there has been in the past a lively trade in human heads. The Jivaros, learning that there was a demand which could be capitalized into muskets, quickly gave a ready response; so that it became necessary for the Ecuadorean Government strictly to forbid the traffic in these objects.

Tales are told of the results of this practice which are not without a certain grim irony. There is a story, for example, of a red-headed white man who went into the interior on a trip of exploration charged with the commission of bringing out a dried and shrunken head. It was months after he had departed that a shrunken-head came out, by devious channels, from the Oriente, but the head had red hair. Perhaps a red-haired head brought the price of 2 muskets; who could tell?

Contrary to our expectations, after hearing stories of the Jivaro(and to the average Ecuadorean the word Jivaro is synonymous with violent death and all manner of disagreeable things), we found then a good natured people and very friendly to us.

Like the Quichuas, they are below medium height, but with a splendid chest development and with a rather pleasing cast of countenance. The men wear their hair long, but often cut it away to form bangs in front, and it is ornamented with tufts of bright red and yellow toucan feathers on the crown and the base of the neck.

The men wear slender tubes of bamboo thrust through the lobes of the ears and the women often have a short piece of cane projecting straight out from the lower lip.



On their own trails, the Jivaro costume could scarcely be considered a burden to the wearer, but when these Indians visit the border settlements they wear a one-piece garment consisting of a cotton cloth, which they weave themselves, caught up around the waist.

The men we saw appeared to treat their wives kindly and showed a consideration for their wishes in minor matters. If a wife is detected in any breach of infidelity, however, she is subject to a terrific course of discipline.

For the first offense the punishment consists of throwing the erring woman to the ground, holding her there, and cutting down on to the crown of her head with a large machete, or brush knife. The man makes a great many cuts, which are at an angle to one another, so that the scalp is literally hacked into small pieces and all the hair id lost.

Should this not prove sufficient to inculcate fidelity, the second offense results in the womanıs being pinned to the earth by a long, iron-pointed lance, which is thrust deep into the ground through the fleshy parts of both legs. Given food, water and sufficient care to prevent death, the offender is left in this position for days, even for a period as long as three weeks.

For the third offense the punishment is death outright.



As hunters and woodsmen the Jivaros are unsurpassed. Observers of the keenest sort, endowed with that natural instinct of the savage knowing direction, they hunt and roam over the vast unbroken stretches of jungle, following the paths made by wild animals or slipping through ore open regions regardless of trails, calling monkeys down the green hillsides by wonderful imitations of their calls, and sleeping at night. Like beasts themselves, where darkness overtakes them.

They hunt largely with the blow-gun, in the use of which they are peculiarly adept. The missiles for these weapons, which are sometimes twelve feet or more in length, are sun-baked balls of clay for the smaller game and poisoned arrows of cane for larger animals.

The poison is apparently a form of curare and is obtained from traders farther down on Amozonian waters. It is very potent, death resulting in a few minutes after an animal has been struck; but it does not spoil the game for consumption.

Salt is said to be an antidote, if placed in the mouth of the stricken animal, and monkeys are sometimes taken alive in this manner, the Jivaro hurrying up to administer the panacea when the quarry falls from the limb in a stupor.



Another poison which is extensively employed by the Jivaros is barbasco, a jungle vine or creeper, which is put into the rivers to secure fish. A great pile of the plant is beaten up on the rocks until it is a pulp, and after the Indians have stationed themselves down-stream some of their number throw 2-3 hundred pounds of mash into the river and the fishing begins. The fish are killed and float down, belly up, to be gathered in by the Jivaros, who see them as they pass.

So potent is this juice that large streams may be poisoned by this relatively small amount of barbasco and under favorable circumstances fish are stricken for a distance of three miles down-stream.

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