The History of Tsantsa

Origin of the Shrunken-head Trade

By the end of the nineteenth century, little was still known about the Jivaro Indian clans in South America, except for their macabre practices of taking the heads of their enemies. This practice intrigued travelers and collectors and compelled them to visit these tribes to satisfy their curiosity.

The visits of the white man helped revolutionize the Jivaro's methods of warfare, as they began trading firearms and ammunition for shrunken human heads. The Jivaros aware that a demand for their tsantsa was developing, were quick to comply with the traders to satisfy their own needs.

As more and more travelers engaged in this gruesome trade, it soon became necessary for the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments to pass severe and expedient laws prohibiting the traffic of human heads. The laws were established to deter tourists and travelers who secured the tsantsa as curios and had no concept that their trade was actually perpetuating feuding and warfare between neighboring tribes. At one time the Jivaros had demanded a firearm for each tsantsa, which allowed him to continue their war against their enemies more successfully. This destructive cycle was continuously reinforced as new heads were acquired for further bartering.

In the 1930s heads were made to order and sold for approximately $25.00.


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William Jamieson Tribal Art
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