The History of Tsantsa

Head-Shrinking and the Purpose of Tsantsa

In pre-Columbian times the art of shrinking heads was widespread in the Andean area. Early chronicles have given us excellent descriptions of shrunken heads and the methods of their preparation among the Indians of the Ecuadorian Coast.To understand the motives behind the preparation of tsantsa it is necessary to realize that the tsantsa itself possesses tsarutama or magical power. Immediately following the battle the head was taken as a trophy, which indicated that the maker had properly fulfilled the obligation to his lineage in taking blood revenge.

Most Jivaro Indians would consider any victory over the enemy as incomplete, and perhaps the whole war expedition a failure if they were unable to return without one or more trophies. Furthermore, possessing the tsantsa itself would benefit the warrior's good fortune as well as please the spirits of his ancestors. The warrior could expect the spirits of their dead relatives to bestow them with good crops and fortune. Consequently, one could anticipate corresponding misfortune if their murders were not properly avenged. The Jivaros gave much more thought to the harm that might come to them through the ill will of the neglected dead relatives ghosts, than they did to the malevolent actions of enemy ghosts.

More importantly, the reason behind the preparation of the tsantsa is to paralyze the spirit of the enemy attached to the head so that it cannot escape and take revenge upon the murderer. This also prevents the spirit or soul from continuing into the afterlife where it could harm dead ancestors. When the warrior kills his enemy, he is not only after the victim's life, but more importantly he seeks to possess the victim's soul. Acquiring trophies after a battle, was also an instrument of increasing a warrior's own personal power, known as arutam. The idea behind killing the enemy and taking his head as a trophy, brings the victim's arutam to the warrior. The power of the dead man's soul is still considered dangerous to the victorious tribe and therefore the motive behind shrinking the head of the enemy is to conquer and destroy the spirit or soul.

In addition to satisfying the notion of blood-revenge and possessing the dead man's soul, the transformation of the head into a tsantsa implies a deadly insult not only to the dead man himself, but also to his whole tribe.

The head means to the warrior what the Medal of Honor means to an American soldier.

Celebration of the Tsantsa

After a successful attack on an enemy village, the victors were quick to cut or mutilate the bodies of the slain enemies. Having satisfied their desire for vengeance, the warring party made a hasty retreat before their opponents could recover from their surprise. Messengers were sent ahead to announce the outcome of the expedition to the waiting people at home.

A series of tsantsa feasts were held which marked a successful raid. The rituals which followed unfolded in three episodes, each lasting several days with the last feast separated by an interval of approximately a year. The reason for the separation between feasts is to allow the for the re-harvesting of crops for the subsequent celebration. The first of these feasts is referred to as "his very blood" or numpenk. This feast is held at the house of a previously appointed wea, or master of ceremonies who had agreed to act as the host. The second feast is known as fulfillment or amianu, which is celebrated approximately a year later at one of the killer's houses. The host of this celebration usually builds a new house more worthy of the occasion. The third and final of these feasts is called the napin, which is the largest of all feasts with the head-takers supplying all the food and drink for the next six days. Abundant food is required or the head-taker may lose the prestige and notoriety he had acquired during their wartime. The Jivaro warriors smeared themselves with blood and danced with the shrunken heads of their enemies dramatizing the killing.

The reasons behind the ceremonies held with the tsantsa are for the benefit of departed relatives in order to show that the Jivaros are fulfilling their obligations of blood revenge as well as to increase their own prestige. The possession of the trophy enabled the warrior to be singled out in admiration amongst his peers. During this victory celebration, the women captives stood around weeping. Accordingly, if no female captives were taken, proxies were appointed from among their own women to mourn for each tsantsa.

In spite of the grandiose celebrations and the prestige acquired, that the warriors held to celebrate the tsantsa, the host's resources were often depleted during the feasts.

Surprisingly, despite the amount of care and diligence that went into the preparation trophy and feasts, immediately following the final celebration, the heads were often discarded with relative indifference to the children or eventually lost in surrounding swamps.

Substitute Tsantsa Used During Victory Celebrations

Often during an inter-tribal war an Indian may kill his enemy but us unable to take his head. This occurs usually for one of two reasons. The first reason occurs when a counterattack launched by the dead man's tribe forces a hasty retreat by the attacking party leaving no time to take a head. Secondly, the victim may in fact turn out to be a relative of the opposing force in which case, taking the head of the slain Indian is deemed unethical. In these cases, the warrior is still entitled to a tsantsa, so he will kill a sloth and prepare its head in absentia of the dead Indian. The use of a sloth's head is almost as common as the actual head of human. (According to the native beliefs, these tribes believed that all humans were the direct descendants of all animals. The Jivaros claim to trace most of their ancient human qualities to the sloth, who they believe is a direct survivor of ancient times.) This idea makes it acceptable to use a sloth's head as it was once considered to be an Jivaro Indian.

Another acceptable substitute is known as a untsuri suara which can be employed in place of the actual human head. To make this particular tsantsa, the killer simply pulls out some of his victim's hair rather than actually decapitating them. The hair is later applied with beeswax and attached to a tree gourd and used as a substitute tsantsa. It is believed that the dead enemy's muisak or avenging soul is in it because of the presence of the hair.

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