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Published Sunday, January 25, 2015

Deadmods: Shrunken heads

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Sure, usually I write about the living. But in this series, I wanted to explore body modifications that happen after a person has died. These processes have produced some of the most amazing specimens in our history, and also resulted in some unexpectedly gruesome turns of events, as you’ll see below.

We’ve all seen shrunken heads – and if you haven’t, there are plenty of pics in this blog – but how does one’s head get shrunken? Historically, the process can go one of a few different ways. The skull, being not shrinkable, gets removed through the neck, with an incision widening it enough to make this work, which is then sewn back together.

After that, you get baked, steamed or smoked. A large hot rock is placed inside the head, and hot rocks are often rubbed on the outside to help the skin dry. During this time, the lips and eyelids are sewn shut and the nose gets a couple of sticks in it to keep the nostrils looking good. Special care, in the form of protective leaves, is taken to keep the hair from getting baked off.

Concoctions of herbs are often used, with variants being reported depending on the tribe.

Photo by Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia

After you start to shrink, the big rock is replaced with a smaller one and then with a still smaller one, until you reach your final shrunken size. The end product, a head around the size of a softball, is given decorative braiding from the mouth piercings where the lips were tied together. The skin after the process is quite stiff.

The resulting shrunken head is a trophy to a warrior, usually the one who did the killing of the former head owner, but it’s significance as a religious object goes far beyond that.

Among the Jibara, a collection of tribes in the Amazon, near the Andes mountains in Peru and Ecuador, the tsantsa (the shrunken head) is a sacred object. It brings luck to the warrior for things like hunting, and some said the overall collection of tsantsa in a village made everything easier, from basket weaving to cleanliness. Everything just…seemed a little easier with more heads, I guess.

Of course there’s a downside as well. The heads had to be carefully managed, treated with reverence and respect. This is because the heads were thought to contain the spirits of the people killed. Their angry, angry spirits. At any opportunity, the spirits would escape and kill the warrior who owned the head, mostly through sickness. Sickness among the Jibaro was seen as the influence of evil spirits.

This belief also led to a practice of rescue and revenge among the various tribes. If the head of an important enough person was taken from your village, you might have to go take it back, or get someone’s head to take their place.

From the 1600s to the early 1800s, the Spanish tried conquering or subduing the Jibaro on a regular basis and failed each time. Sometimes because of the climate, because of sickness, and because of the terrain, the Jibaro just resisted and wouldn’t stop.

It should be noted that during this time, and as much as Christian missionaries hated the head-shrinking, people were totally buying the heads and bringing them home to Spain, where they were a curiosity of the New World. But the Jibaro also raised pigs, and by the mid 1800s they were selling both pigs and some shrunken heads to the Spanish.

Jesuits brought in cows, and cattle ranching became really popular in Peru and suddenly people didn’t want Jibaro pigs anymore. For one particular Jibaro tribe, the Shuar, this was a serious issue. Thankfully, a solution had landed right in their lap. While Jesuits fought mightily to stop the practice, a trade grew between the Shuar and Spanish towns called the ‘heads for guns’ trade. And if you’re thinking that one tribe suddenly having both access to guns and a serious need for more heads is an issue, you’re not wrong.

Photo courtesy of British Museum Online

How big an issue? Well, this is literally where the term ‘head-hunting’ comes from. Armed groups of Shuar numbering in the hundreds became the terror of the region. They weren’t on top for long. The Achuar, a neighboring Jibaro group, got involved in the rubber trade and got their own money and guns and suddenly there was a head-hunting war going on.

The guns-for-heads trade remained a thing until – seriously – the 1950s at least. Today, the shrunken heads of the Jibaro are relegated to museums. And the joke may be on the gullible explorers who traded away their guns. Modern DNA tests have shown that the shrunken heads on display in many museums are fake – made of monkey heads, for example.

As always, buyer beware.

As for whether this mod is something you could have done with your own head, I asked a number of morticians and they said almost certainly not. There would apparently be too much risk of running afoul of the "desecrating a body" laws that many states have in place. So if having your head shrunk is something you're interested in, you may have to go overseas.