Cuenca News

Anthropologist visits Cuenca to study the Amazonian head shrinkers and gets more than he bargained for

By Sylvan Hardy

Until the Amazonian ritual of head shrinking disappeared in the 1950s, almost any head was fair game for shrinking, including those of foreigners.

Shrunken heads at the Pumapungo Museum.
Shrunken heads at the Pumapungo Museum.

The best-known case is that of young German anthropologist Franz Bosch, who arrived in Cuenca in November 1906 to study the rituals of the Amazonian Shuar community.

A century ago, some of the Shuar lived as close as 70 miles east of Cuenca, just east of the town of Paute.

Bosch had studied other Amazonian tribes in Brazil and Peru in 1905 and 1906, and came to Cuenca to pursue his fascination with head shrinking. Alfred Joyce, an Irish priest assigned to Todo Santos church at the time, said one of Bosch’s goals was to witness a head shrinking ceremony in person, and he made several trips to the jungle with a hired guide in an attempt to make arrangements.

When Bosch and his guide failed to return to Cuenca on schedule in February 1907, it was assumed by those who knew them, including Father Joyce, that the research was gong well and that they had traveled north to visit another group of natives east of Ambato.

Several months later, while he was walking through the San Francisco Plaza market, Joyce was stunned to see two familiar faces, although in greatly miniaturized form. The shrunken heads of Bosch and his guide were hanging side by side in a display of jungle medicines and indigenous crafts. Writing later in a Quito newspaper, the priest said, “To my everlasting horror, I immediately recognized the flowing mane of blond hair and the distinctive, although tiny, Aryan features of Señor Bosch.” Joyce continued, suggesting that the young scientist had been treated to an up-close and personal demonstration of the head-shrinking art.

After a few minutes of wrangling, Joyce purchased Bosch’s head for the equivalent of $15, insisting that the guide’s head be thrown in at no extra charge.

On a 1911 European trip, Joyce delivered Bosch’s head to his parents in Berlin. Today, it is displayed in the history museum at Freie Universität.

The tragic but peculiar ending of Franz Bosch was reported in several German newspapers as well as in Harry Franck’s 1917 travel classic, Vagabonding Down the Andes.

To learn more about the head-shrinking craft, and to see one of the world’s most impressive collections of shrunken heads, visit the Pumapungo Museum on Calle Larga.