Head shrinking was common in the jungles east of Cuenca until the early 1960s
By Jim Morris
Historically, headhunting is a practice common to many cultures throughout the world. During the Qin dynasty in ancient China, it is claimed that soldiers collected the heads of their dead enemies and tied them around their waists. On one of his bloodiest military campaigns, Attila the Hun was said to have built a pyramid 100 meters high of Ostrogoths heads. Until the 18th century, it was common practice to display the heads of the vanquished on iron spikes.
In Ecuador, headhunting and head shrinking was most common in the jungles east of Cuenca, some of it occurring within 60 miles of the city, in the highland jungles of the Amazonian region. Until the 1960s, several vendors in San Francisco Square sold the heads, primarily to tourists although representatives of U.S. and European museums were also among the buyers.
In more than one case, the heads of foreign scientists who ventured into the jungle to study the Jivaro appeared for sale in the market. To read the story of a German anthropologists who had his head downsized, click here.
The process of making a shrunken head began by obtaining a human head in battle. A head was removed from the body by cutting the skin at the extreme base of the neck. An incision was made up the back of the neck in order to peel the flesh away from the skull. The entire skull was then removed and thrown away. The eyes were sewn shut, and the mouth closed by passing small, sharp palm pegs through the lips. Then, the skin was put into a boiling pot and left to simmer for about an hour and a half to two hours. The timing was crucial, as too short a time would result in the head not shrinking properly, while leaving the head too long in the pot would cause the hair on the head to fall out. When the head was removed from the pot, it would be reduced by two-thirds of its original size, and would have a rubbery texture.
After this, the head was dried so that it would continue to shrink. Small rocks heated by a fire were used to fill the cavity of the head. Ash was then rubbed into the skin, and the head hung over a fire to allow it to dry and harden. Once this was completed, the head was attached to a cord through the scalp and worn around the warrior’s neck. The process of producing the shrunken head ended with a celebration and a feast.
Head shrinking was undertaken to appease the spirits of slain ancestors. Jivaro warriors believed that the ritual of shrinking the head paralyzed the spirit of their foe and prevented it from taking revenge, and also passed the victim’s strength onto the killer.
It is believed that the traditional practice of head shrinking ended by 1960.
One of the world’s best collection of shrunken heads, by the way, is in the Pumapungo Museum, on Calle Larga in Cuenca.