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Mystery of Jivaros Indians Shrunken Heads Practice

Jivaros shrunken heads

Popularized by the literature of exploration and adventure because of their practice of shrinking heads, the Jivaros Indians have, even before the Spanish conquest, been considered as one of the wildest peoples of South America.

Before the Spanish conquest: Incas against Jivaros

The sinister reputation of the Jivaros did not date from their meeting with Europeans, since the Incas themselves feared them already. Around 1450, the army of Tupac Yupanqui attacked a province located straddling the current border separating, north of the Rio Maranon, Peru and Ecuador. His soldiers felt tremendous repulsion towards these forest Indians: not content with being fierce fighters, they decapitate their defeated enemies and shrink their heads until they were no bigger than a fist. The Incas end up winning the war, but fail to completely subjugate Jivaros, refugees in the dense and inextricable forests of the Amazon.

A tribe of warriors with cruel practices

The Jivaros Indians are part of a small group of linguistically isolated cultures. They live mainly from hunting, fishing and gathering. The basic social unit is the family and the cohesion of the groups rests above all on family ties. The Jivaros are also warriors. Their egalitarian society only acquires a leader on the occasion of campaigns to be waged. However these are numerous: the ethnic group has for hereditary enemy the Achuaras, a neighboring tribe. However, these are not enough to appease the bloodthirsty practices of the Jivaros and, when the enemy is no longer available outside, the Jivaros communities sometimes kill one another under the most diverse pretexts, revenge or accusation of witchcraft.

The reason for this behavior: warrior prestige. The great warrior kills the most enemies. Of each victory he keeps a testimony: a head beheaded, then shrunken. This custom is not only intended to display trophies during certain traditional festivals. It aims to ensure that the spirit of the dead man, the muisak, does not return to take revenge on his murderer. To achieve this, the warrior who killed an enemy must perform a complex ritual designed to imprison the soul of the dead in his own head, carefully reduced.

How to neutralize the enemy's muisak?

The preparation of the Jivaros shrunken head, called tsantsa, takes several days, and the material operations alternate with magic ceremonies. To avoid any risk of decomposition, reduction is often undertaken on the way back to the village. The eyelids are sewn so that the dead cannot see what surrounds him, the shriveled skin is dyed black so that the spirit of the deceased is forever plunged into darkness. The skull bones, previously removed, the eyes and teeth are thrown as an offering to the river anacondas. Once the ritual is finished, a hole is drilled at the top of the shrunken head and a link is passed through it. The tsantsa is then wrapped in a canvas and then placed in a earthen jar preserved by the warrior. The latter only shows his enemy's head when he wears it around his neck during the holidays.

Recipe for making a tsantsa | Preparation time: 6 days

First strip the head of its skin. To do this, make a vertical incision above the neck and then separate the scalp from the skull.

Then boil the skin so that the hair does not fall out. Wait until it has halved, then remove it from the water and allow it to dry. After carefully scraping the inner surface of the dermis, sew the eyelids and the incision made at the start, so that all that remains is the opening of the sliced ​​neck and that of the mouth.

The head is then still too big. Introduce hot pebbles by the neck and roll them inside so that the head does not deform as the skin retracts.

Then burn the facial hair and tie the skin of the neck before pouring hot sand through the mouth to complete the narrowing of the head. Empty the cooled sand, dye the skin black and sew the lips.

The tsantsa, now, is no bigger than a fist.

People and Civilization