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the story of shrunken heads

The Jivaro are a South American tribe of people who live on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountain Chain in Northern Peru and Southeastern Ecuador, north of the Marandon River. The Jivaro (from the Spanish Jibaro) call themselves "Shuara," and are in 5 related groups which include: The Jivaro proper, the Antipa, the Achual, the Huambiza and the Aguaruna. The Jivaro are hunter-gatherers, supplemented by some tropical forest agriculture. They are a warlike people, and there is a lot of feuding among the different tribes. The weapons of the Jivaros include blowguns with poisoned darts.

When a person from an opposing group is murdered, the killer must go through an elaborate ceremony to protect himself from being haunted by the dead manís spirit. The victims are always male, and the murder may be for revenge or for fear.  After the killing, the warrior is temporarily ostracized from the tribe, and a skeleton is painted on the outside of his body. He is kept away from his tribe for a period of time until he is considered to be purified. When the warrior is going through the purification process, the head of his victim is put through its own process of becoming a "shrunken head."

First, the Jivaros cut the head off the corpse. Then, after some incisions, the skull is removed through its neck. The skin of the face, scalp and head is then dipped into boiling water three separate times. This is part of the ritual process. After the dipping is completed, the skin of the head is put into a pot to boil. It is said that the liquid the head is boiled in is from the juice of the "huito" plant. Modern anthropologists do not know what the huito plant is, as the Jivaros keep it a secret. After the boiling process, the head is put on top of a spear, which is stuck in the ground, to dry overnight. The next day, the ears are removed and the mouth and eyelids are sewn closed.

The head is then placed between hot rocks (heated by fire) and the cavity of the head is filled with hot sand several times. This has the effect of melting a layer of fat inside the head, and causes the skin of the head to shrink and to turn black.   After this the shrunken head's skin has a consistency similar to that of beef jerky. After this process is completed, the head has shrunken to about the size of small apple. Next, the shrunken head is reshaped, stuffed and its neck is sewn and tightly bound. The Jivaros believe that, with its lips, eyelids and neck tightly bound, the spirit of the victim is trapped inside of the shrunken head, and is unable to escape to haunt the warrior. This grotesque shrunken head is now called a Tsantsa, and is considered to be a trophy of war by the Jivaros. The exiled warrior is then accepted back into the tribe and is considered to be purified. The warrior then accepts possession of the shrunken head (Tsantsa). The Javaros believe that to possess a shrunken head means good luck and represents the great courage and valor of its owner.

In the late 1950ís, 60ís and early 70ís, realistic looking rubber shrunken heads became a very popular automotive accessory among hot rodders of the period. People hung the shrunken head from the rear view mirrors of their cars, and, in Southern California, it seemed that almost every other car had a shrunken head hanging from its rear view mirror. Shrunken heads then became a national phenomenon. Now, after more than 20 years, shrunken heads are back, and you donít have to be a headhunter to own one!

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