It takes about a week to shrink a head down to the size
of a mans fist. With a machete or steel knife, the head and neck
are cut off as close as possible to the collarbone. The killer removes
his own headband, passes it through the mouth and neck of the head,
and ties it over his shoulder to facilitate his rapid retreat from the
Eventually, the head-taker and his companions reach
a spot beside a river where they have hidden one or more pottery cooking
jars and food dishes. Here he makes a slit up the rear of the head,
carefully cuts the skin from the skull, and throws the skull into the
river as a gift for the Anaconda. The skin is boiled in plain water
for no more than about half an hour; this reduces the skin by about
half. The trophy is then dried on a stick thrust in the ground. Then
the skin is turned inside out and all the flesh is scraped off with
a knife. The tsantsa is then turned right side out and the slit in the
rear is sewn together with string made from the inner bark of the Kumai
palm. Five or six stones about two inches in diameter are heated in
the fire. Each, in turn, is lifted with a four-pronged stick and placed
in the tsantsa and rolled around inside. When the stone cools, the head-taker
grasps the tsantsa by the hair in order to turn it over to drop the
stone back into the fire. When the skin is too small for pebbles to
be rolled around in it, sand is heated in the food bowl. The head-taker
also massages the skin to help the drying process and to affect the
shape. The vine around the base becomes reduced in proportion to the
The warriors resume their trip homeward, after about
an hour of working with the heated sand. Everyday the process is continued
for about two or three hours. A machete is heated red-hot and pressed
against the lips to dry them. Then three Chonta palm pins are put through
the lips and are lashed together with string. The skin is also rubbed
daily with finely powdered Kumai palm wood charcoal so that it will
become blackened and prevent the murdered man from seeing out.
When the process of shrinking the head is complete,
a series of three feasts are given to show everyone the shrunken head.
The Chonta pins and palm-fiber strings are then removed from the mouth
of the tsantsa and replaced with long white cotton strings. The warrior
now possesses the soul of his victim, as well as his head.
From: The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls.
By Michael J. Harner
Different groups in New Guinea and Borneo, as well
as the Jivaro of Ecuador and Peru have used the practice of making shrunken
The replica shrunken heads sold at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop are handmade
in South America by headhunters using traditional techniques.