Up Close With a Shuar Shrunken Head

Few people have witnessed the process of making one.

Vintage & Historical
Up Close With a Shuar Shrunken Head
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Vintage & Historical

Shrunken Heads

With over 100 shrunken heads in the Ripley’s collection, it's no wonder they’re one of our most iconic exhibits. Robert Ripley collected his first shrunken head from a trader in South America in 1923, kickstarting the young adventurer’s curio of strange and unusual objects from around the world.

The Process is an Ancient Tradition

The process of taking human heads and shrinking them down to about the size of a fist dates back to the ancient Incans about 1,000 years ago. Though the practice may have once been common across the reaches of the ancient South American empire, by the time 19th-century explorers reached the region, only a few tribes practiced the tradition. The Shuar are known as the most modern culture to continue the practice.

Shrunken Head

The tribe is located in the mountainous jungle spanning Ecuador and Peru. Beyond this remote part of the world, few people outside the Shuar have ever seen a shrunken head, and even fewer have witnessed the process of making one. The process was long kept secret by native practitioners, though fakes can be found all over the world.

But How Were They Made?

Genuine shrunken heads are called tsantsa natively and were valuable symbols of bravery or accomplishment for tribal warriors. A tsantsa was prepared by slitting the back of the victim’s neck and peeling the skin away from the skull. Once the bones were out of the way, the eyes and mouth were sewn shut. The Shuar believed that the mouth must be bound together in order to keep the head’s avenging spirit from coming out.

Once the fresh head was prepared, it was stuffed full of hot stones, then boiled in a broth of special herbs. Finally, the skin was cured over an open fire.

Shrunken Head

Once discovered by western explorers, shrunken heads became highly desirable by collectors around the world. So tribe members began making “souvenir heads,” which were made as quickly as possible and had no cultural value to the Shuar themselves.

Sensing You Want More?

Eager to come face-to-face with a real shrunken head? Head over to a Ripley's attraction near you for a spine-tingling adventure! Explore the weird and wonderful world of shrunken heads and countless other oddities that will leave you amazed and entertained.

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