The practice of headhunting can be found in cultures worldwide, but only one ethnic group has been known to perform the tsantsa—the practice of shrinking heads. The Jivaro clan, who inhabited the Ecuadorian Amazon, are known for the ancient practice of tsantsa. The Jivaroan tribes consist of four sub-tribes: The Ashur, Aguaruna, Huambisa, and the Shuar. When speaking of the tsantsa, people are often referring to the Shuar who achieved the most notoriety for the practice.
The Jivaros had a reputation for fierceness and military strategies. The Jivaros first resisted the Incan Empire’s encroachment into Ecuador as well as the first conquistadors who set foot in South America. The Jivaros then became known as the the only known tribe to have successfully resisted the Spanish Empire’s attempts to conquer them.
During the Spanish campaign for conquest, Spanish reports chronicle the warlike culture of the Jivaro peoples as well as their ruthlessness in war. One report describes the massacre of the Logrono, during which the Jivaro people had a dispute with the Spanish governor over their gold trade. Reports state that the Jivaro people poured molted gold down the governor’s throat and then proceeded to execute the remaining people in the settlement. This massacre, as well as their established renown for head-hunting, solidified the Jivaro’s reputation and discouraged outsiders from attempting to breach their territories.
Today, many of the Jivaro attempt to remain isolated in order to live their traditional lifestyles. However, villages continue to adopt modern customs and adapt to contemporary practices. That being said,the practice of tsantsa continued until the 20th century.
THE PRACTICE OF TSANTSA
The Jivaro people’s practice of tsantsa is steeped in mysticism and religion. Despite the Jivaro tribes’ reputation for ruthlessness and bloodthirstiness, the tsantsa was a deeply religious experience for the warriors. The people believed that the spirit of the dead continued into the afterlife, at which point the soul could harm dead ancestors in revenge. When the Jivaro warriors killed their enemies, they not only sought their victims’ lives but their souls—the individual magical power called the arutam. The process of the tsantsa was seen as a way to prevent the vengeance of the dead warrior’s spirit, the muisak.
The warrior begins the process by fasting for eight days to prepare his own soul, and what comes next is not for those with a weak stomach. The first step of the tsantsa ceremony is stripping the skin from the head. The skull and the remains are discarded while the flesh is boiled with tannin to preserve the skin before it is removed and dried over hot ashes. Next, the warrior sews the eyes and mouth shut—another way to prevent the loss soul from escaping—and seals hot pebbles inside the head. The process of using hot pebbles and sand to shape and shrink the head continues for several days. The warrior then paints the face with charcoal before beginning to shape the skin into its natural features once more.
Throughout the tsantsa process, the warrior calls upon the ayumpum (the spirit of death and life) to prevent further revenge and the victim’s spirit from reawakening. After the drying process, the community takes part in the following ceremony. At this point, the women in the community have an important role. They sing omens to bring the warrior good luck, protection from evil, and removal of the memory of the killing itself so that the warrior will no longer dream of death.
By performing the tsantsa ceremony, the Jivaro people believe that the past, and the bad omen of the killing, can be put behind the warrior as the are reborn with new life. As such, it is not only a commemoration of justice, but a celebration of new life and a spirit reborn.