Shrunken Heads

I have seen a number of these, especially the collection in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, but though vaguely aware they served some ritual function, never really pursued what they were about. No images are included as it is not possible to photogrph such human remains. This is from the i paper, by Frank Cottrell-Boyce:

The ground floor of the Pitt Rivers is an enchanting, crepuscular clutter. The display cases have titles such as “puppets”, “Instruments of “Divination”, “Lamellophones” (surprisingly numerous and widespread) and … “Treatment of Dead Enemies”.

It could be an aquarium designed by Hieronymus Bosch. A dozen shrunken heads float fishily from wires. One has a mop of black hair like a bio-engineered Beatles souvenir, another a carrying handle thrust through its nose like a fashion accessory from Mordor. Their faces are full of character,. There’s no doubt that friends and family would recognise them.

Most of the heads were made by the peoples of Ecuador and Peru. Until the 1960s Shuar men fought a running war with the Achuar, taking heads and turning g them into tsantsas. These aren’t really trophies. Making tsantsas was a kind of post-mortem adoption process whereby the soul of a dead enemy becomes part of his conqueror’s family.

Once a tsantsa was complete, the shrunken head had no value: it had done its job. So Shuar and Achuar warriors were quite happy to trade them, which is how they ended up here. The heads were so popular that people took to making and trading fakes.

The one donated by Pitt Rivers himself is made of a sloth’s head. Others were made from the heads of people stolen from mortuaries. We know this because  they are stuffed,not with rainforest vegetation, but with a copy of the Quito Times.

The presence of the heads raises questions about what a great ethnographic collection is really for. Does this cabinet of day-to-day wonders help us to understand other cultures better, to uncover our common humanity? Or does it titillate our sense of superiority to the exotic “others” who made them?

This is a good question and I don’t think there’s a single answer. We are all different, and such collections remind us of that. 


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