The practice of creating shrunken heads was practiced in the Americas from early prehistory up until modern times. In pre-Columbian times the art of shrinking heads was widespread in the Andean area. Early chronicles have given us excellent descriptions of shrunken heads and the methods of their preparation by local inhabitants of both the Amazonian region and the northern South American Pacific Coast. To understand the motives behind the preparation of what is called "tsantsa" (shrunken head), it is necessary to realize that the "tsantsa" itself possesses "tsarutama" or magical power. Immediately following the battle the head was taken as a trophy, which gave the processor magical powers.
Most known shrunken heads were crafted either by indigenous peoples in Melanesia and the Amazon Basin, or by European or Euro-Americans attempting to recreate the practice. In Amazonia, the only people known to have shrunk human heads are the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna, Jivaroan peoples of Ecuador and Peru. Among the Shuar, a shrunken head is known as a "tsantsa", also transliterated "tzantza".
After World War II, the shrunken heads of two prisoners were found at the Buchenwald concentration camp. One of them was presented as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials by the U.S. Trial Counsel.
To Shrink Heads, one must first have a head !
Ancient and recent cultures in the Americas (and elsewhere) acquired heads by a variety of means: from warfare and conquest, to harvesting their own dead. However, even animal's heads can be shrunk, and pig heads can be obtained from most grocery store butcher departments.
Shrinking a head requires patience and time. It is a painstaking skillful process that was perfected with repeated practice. If creating your own shrunken head, be prepared to spend a full day or two in the process. Traditionally, a shrunken head would take up to a week to prepare - of course this is usually because a large number of heads were acquired at one time.
Makes A Great Science Project !
While this is a simple TEN step process, practice makes perfect! But this also makes a great science project for your school, since almost no one makes shrunken heads!
Step One: Remove The Head
The head is cut off below the neck with a section of skin from the chest and back - this helps provide enough skin to properly close off the head once it has been shrunken. If you have too much chest and back skin, it can be trimmed later.
Step Two: Removing The Skull
The skull has to be removed from the head. This is the first important step in creating a Shrunken Head.
In the original practice, the heads were taken in battle, and it was a day or so, before the preparation could begin. This may have aided in loosening the skin (an connective tissue) from the skull. Soaking the head in warm water for a couple of hours may also aid this process.
First make a precise clean incision on the back of the neck and continuing up the back of the head. Keep the cut as short as possible - you want it to extend up the back of the head, but not to the crown or top (for human skulls). You want it to be just big enough that you can remove the skull. With animals, this length varies, depending on the shape of the animal's skull.
Carefully peel back the skin from the skull starting at the base of the neck and proceeded to remove all the skin and flesh from the cranium. Some scraping may be required, but be extremely careful not to damage the underlying tissues of the ears and face.
Step Three: Prepare The Face
After the skull is removed, traditionally they placed red seeds underneath the eyelids and sewed them shut. The mouth was held together with three palm pins (providing some give, so as the head was prepared, the lips would not tear), which are later removed and replaced with dangling strings. Any remaining fat from the flesh of the head was removed, though cartilage of the nose and ears was retained in place to retain the natural shape.
Step Four: Boiling The Head
The flesh was then boiled in water in which a number of herbs containing tannins were steeped (teas are very rich in tannin also). The head is simmered for approximately an hour and a half to two hours. If the head is left for any longer, the hair would fall out. On removal from the boiling pot, the skin is dark and rubbery, and the head is about 1/3 its original size.
Step Five: Post-Boil Preparation
The skin is then turned inside out and any flesh adhering to the skin is carefully scraped off. The scraped skin is then turned right side out and the slit in the rear is sewn together. What remains is similar to that of an empty glove or leather puppet.
Step Six: Stoning The Head
The final shrinking is done with clean & sterile hot stones and coarse sand to sear the interior of the skin and to shrink the head further. These stones are boiled or heated in fire and are dropped one at a time through the neck opening and constantly rotated inside the head to prevent scorching.
When the skin becomes too small for the stones to be rolled around within the head, sand is heated and replaces the stones. The sand enters the crevices of the nose and ears, where the stones could not reach searing these areas. This process is repeated frequently as the sand cools.
Step Seven: Shaping The Shrunken Head
Hot stones are applied to the exterior of the face to seal and shape/reshape the face's human features. This remolding serves to retain its human features, and was necessary since the boiled and heated head would become smoothed out by the process.
Step Eight: Final Drying
The finished product is then hung over a fire to harden and blacken. Alternatively it can be dried in an oven. A heated knife or stone can be applied to the lips to dry them.
Step Nine: Dressing The Head
Surplus hair is singed or cut off.
The skin was then rubbed down with charcoal ash, with the belief that this would keep the musiak, or avenging soul, from seeing out. Optionally, instead of ash, vegetable dyes can be used to change the coloration of the head.
The lips are sewn shut, and various decorative beads were added to the head.
Step Ten: Displaying Your Shrunken Head
Shrunken heads are known for their facial distortion and shrinkage of the lateral sides of the forehead; these are artifacts of the shrinking process, and part of the appeal of the final shrunken head.
At this point, depending on your culture, you could hang your heads on your belt, in your dwelling, or from a pole. Or display them in a museum, on your mantle, or on your desk.
Do keep in mind that modern society does frown on head hunters and the harvesting of heads, especially when they are living. Therefore it is not advisable to shrink human heads or it may result in a visit to a head shrinker yourself.