Tsantsas - Shrunken Decapitated Heads

Severed human heads can be shrunken and preserved. The process used to be carried out by tribal people from the Amazon rainforest for ritual, trade and trophy purposes. In some cases the shrunken heads could be used as toys for children. The demand for tsantsas (another name for the shrunken heads) from traders caused an increase in warfare between some of the Amazon tribes. Most of the demand came from dealers, museums and private collectors. The practice has ended around the 1960s.
Tsatsa made by the Shuar tribe, currently exhibited in the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford

The procedure of shrinking a human head would first involve removing the skull by making an incision at the back of the head and pulling the skin off, while severing the muscles and tissues connecting the skin to the skull. The skull is thrown away, eyes are removed and cartlidges from the nose and ears are cut off. The skin is cleaned while being turned inside out. A purpose-made boiling pot is then filled with water, and the water is brought to boil. The skin of the head is immersed in the boiling water 3 times, and then left to simmer for 30 minutes. It is then removed and left to dry.

Once the skin is dry, the lips are sewn shut and held together with palm pins, while seeds are placed underneath the eyelids, and the eyelids are similarly sewn shut. There remains a pouch from the incision made at the back of the head. Hot rocks are inserted into that pouch, and continuously rolled around in the skin to prevent distortion to facial features. The rocks are gradually replaced with hot sand, which ultimately fills the pouch. The outside of the face is then held against a flat heated rock surface to smooth out any remaining wrinkles. The lips are dried with a hot blade and the facial features are moulded by hand. Finally, the head is dangled over fire to toughen the skin and complete the process. Charcoal ash is used to darken the skin. The resulting tsantsa is approximately a quarter the size of a normal human head.
Another example of a tsantsa from the Amazon region. The image was found on wikipedia. Note the well-preserved facial features, which were formed by hand.

 The high demand for tsantsas resulted in many sales of counterfeits, usually shrunken sloth heads rather than those of humans. Moreover, other counterfeits were made of the heads of horses, monkeys, goats, and dead bodies taken from morgues. Such counterfeits can be recognised by lacking the high quality preparation and decorations made on orginals. Moreover, they often lack the perforations made with wooden pins present in authentic tsantsas and the threads used for sewing the mouth and eyes tend to be thinner.


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