Toby Houlton: Shrunken heads

For the first WP meeting of 2013, Toby Houlton, an Old Chigwellian studying for a doctorate at the University of Dundee, told us about shrunken heads – tsantsa: who produced them, how and why. We learnt about the tribes in Peru and Ecuador where these customs arose, and the religious beliefs behind the custom. Most cultures preserve their own dead and try and erase the memory of their enemies; these SAAWK tribes did the opposite, as they believed that new members of a tribe could only be born if their dead were completely forgotten. Thus they erased all memory of their own ancestors, but preserved the heads of their enemies. They also believed that the enemy’s spirit could come out of his mouth to haunt them, hence the stitching up of this orifice. Toby explained how the heads were shrunk – basically by taking off the skin and chemically hardening it – and made to look stupid by pushing back the nostrils and pulling out the lips. We passed round a pig’s head which Toby, to prove that he understood the method, had shrunk himself.

He then told us about how colonialism had distorted the system: because Europeans were keen to possess tsantsa, the tribes actually went out hunting enemies just to fuel this export market. Europeans also made versions themselves, sometimes to sell as ‘the real thing’. It’s now been banned, so the practice has stopped.

A brilliantly delivered and fascinating account of something everyone has heard about but knows little of.

Picture of shrunken headPicture of shrunken heads worn by tribesmen

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