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A fake shrunken head.

Headhunting and Shrunken Heads: Gruesome Ancient War Trophies

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Headhunting is a practice that has been carried out by numerous cultures throughout the world. For instance, during the Qin dynasty in ancient China it is claimed that soldiers collected the heads of their dead enemies and tied them around their waists. This was intended to terrorize and demoralize their enemies.

Despite the fact that headhunting was not too uncommon a practice, the shrinking of human heads is one that was unique to the Jivaro people of Ecuador and Peru.

How People Used to Make a Shrunken Head

The process of making a shrunken head began by obtaining a human head in battle. A head was removed from the body by cutting the skin at the extreme base of the neck. An incision was made up the back of the neck in order to peel the flesh away from the skull . The entire skull was then removed and thrown away. The eyes were sewn shut, and the mouth closed by passing small, sharp palm pegs through the lips.

Then the skin was put into a boiling pot and left to simmer for about an hour and a half to two hours. The timing was crucial, as too short a time would result in the head not shrinking properly, while leaving the head too long in the pot would cause the hair on the head to fall out. When the head was removed from the pot, it would be reduced by two-thirds of its original size, and would have a rubbery texture.

A shrunken head from Ecuador. ( Fotos 593 /Adobe Stock)

After this, the head was dried so that it would continue to shrink. Small rocks heated by a fire were used to fill the cavity of the head. Ash was then rubbed into the skin, and the head hung over a fire to allow it to dry and harden. Once this was completed, the head was attached to a cord through the scalp and worn around the warrior’s neck. The process of producing the shrunken head ended with a celebration and a feast.

Shrunken head, Ecuador. Image credit: Ancient Origins

Why Did the Jivaro Warriors Shrink Heads?

Head shrinking was undertaken to appease the spirits of slain ancestors. Jivaro warriors believed that the ritual of shrinking the head paralyzed the spirit of their foe and prevented it from taking revenge and also passed the victim’s strength onto the killer.

Perseus holding the head of Medusa, sculpture in Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale. ( CC0)

Of course, the practice of head shrinking was eventually banned due to its gruesome nature. Yet, this piece of Jivaro tradition still has its allure, and today, replicas of shrunken heads are still a hot item. These are clearly labelled as replicas, and are made from animal products.

Other Headhunters Who Lived in Peru

While the Jivaro people were most infamously linked to the practice of shrinking heads, they are not the only group of people to have been noted in history as headhunters. In neighboring Peru, archaeologists have found evidence that Pre-Incan cultures such as the Lambayeque or Sican people also practiced decapitation, as shown by a discovery of decapitated remains around a pyramid in northern Peru in 2011. And in 2015 it was reported that the Inca culture may have practiced headhunting as well.

The Nazca culture of Peru has also been named as another group of probable ancient headhunters. Evidence for their practice has been shown on possible depictions of trophy heads stuck on poles, banners, and being carried by warriors on their pottery.

Evidence of Headhunting in Europe

Ashley Cowie recently reported that headhunting is a prehistoric practice in Europe too :

“Head-hunting, as a way of establishing power and veneration of the head as the throne of the soul and the body’s spiritual engine, began in Europe as far back as Mesolithic times, approximately 13,000 years ago. This ancient European heritage was much later adopted by Celtic cultures to whom worship of the head became a central element of their ideology, expressed in their arts, crafts and mythologies.”

Sarah P. Young explains that the Celts also believed the soul resided in the head. Furthermore, “Having a large collection of enemy heads was a sign of prestige to the Celts, and they would even go so far as to decorate the doors to their houses with the heads of their enemies to show off how successful they were in battle. At one site in France there is even a pillar with special niches carved out to display severed heads.”

The pillars of the portico in Roquepertuse, with cavities designed for receiving skulls. III-II B.C. Musée d'archéologie méditerranéenne in Marseille. (Rvalette/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

The Romans are said to have continued the practice of hunting for heads in London too.

Did the Hopewell People Practice Headhunting too?

Finally, there is also the question if people in the Hopewell culture practiced headhunting . Hopewell artisans sculpted representations of decapitated heads and headless human torsos – scholars still wonder if the heads were removed as war trophies or were honored as revered ancestors.

Dayak women dancing with human heads, 1912 (Public Domain)

Digital painting of a Mississippian-era priest, with a ceremonial flint mace and a severed head, based on a repousse copper plate. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The above groups are not the only people to have been linked to headhunting practices, the Dayaks, Korowai, Aztecs, Scythians, and samurais have all been connected with this gruesome practice at some point over the ages.

Top Image: Fake ‘shrunken head’ made of plastic and fake hair as a creepy gift or toy. Source: Dario Lo Presti /Adobe Stock

By Joanna Gillan

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