Robley with Mokomokai collection_2

Shrunken Heads: Yesterday And Today

Shrunken heads are becoming a popular topic in today’s oddities business. More and more people are seeking them for purchase. Without a doubt, a head would make a great addition to a collection of curiosities. However, if you’re looking for a real shrunken head, finding it is not so easy. This doesn’t mean they are not out there. You just have to look hard to find one.

In this post, we will talk about their up and coming industry and history. We will go into the details of how they were made in the past. Our featured image shows a man by the name of Horatio Gordon Robley. He is sitting proud with his large collection of severed and preserved heads back in 1895. Robley was an artist and collector of Mokomokai (preserved heads of Māori people). Although the heads are severed and not shrunk, we thought we would share this amazing image with you. Of course, to many, the picture can be extremely creepy and very difficult to look at.

This post also provides information on the synthetic heads of today and what some are made of. We will also mention the safest way to buy a real shrunken head legally. So read on and let’s talk about one of the rarest and perhaps most up and coming item in the wonderful world of oddities.

The History Of Shrunken Heads

Shrunken Head from EquadorWhat Is A Shrunken Head?

Shrunken heads are severed human heads that are methodically prepared for use as trophies, rituals and trading purposes. Although headhunting has transpired in many different regions around the globe, head shrinking was not as common. In fact, it has only been documented in the northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest. The only tribes known to shrink real human heads are the tribes of Jivaroan which include Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna. These particular tribes are found in Peru and Ecuador. The tribe of Shuar has their own preferred name for shrunken heads called tsantsa.

How Did The Tribes Obtain The Human Heads?

The tribes of Jivaroan would go out for a head-hunting raid in their neighborhood. Usually just one time a year, a raid would take place. Per each raid, usually just one home was attacked. The tribe would only kill the men. They would spare the older women and would actually take the young women and use them as their brides.

How And Why They Were Made


After obtaining the human heads, they are then ready to be shrunk. Although some head-hunting tribes may have shrunk their heads slightly different than most, here is how it was generally done.

1.  A vertical incision is made into the skull.

2.  The skin is peeled back. The skin and flesh is then removed.

3.  The eyelids are sewn shut and the mouth is pinned with a wooden peg.

4.  They would then turn it inside out to scrape out all of the fat and subcutaneous tissue off.

5.  To retain human form, a wooden ball was often placed inside the head.

6.  To shrink the size, the head is then boiled in water saturated with herbs.

7.  The head then had to be dried using sand and hot rocks. Simultaneously, to retain its human features, the head is then molded.

8.  The skin was then blackened with charcoal ash. They believed that coating the skin in ash would help keep the avenging soul (muisak) from leaking out.

9.  Finally, the eyes and mouth are sewn shut.

10.  Some would decorate the head with beads.

Why They Were Made

Generally, it is believed that most headhunting tribes would sever human heads for ceremonial purposes. With the Jivaroan tribes, their headhunting had a religious significance. They believed that shrinking the heads of their enemies would harness the spirit and force him to serve the shrinker. It was also said to prevent the soul from avenging his death.

As for the Shuar and Achuar, after shrinking the heads, a series of feasts would take place. The feasts were centered on important rituals. They would also use their shrunken heads as a threat to other tribes. They figured their enemies would be too frightened to fight them because of the fear of their heads getting severed and shrunk. Heads were later used for religious ceremonies and feasts to celebrate a tribes victory. It is believed that the trophy owner didn’t keep it for very long. There are various accounts as to whether the trophies were stored or thrown out. Some say they that after they were used for their ceremonial purposes, they were given to children as toys.

The Nazca Head-Hunters: Trophy Heads

Shrunken Head at Museum zu Allerheiligen

Trophy head in a museum. Notice the mouth of this head is pinned with two long spines instead of sewn shut.

As previously mentioned, headhunting has been common throughout many regions of the world. The Nazca culture of Peru is well-known for their headhunting. They would go out and seek trophy heads. Instead of territorial expansion, some scholars suggest they had practiced headhunting as a form of ritual warfare to capture prisoners. However, other scholars disagree. They believe the evidence points to them engaging in traditional warfare for control of land and resources only obtaining the heads after battle.

Although they would not shrink their heads, their use for headhunting has been compared to the Jivaroan tribes because they were also said to use them for ceremonial purposes. The Nazca culture would also use their enemies heads as collections and decorations on poles. They were even hung from banners and were also carried around by warriors.

How The Head-Hunters Of Nazca Preserved Their Prize

1.  First, the head was removed from the body by slicing through the neck.

2.  The cervical vertebrae is separated with a using sharp obsidian knife.

3.  The base of the skull is broken away while the tongue, muscles, throat structure and soft tissue are thrown out.

4. The brain and its membranes are removed through the opening.

5. The cavity was then stuffed with a cloth. Sometimes, it would also be stuffed with vegetable matter.

6.  In order for a rope to be threaded through, a small hole would either be punched or drilled into the center of the forehead.

7.  A large knot or wooden toggle was used to secure the rope inside the head.

8.  The lips were then pinned shut using one or two long pines from a local tree.

The Preserved Heads Of Māori 

Mokomokai Sketch

A sketch of Maoris bargaining about Mokomokai in 1896.

It is fascinating to see how various tribes would preserve their severed heads. For the preserved heads Of Māori (Mokomokai), the process is also different from other tribes. As previously mentioned, our featured image shows a man with a very large collection of preserved Māori heads. Here is how the preservation process took place.

1.  After the head is severed, the brain and eyes were removed.

2.  All orifices are sealed with flax fibre and gum.

3.  The head is then boiled or steamed in an oven.

4.  It is then smoked over an open fire and dried in the hot sun for several days.

5.  Then it is treated with shark oil.

6.  The preserved heads would be kept by their families in carved boxes. Similar to other tribes, they were then brought out solely for sacred ceremonies.

Trade With Shrunk And Severed Heads

Although the majority of tribes would sever and shrink human heads for ceremonial and ritual purposes, they were also commonly used for trade.

In many places around the world, severed and shrunken heads were often used as trade for guns. At the end of the 1800s, Westerns had created an economic demand for shrunken heads. They became valuable for trade, collectors and to supply tourists. This created a huge increase in the rate and number of killings.

In the 1930s, heads were legal and freely exchanged. One can purchase a shrunken head for around twenty-five U.S. dollars. However, this was put to a stop when the Ecuadorian and Peruvian governments teamed up together to outlaw all trade.

The rise in killings and head shrinking influenced people in other countries like Colombia and Panama. They would use corpses from morgues, heads of monkeys or even sloths to counterfeit a shrunken head.

The Shuar are said to still produce replica heads to sell to tourists. Although it is still not yet proven, there is said to be some Shuar tribes that still practice headhunting today.

Websites That Provide Fake Shrunken Heads For Purchase

Mini Shrunken Head

Mini Shrunken Head

There are several websites that sell fake shrunken heads for sale. They have the mini heads that you can place on a stick or on your rear view mirror. There is a hole in the neck to easily place it on a stick. The head features synthetic black hair with a thread through the mouth. At the top of the head is a string for simple display.

Sites That Sell Fake Heads That Actually Look Real

To look more authentic, some sites sell heads that are made out of leather and animal skin. Sites like Salangome.com sell handmade shrunken heads of various styles. For instance, you can order your own style of hair color and quality. According to their website, their heads have been displayed in various museums, private collections and even Hollywood movies.

Do You Want A Shrunken Head Of Your Own Face?

shrunken head of yourselfHave you ever thought about what you would look like if you were able to purchase a tsantsa with your own face on it? Well, there is a eBay seller who makes museum quality custom shrunken heads for $300.00. According to the seller, these are the most realistic replicas ever sold. They are the actual size, thickness and weight of a genuine tsantsa. With your order, you also get a museum quality display stand. After placing your order, it will take around 3 to 4 weeks for completion.

This particular item may not always be available.

 Heads That Actually Look Genuine

So how can you tell if what you are about to spend a lot of money on is actually real? The image above is said to be a mix of real and fake. Can you tell which ones are actually genuine? They obviously look very similar. How about the funny head with the large Afro?

Ways To Tell A Head Is 100% Genuine

Here are a few ways that can help you tell if a shrunken head is genuine:

1. Are the eyebrows, eyelashes, nose hairs and the fine facial hair visible?

2. Do you see wrinkles and pores?

To be completely safe, you will still need the opinion of a professional. There are a lot of the fake heads that are made of goat skins and other animal skins. This can easily be deceiving . However, there is no animal (other than humans) that can create the patterns of a real head.

How To Find A Real Shrunken Head Legally: Ceremonial Vs. Tourist

According to various online sources, since the 1940s, it has been illegal to import shrunken heads into the United States. However, it is important to point out that this claim was once mentioned in Wikipedia, but has recently been removed. Also, some claim that the trade is 100% legal because shrunken heads are considered antiques.

Dorotheum

Dorotheum is an auction site that shows an example of an extremely rare and legally obtained ceremonial/tribal head from the 19th century. As you can see from the above screenshot, it has long hair and a stitched mouth.

Before buying a ceremonial/tribal head, it is still recommended you check the legality with a lawyer.

Ceremonial Heads (War Trophies)

As previously mentioned, some sources claim that ceremonial tsantsas are not legal for trade because these are heads of people that were killed for their head in use of rituals and ceremonies.

Tourist Heads (For Trading)

Tourist tsantsas are legal in the U.S. Unlike ceremonial heads, the person was not killed for their head. At the turn of the century, tribes were making many shrunken heads to supply tourists.

Places To Find The Real Deal

There are websites that claim to have genuine shrunken heads for sale. However, they come at a very steep price. You may have seen the T.V. show “Oddities” and have seen them sold for under $5,000 dollars. Some can go even higher. Ripley’s has them starting at $19,199.99.

Museums

According to Kate Duncan’s book “1001 Curious Things“, it is estimated that about 80 percent of tsantas in museums and private hands are fraudulent. Some are fake female heads, or a head along with an entire torso. However, you may find a museum that offers one for sale. It is absolutely crucial that you not only ensure its authenticity, but also that it is legal for purchase.

 An Extreme Rarity: Female Shrunken Head


So you think finding male heads are very rare? Female tsantsas are even more rare. Generally, ceremonial heads were almost all men because the warriors were men. However, as more and more were used to supply tourists, some (very few) were female. This makes finding a real female tsantsa even more valuable than a male.

Don’t Make A Huge Mistake You Will Regret

Hinged Handcuffs Rear Back To BackUltimately, if you are looking for the real deal, it is recommended that you not only ensure its legality and legitimacy with the seller, but also with a lawyer. Yes, it may cost a good chunk of money to get an experienced lawyer’s opinion, but it may just save you a unwanted trip to jail.

If you buy or sell a head that is illegal (depending on state laws), you may face charges. There are laws for the sales of human body parts and in court, ignorance is not a defense. Ensuring it is legal can save you the trouble and allow you to show off the rarest and most valuable oddities item in the world. You won’t ever have to worry about the huge inconvenience of facing charges.

Final Words

There you have it. Detailed information on the history, industry and creation process of shrunken heads. Hopefully, if you are planning on seeking a real one, you will take the recommended legal steps before making a purchase. Also, it is extremely important that you not only buy one legally, but also ensure it is the real deal. Remember to verify that it is authentic with an experienced professional.

Whether it is genuine or fake, have you found your shrunken head yet? Whether you are interested in actually buying one, or just want to get more information on their history, we hope you learned a lot of valuable and comprehensive information in this post on shrunken heads.