Shrunken heads

Until 2020, the cabinet in the Pitt Rivers Museum labelled ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’ held tsantsa, or shrunken heads, which were displayed with many other human remains from other parts of the world. The decision was taken to remove the tsantsa from public display because it was felt that the way they were displayed did not sufficiently help visitors understand the cultural practices related to their making and instead led people to think in stereotypical and racist ways about Shuar culture. Standing in front of the case, people would talk about the people who had made them as ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ and use words such as ‘gory’, ‘gruesome’ or a 'freakshow' when talking about the display. Shuar people have expressed dismay at their culture being represented in such ways, and the Museum is now working with Shuar partners to redress this situation.

To download the Museum's 2011 publication on the tsantsa, by Prof Laura Peers, please click here.

The tsantsa in the Pitt Rivers Museum

The tsantsa (shrunken heads) in the Pitt Rivers Museum were acquired between 1884 and 1936. 

Recent research by Dr Laura Van Broekhoven has shown that the Museum’s Shuar/Achuar collection comprises 173 objects, ten of which are tsantsa, six human, two sloth, and two monkey. The tsantsa were acquired between 1884 and 1936 from five different collectors and were, as far as we know, only added to the original display in the 1940s. Previously it was thought that there were 12 tsantsa, but that was due to a previous misidentification, and a tsantsa that seems to have never been brought into the collection, but did appear in the databases. 

The data that accompanies the tsantsa does not provide us with either geographically or chronologically clear provenance information. The tsantsa are said to have been collected from either ‘Xebaroe’ or ‘Jivaro’ people along three different rivers where we know Jivaroan peoples were known to have lived. We suspect that these particular tsantsa come from three main Jivaroan peoples: the Untsuri Shuar who lived along the Zamora River; the Achuara from the Pastaza River and the Aguaruna along the Marañon River. Around the time these tsansa were collected the Achuara were regularly raided for heads by the Untsuri Shuar, but further research is required into this. 

Two of the tsantsa (one human and one sloth) are from the Museum's founding collection belonging to General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers: a sloth tsantsa (1874.115.1) collected by Clarence Buckley from the ‘Xebaroe’, and a human tsantsa (1874.115.2) probably sold to the General by a person identified as ‘Jamrach’ (and possibly collected by the same Buckley). They are amongst the oldest tsantsa recorded in any museum collection. 

According to the Museum’s records, the other tsantsa consist of a human head (1932.32.92) collected by William L. Stevenson Loat in Ecuador along the Upper Santiago river, a ‘Jivaro’ human tsantsa (1911.77.1) bought in 1911 for £3 by a Mrs Sanders in the Peruvian Marañón River district, and a sloth tsantsa (1923.88.364) purchased by Major R. H. Thomas in 1922 when visiting the ‘Jivaros’ of the Upper Santiago River in Ecuador.  In 1936, Major Thomas also aquired the two monkey tsantsa (1936.53.44 and 1936.53.45) in Ecuador along the Pastaza River. He also collected the three commercial (or forgeries of) human tsantsa along the Zamora River, Guallaquisa in Ecuador (1923.88.363) and along the Pastaza River in Ecuador (1936.53.42 and 1936.53.43). The Museum hopes to do further work to identify which of the tsantsa are likely to be forgeries. 


How and why were tsantsa made?

Little is known about the reasons tsantsa were made or the method of making them. Most historical records that do exist were written by foreigners who did not speak Shuar. As far as is recorded, tsantsa were made by Shuar and Achuar people of Ecuador and South America. The process of creating a shrunken head involved peeling the skin and hair off the skull, which was thrown away. Only the skin and hair were kept. This was soaked in hot water briefly, and then hot sand poured inside the skin cavity. The hot sand treatment was repeated several times, and the facial features were reshaped after each stage. Many tsantsa were not made from humans but from sloths and monkeys, and this was increasingly so as European demand for tsantsa grew. However, sloths were also used as they are considered sacred by Shuar communities.

Genuine tsantsa were made in order to capture the power of one of the multiple souls that Shuar and Achuar people believed their men had. That power was used by the group to strengthen themselves and increase harvests. Tsantsa are thus different from other kinds of war trophies around the world made from the body parts of enemies.


Considerations for display

While the largest collection of tsantsa can be found in Ecuador, there are several in museums in Europe and the USA. With a few exceptions (the Pitt Rivers Museum, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia and the Wellcome Collection in London) tsantsa have not been on public display for a number of years now in most institutions as it is felt to be unethical or inappropriate.

Recent legislation and professional discussions in the UK have addressed the display and care of human remains in museum collections. Human remains have also been returned to indigenous communities from many British institutions, including the University of Oxford, which has returned Māori and Australian Aboriginal remains from the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The UK government’s Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (DCMS 2005) recommends that: ‘Human remains should be displayed only if the museum believes that it makes a material contribution to a particular interpretation, and that contribution could not be made equally effectively in another way. Displays should always be accompanied by sufficient explanatory material … As a general principle, human remains should be displayed in such a way as to avoid people coming across them unawares.” 

For over a decade Pitt Rivers staff have been considering other ways of displaying the shrunken heads. We are now working with Shuar delegates as part of a project with the Universidad de San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador. The project is led by Maria Patricia Ordoñez and involves multiple conversations with Shuar and Achuar delegates to decide what would be the best way forward with regard to the care and/or display of these human remains.