Shrunken heads

One of the most fascinating displays in the Pitt Rivers Museum is labelled ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’. The case includes a number of shrunken heads, or tsantas, from South America. Each of these is about the size of a large orange. Some are suspended from cords, some have the iridescent wing-covers of beetles as hair decorations. Their mouths and eyes are sewn shut.

The tsantas can be difficult for visitors from around the world to comprehend. They have much to teach us, about how human beings understand themselves, and about why humans teach each other like this – both within the societies that the tsantas come from and in the societies that display tsantas in museums.

How and why were tsantas made?

The tsantas 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 tsantsas were not made from humans but from sloths and monkeys, and this was increasingly so as European demand for collecting tsantsas developed.

Genuine tsantsas 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. Tsantsas are thus different from other kinds of war trophies around the world made from the body parts of enemies.

The tsantas in the Pitt Rivers Museum

The shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers Museum were acquired from six different collectors between 1884 and 1936. General Pitt Rivers, the donor of the Museum’s founding collection, contributed one human head; he also donated a shrunken sloth head he had purchased. We do not know how he obtained these. William Bragge, an engineer who worked in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires in the 1850s (and who later gave several collections to museums and became a fellow of the Anthropological Society), donated one shrunken human head. An otherwise-unknown Mrs Sanders gave the Museum another, about whose origins we unfortunately know nothing. 

The tsantas are displayed in the ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’ case in the court in the Museum. This case examines what human societies around the world do with the bodies of dead enemies. The case includes head trophies from Nagaland, and carved boards from New Guinea on which skulls were hung. 

Considerations for display

Staff at the Museum are considering other ways of displaying the shrunken heads in the long term, and are also considering whether it is appropriate to continue to display them all. 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 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 is 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.’ While some people feel that it is disrespectful to display any human remains in public contexts such as museums, others feel that museums have a duty to tell stories of the dead.

Text adapted from booklet by Laura Peers. Copies of the booklet are available in the Museum shop, priced £3.50.