I first became aware of the process of head shrinking (tsantsas) at the Ripley’s Believe it or Not a museum in NYC. Common amongst tribes in the upper Amazon region of Ecuador and Peru, these strange palm-sized human heads have undergone a unique shrinking process that can be traced back to 1100 BC. You may be familiar with the historical term head hunting – “a practice of taking and preserving a person’s head after killing that person”, well the Jivaro tribes took this concept to a whole new level.

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com

During battles with other tribes, Jivaro warriors would kill the enemy and decapitate them, claiming their enemies’ heads as symbols of bravery and displaying them as war trophies.

They start their work by making an incision in the neck and up the back of the head to peel the skin and hair away from the skull. The brain and skull would then be discarded as an offering to the plane, or anaconda, which the tribes considered to be a spirit helper.

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com

The eyes and mouth were sewn shut with cotton strings, the lips skewered closed with wooden pegs, and the face was blackened with vegetable dye to prevent the soul from escaping the tsantsas and seeking revenge on the killer. In addition, keeping its thin leathery skin is well preserved.

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com

To shrink the head, the skin was immersed in hot water and left to simmer for about an hour and a half to two hours. Hotsand was later poured into the water and was repeated several times over a period of months.  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. [1]

Facial features were molded by hand after each treatment. After this, the head was dried so that it would continue to shrink. Small rocks heated by fire were used to fill the cavity of the head. When the head becomes too small for the stones, heated sand was used instead. In addition, heated rocks were applied to the outside of the head to maintain the features. This process lasted several days, after which the pegs through the lips were removed and replaced with dangling cotton cords. [1]

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com
Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com

Originally this practice offered religious significance as warriors believed that the heads captured the souls of their victims thereby giving them control over their victim’s spirits. In addition, it served as a warning to enemies that the Jivaroan tribes were skillful warriors, building the warrior’s prestige.

Around 1910, shrunken heads began being used in trade and exchanged for weapons, the rate being one served head in exchange for a gun. [1]Today, shrunken heads are collected as treasured artifacts, and displayed in world-renowned museums.

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com


After the beheading, the head was shrunk and carefully prepared for 3 ceremonies. The first was to protect the killer from the victim’s avenging spirit. Over the course of about a year. 2 more ritual feasts were performed to transfer the power of the victim’s soul to the victor. The threads that once sealed the lips to trap the avenging spirits inside are missing, but a prominent hole from a wooden stake is clearly visible.

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com


Driven by an onslaught of collectors in the early 1900s, counterfeit heads crafted from animal skins began to appear – but the delicate features and finely preserved eats of the authentic Jivaro heads displayed here are impossible to duplicate. The facial hair on this head indicates that the victim was probably an outsider. Jivaro had little facial hair and rarely made ceremonial tsantsas of white men or outsiders. The presence of facial hair usually means that the head was prepared as a trophy, or to trade for weapons. [3]

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com

This Caucasian head is extremely rare. Little is known about how this European male ended up in the hands of the Jivaro. Invader, unlucky settler, or explorer, this man’s head – and his life – may have been taken as a trophy to trade for a few rifles. The victim’s lack of hair makes the incision where the skull was removed and re-stitched clearly visible.

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com


The Jivaro carried out bloody raids on targeted individuals and their families. The victim’s children were often killed to ensure they could not avenge their parent’s death. Clearly, this infant, toddler, and young boy are no longer a threat. [3]

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com

The Jivaro believe that failure of taking their victim’s heads will result in a curse laid on them that is far more dangerous than the risks of the battle. [3]

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com


Women are often captured in raids and taken as the spoils of war. They were welcomed into a victor’s polygamous family as wives and well treated – but resistance and faithlessness were punishable by death!

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com

This unfortunate soul may have once been an African slave brought to Ecuador by the Spanish. and then captured by the Jivaro. He was eventually returned to Europeans – but “down-sized” and traded for weapons. [3]

Image by Chantelle Flores | www.kzaravisual.com

Perhaps you would like to consider purchasing your own authentic tsantsas. These guys can help – www.realshrunkenheads.com, or pop past Ripley’s believe it or not in New York City. Tsantsas start from $19,199.99.

hashtag #RipleysNY & handle @RipleysNY

Images and content by Chantelle Flores, Kzara Visual Concepts


[1] http://www.ancient-origins.net/unexplained-phenomena/shrunken-heads-jivaro-001797

[2] http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/03/how-shrunken-heads-were-made/

[3] http://www.ripleysnewyork.com/

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