By Laurie McAndish King
Gold Solas Award-winner in the Most Unforgettable Character category
Four decapitated heads, each the size of a large grapefruit, materialize as my eyes adjust to the shadows. The heads, which hang at eye level on thin cords, each have long dark hair and shiny black faces, with eyes and lips that are sutured shut. They are human heads, on display in a tall glass case at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England.
I creep forward until my nose touches the glass and gawk. Two of the heads sport long, braided hair with red and white feathers plaited in, and decorative threads sewn into their upper and lower lips. The other two look more natural, with straight hair and no facial adornments. They are tsantsas—shrunken heads—made by the Shuar and Achuar people who live in the Amazonian rainforest.
We—the tsantsas and I—share a cavernous room, three stories high and crowded with display cases set at cockeyed angles to form an incomprehensible maze. To my right is a wall populated with tribal masks from around the world: Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India, Japan. The Japanese Noh theater masks are particularly beautiful, with their clean lines, subtle coloration, and remarkably evocative expressions of a whole range of emotions, from serene joy to pain and terror. I feel a faint bit of terror myself, as I wander through the exhibit called Treatment of Dead Enemies. It contains examples of human remains and associated objects from around the world—including the four tsantsas. I study the tsantsas, struck by the realization that they once belonged to individual human beings, each with their own unique faces. One of the shrunken visages features high, broad cheekbones, a straight nose, and a pronounced lower jawline. Another is still graced by a long, sloping forehead and an oddly dainty nose. A small sign in the display case explains:
In many countries, including our own, the taking of heads from enemies was a socially approved form of violence with deep religious and cultural meanings. It was not seen simply as murder, but as a way of maintaining social order. In England, as shown by the print on display, heads of executed traitors were at one time displayed to deter others from such crimes.
That phrase, “as shown by the print on display,” is telling. The museum has been criticized as a bizarre freak show that misrepresents and disrespects the more aggressive behaviors of other cultures. The staff have given a lot of thought to the ethical issues and inequities involved in displaying human remains, and have positioned an illustration of the impaled heads of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators (infamous for their traitorous role in the British Gunpowder Plot of 1605) next to the tsantsas, thus pointing out the similarities between the two as an acknowledgment that even the proper English have, in the distant past, beheaded their enemies. A portly, silver-haired woman approaches the Treatment of Dead Enemies display and stands beside me, gazing at the heads. She wears a floral shirtwaist dress and sensible shoes.
After observing the tsantsas for a moment, she says, “One of these was used in the Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban. Do you know the story of the shrunken heads?”
“Not really,” I reply, suspecting I may be about to find out.
The woman clears her throat. “Beginning late in the nineteenth century, the heads were discovered by European explorers and became popular collectibles. They ended up in world-class museums like the Smithsonian, the Branly in Paris, and the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin. I’ve seen them all.”
She seems very proud of this. “You’ve seen shrunken heads all around the world?” I ask.
“Yes, I rather like them.”
“They tell a story, a human story, just like your American Hatfields and McCoys. The Shuar and Achuar—the two head-shrinking tribes—were similar in many ways, but they fought each other fiercely for ages.”
“Probably disputes over land …” I speculate.
“No, no!” The elderly lady waggles her plump right forefinger in the air like a school marm. “They were avenging the deaths of relatives killed in previous clashes. They were worried that the spirits of their ancestors would return from the netherworld, angry and seeking retribution for their own deaths, and cause havoc for the tribe.”
“I see the problem. It’s a vicious cycle.”
“Yes, the worst kind. You see, they were more afraid of their ancestors’ spirits than they were of dying on the battlefield. Bringing back the trophy head appeased the ancestors.”
“So what happened after the trophy hunters got the heads?”
“They skedaddled home, of course.”
“I guess I’d do the same, under the circumstances,” I reply, imagining what it would be like to live in a society that held onto grudges for generations.
Our escalating tendencies toward wall-building and polarized politics are giving me the feeling I already live in just such a place. I’ve dreamed of relocating, but am not really sure where I could go to escape acrimony and friction. They seem to be everywhere.
“Then there were the ceremonies,” the lady continues. Her voice is surprisingly low. If I hadn’t been looking at her I’d have thought I was talking to David Attenborough.
“What kind of ceremonies did they have?”
“It was a complex process involving feasts for the ¬¬trophy-hunter’s entire clan—the schedule could stretch to a year or more. It was crucial to take specific precautions to subdue the enemy’s soul and protect the killers from spiritual revenge.”
“Hence the shrinking?”
“Yes, the shrinking and the ceremonies.”
“How did they … um … how did they do it?”
“It’s a bit gruesome,” elderly Ms. Attenborough chuckles. “First, the flesh was peeled away from the skull.” She glances directly into my eyes to see how I am taking this, perhaps trying to decide how much detail to disclose.
“That sounds difficult,” I observe, fascinated and therefore silently vowing to show no sign of revulsion. I want to find out what she knows.
“Well, after the fftttt…” she slices her left hand surreptitiously through the air at neck level to indicate decapitation … “they made an incision up the back of the head, and separated the skin from the skull. Then they discarded the brains, sewed the eyes and mouth closed, and put the head into a pot of boiling water, with herbs to help preserve the skin.”
“They boiled the heads?” Somehow, this does not sound right. I envision potatoes bobbing in a pot of boiling water.
“Well, more likely they were simmered for a couple of hours. The timing was critical: not enough and the skin wouldn’t come off neatly.”
She apparently knew the recipe in surprising detail.
Questions crowded my own head: Why didn’t the skin end up all wrinkly like mine does after a long bath? How many experiments had it taken to arrive at this precise procedure? And how did this woman know so much about shrunken heads anyway?
“Do you think they ever overcooked them?” I prodded.
“That was an issue, too. Too long in the pot and the hair would fall out.”
“What kind of herbs did they use?” I’m thinking of parsley … to go with the potatoes.
“Something with tannins. They also used hot sand and rocks to shape the head and preserve the skin, which eventually turned dark and rubbery.”
“And that was it?”
“There was one more step—the most important,” this sweet granny says, drawing out the suspense. I get the feeling she might be playing me. “The headhunter rubbed charcoal on the skin to seal it and keep the avenging spirit from seeping out.”
“That’s a clever finale. But why would the Amazonians sell the heads after all that work—especially to foreigners?”
“They didn’t really care about the heads themselves. It was the spirit contained in the head—the deceased man’s soul—that was important.”
“But if the spirit was inside the head, wouldn’t they need to hold onto the head itself…?”
“Actually, no. At the end of the ceremonies, the soul would have been expelled from the tsantsa, rendering the trophy quite useless. That’s why they were so readily traded.”
“Right. Who wants a used shrunken head hanging around the house…?”
“Exactly.” She chuckles again and turns to smile broadly at me. I wonder how many times she has told this story, and how her other various audiences have reacted.
“Towards the turn of the century the Shuar began trading the heads for guns, which let them kill more Achuar, producing more heads. They became quite popular collectibles.”
“So these would mostly be Achuar heads?”
“Perhaps. They might be counterfeits. You have to be very careful about what you’re getting.”
“Counterfeit heads?” I peer into the case more closely, leaving a foggy little cloud on the glass. It dissipates quickly, then reappears with each exhale.
“Yes. They were so popular with foreigners that counterfeits made from sloth or monkey heads became common—the Amazonians believe humans were descended from sloths. They’re actually quite hard to tell from human heads, after all the processing. Many of the counterfeits ended up in museums, too.”
“What do you think about these?”
“Take a close look at the ears,” she instructs, without bothering to look for herself. “They retain their shape during the shrinking process, so the real thing has miniature human ears.”
These look real to me, but I don’t have a basis for comparison because I have never actually examined a sloth’s ear.
“One can also check for nasal hairs,” she continues. “Non-human specimens don’t have them.”
It’s been a fascinating conversation, but I’m beginning to wonder about this lady’s mastery of the details. The Amazonian people wouldn’t have had much body hair, and the boiling surely would have compromised it. So the presence of nasal hair doesn’t seem like it would be a reliable indicator. For all I know, she’s making this stuff up.
Mrs. A goes on to talk about Guy Fawkes, capital punishment (“from the Latin capitis, or head”), and the practice of decapitation (“It stretches back to Roman times, you know”). Apparently the ancient Celts did it; so did the Chinese and Koreans, and it continues in present-day Saudi Arabia, where it’s referred to as “judicial decapitation.”
“That’s quite a history!” I finally say.
“Yes, it’s the history of humankind. Every culture needs to maintain social order. And every culture has traditions that seem illogical—or even superstitious—to outsiders.”
At this point I can’t help but recollect other part-preserving exhibits I’ve visited: pickled fetuses in Russia, Louis the XIV’s heart resting in a baroque seventeenth-century Parisian cathedral. I’ve heard that Galileo’s middle finger is enshrined in an egg-shaped glass reliquary at a museum in Florence, and that Thomas Edison’s last breath, or perhaps a few molecules of it, is on invisible display in a test tube at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The urge to preserve is universal.
But why do shrunken heads seem so much more significant than, say, hair or fingernail clippings, even though they’re all body parts? Is it possible there is something remaining in those memento mori, some miraculous agency that connects us with a spirit world?
And why is a sweet little old lady so fascinated with the tsantsas? Why are entire exhibits devoted to the likes of Guy Fawkes and other symbols of revenge? I suppose some part of human nature will always be preoccupied with death, enemies and yes, even spirits in shrunken heads.
But how much better is it to encounter this fascination here, in a museum, and not on a neighbor’s fence post.
~ ~ ~
Laurie McAndish King is an award-winning travel writer and photographer with an eye for the quirky. Her subjects include 20-foot-long Australian earthworms, an Ivy League astrophysicist’s explanation of how flying saucers are powered, and finding the perfect site for watching eagle sex. King’s essays and photography have appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, The Kindness of Strangers, and other magazines and literary anthologies. Awards for her work include a Lowell Thomas Gold Award, a First Place photo award from Smithsonian Magazine, and others. Her three books of travel essays—poignant, insightful and often quite funny—have inspired and entertained readers since 2014.