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Tsantsa (shrunken head)

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Dated: 19th century

Cultural Context: Shuar style

Origin: Ecuador

Medium: Leather, hair, cotton and natural pigment

Technique: Drained, boiled, cut, stitched, painted

Dimensions: Diameter = 58 cm; Width = 5 cm

Inventory no.: 16374

Shrunken human head with long hair and fringe, painted in black with the mouth closed by three pins. Among the Shuar, an Amazonian group found in Peru and Ecuador, the head of dead enemies was exhibited as a trophy. As the tsantsa was an object charged with supernatural power, the whole process was woven through with magical and superstitious rituals. Once the enemy was dead, the head was cut off and a cut was made along the back to remove the scalp and skin. This skin was then immersed in boiling water. A vine (kapi) was made into a ring the same size as the circumference of the neck opening and tied. With a needle and chambira fibre, it was stitched onto the opening previously made. Then the actual shrinking would begin. Three stones were heated and placed one by one inside the head, keeping the head moving so that the stones would clean the inside of the head. A similar procedure was then carried out with hot sand. This procedure was repeated several times, gradually shrinking the size of the head. The lips were pierced by chonta rods, run parallel to each other, and cotton fibres were wound around them. The head was then painted black with charcoal. Throughout this process, great attention was paid to the hair, since according to Shuar beliefs, the hair was the abode of the soul and the vital power, not only of human trophy heads, but also those of animals such as the sloth or the jaguar. Due to the great demand for this type of piece from the 19th century onwards, fakes are abound.

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