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Curious Curios

By Jason Z. Guest

Norwegian adventurer and writer Thor Heyerdahl depicts the dangers facing explorers throughout the pages of his expedition, Kon-Tiki. Driven to complete a dubious mission—navigating a balsa wood raft across the Pacific—author and crew launch from South America and ultimately silence naysayers. Yet while sourcing enormous hardwoods for their craft, hazard lurked within the Amazon Jungle: indigenous Indians with a bent on head shrinking.

Archeological evidence found in stone etchings and pottery suggests that such practice preceded the arrival of European explorers. Known as a tsantsa, the shrunken head of an enemy served to protect the indigenous Jivaroan craftsmen of Ecuador and Peru. It secured the spirit of their victim, preventing the soul from avenging death.

Quite the gruesome process, headhunters first decapitated their enemies. After crushing the skull to remove flesh, they would boil the empty skin, and then fill it with hot sand. The finished product, no larger than an orange, remarkably resembled its victim.

Once discovered by the Western world, economic demand for these rare trophies spurred killings and sparked black market trade in coastal tourist spots. Thankfully, the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments banned such trade decades ago. Not to fear, most of today’s privately held curios are fake and of primate origin.

Photo by Ed Schipul