Ecuador: Headhunters of the Forest

Deep in the rainforest that stretches across the eastern part of Ecuador and parts of Peru lives a tribe known as the Jivaro. These fearsome warriors were among one of the very few tribal groups anywhere in the world who successfully resisted conquest and colonization by European forces. The lands of the Jivaro were known to be a source of gold, and in the late 16th century the Spanish administration established a town in Jivaro territory as a base for gold mining expeditions. The governor of the region was cruel and greedy, and he placed a crippling gold trading tax on those Jivaro who fell under his purview. This soon sparked a revolt in which up to 25,000 people who lived in the town of Logrono were killed. The governor was captured by the Jivaro, who poured molten gold into his mouth until he died (one would assume quickly). Legends say, the Jivaro taunted him by asking “Have you had your fill of gold now?”

The Jivaro, at least when provoked, were obviously not a gentle people. Their society revolved around wars with neighboring tribes and feuds within the tribe. These battles were not fought for land or booty; rather, the prizes were the heads of the enemy. It was believed that to take the head of one’s enemy was to take his power and add it to one’s own – the more heads taken; the more power would be accumulated. Where the Jivaro differed from other tribes and societies who beheaded their enemies was the way in which they treated the heads. In the case of the Jivaro, they shrunk them!

Those who are squeamish may not wish to read on… Once removed, a captured head would be slit in the back and the skull removed. The lips and eyes are sewn shut. Thus prepared, the head is then boiled in an herbal solution that begins the shrinking process and fixes the hair so that it will not fall out. After several hours, the head is shrunk further – down to roughly the size of a baseball – by filling it with hot stones, then sand, then hot stones again, and so on until the head is of the desired size. It is then hung over a smoky fire until the skin turns black. A light polishing with wood ash is the final step, following which the head is taken by the warrior who captured it and displayed as a trophy.

Many people aren’t aware that the ritual of creating shrunken heads was practiced in Ecuador into civilized times, and this may be due to both the isolation and inaccessibility of the forest region in which the Jivaro live, as well as the hostility of the tribe to intruders. Nonetheless, the ritual of head shrinking as practiced by the Jivaro is complex and was been formalized over the course of countless generations until being outlawed by the modern governments of Ecuador and Peru.