Human trophies is no novelty. David in biblical times brought back the head of Goliath. Native north Americans used to take the scalps (hair) of their ennemies. Other customs include the collection of the heart, hand, eye or ear but the head is the most popular part. Although many other cultures through-out the world practiced head-hunting, the Shuar clan of the Jivaro tribe became famous for their practice of shrinking and preserving human heads. A shrunken head taken in battle by the Shuar was called a tsantsa (“sansha”).
As most primitive tribes, the Shuar are very superstitious. They believe that most deaths, accidental or natural, are caused by some black witchcraft. Such murder deserves immediate revenge on the person responsible. The shaman - in his powerful position - would hold a ceremony and decide whose sorcery was at fault. Following each death a vicious cycle of retaliation ensues in which someone is always held accountable for the murder of another. As the Jivaro Indian is consumed with the notion of retaliation, his " desire for revenge is an expression of his sense of justice." the result of this belief system was incessant intertribal warfare.
This cycle of blood-revenge is perpetuated by religious reasons by which the soul of the victim requires that his relatives should avenge his death. If the surviving members do not retaliate against the slayer, the anger of the vengeful spirit may in fact turn against themselves. If blood-revenge cannot be directed to the actual slayer, it may be directed toward one of his relations. Once a murder has been avenged, blood-guilt or tumashi akerkama is atoned for and the offended family is satisfied
Male children were taught at an early age about the concept of blood revenge. The father instructs the younger men, often as young as six years of age, to listen to the various crimes that had been committed against his people. A strong sense of family justice is instilled in the minds of the young, who are later expected to avenge previous injustices committed against their family members. Further incentive is encouraged by the notion of reward, including blessings, good luck, long life and many opportunities to kill one's enemy.
Within the vast region of the Amazon a perpetual animosity existed between the neighboring tribes of the Jivaro. A fundamental difference between wars enacted within the same tribe and against neighboring tribes is such that " wars between different tribes are in principle wars of extermination". The main goal of these wars was the total annihilation of the enemy tribe, including women and children. This was done in order to prevent them from seeking revenge in the future. There were however, many instances where the women and children were taken as prisoners and forced to become a part of the victors families. It is solely in these wars that trophies/tsantsa were taken. It must be noted that trophies/ tsantsa were not taken during the disputes between blood-relatives. The Jivaros consistently engaged in this practice toward their mortal enemies. They feared tbe ghosts of dead relatives even more than live enemies, and believed that making a tsantsa protected them. The possession of a tsantsa ensured good luck to the owner. It not only contained magic power, but also secured the good will of the ancestors whose desire for revenge was now gratified.
After a successful raid, the head of the enemy was cut off with a sharp object. Until it was prepared, the head was considered inert and impotent; it only assumed its magical powers after being shrunk in accordance with draconian rules
The victorious war party would return to camp to a celebration of dancing, songs, hallucinogens and the drinking of chicha, a kind of beer made from a type of jungle yam and fermented with human saliva. Accompanying this would be numerous magic rites to protect the warriors from the vengeance of the ghosts of their victims. Within a day or so after the cutting, and once the warrior was a safe distance away at a preplanned location, the head was prepared in secrecy.
The greatest aspiration of a young Shuar male was to become a renowned warrior. The Shuar believed that a killer acquired the strength of his victim, and warriors with many kills to their name were held in awe and greatly feared. The taken of the first head is a capital moment for a Shuar warrior. When the moment of the main celebration arrived, the killer - wearing the tsantsa around his neck-would enter the hut. After the head was properly cursed and insulted by those gathered, the spirit was quelled, and the head was stuck up on top of a lance. Dinner was served.
At dusk the dance would begin - a soul-killing dance - and everyone would join in. Warriors with blood-smeared bodies would dance around the tsantsa, brandishing their lances and dramatizing the kill. The feasting and rituals continued for three to five days. Chincha, narcotics and the enemy's head made for a great celebration.
Surprisingly, however, the Shuar didn't keep the finished shrunken heads. Since their reasons for taking heads had to do with revenge, punishment and spiritual renewal, the finished product lost its value at the conclusion of the ceremony. The tsantsa was generally discarded, fed to animals, or used by children as a toy.
When the white man began to infiltrate the Jivaro region in the 1850s, both parties began trading firearms and ammunition for shrunken human heads. Tsantsas were in great demand because the practice of shrinking heads has long excited the imagination of explorers, exploiters, missionaries, seamen and tourists. The going rate was one musket in trade. The Jivaro - who were used to fighting with bows and arrows, spears and lances - enthusiastically upgraded their weaponry to muskets and machetes, which only accelerated the killings between Indians.
Due to the macabre nature of the shrunken head, many "curio-hunters" from the West have sought out the tsantsa as collectibles, thus generating a sizable business in the manufacture of counterfeit tsantsa. So rare were genuine Shuar shrunken heads - and so great the demand - that others attempted to copy the Shuar technique to satisfy the market.
Since the late 1800s, the business of manufacturing counterfeit shrunken heads has been pursued in parts of Panama, Ecuador, Columbia and Peru. As more and more travelers engaged in this gruesome trade, it soon became necessary for the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments to pass severe and expedient laws prohibiting the traffic of human heads. Laws, however, did not curb demand, and new sources were created to provide these uncouth curios for the souvenir trade.