“Savage” heads


Enclosed in their display cases, unperturbed behind the glass, the heads attract yet another group of visitors.
They are watched, scrutinized, inspected in every smallest detail by a multitude of wide-open eyes. The children are in the front row, as usual, their noses pressed against the glass, their small faces suspended between a grimace of disgust and an excited, amazed look.
As for the adults, their wonder is somehow tarnished by judgment or, better, prejudice. “You have to understad that for these indigenous people it was a sacred practice”, sentences a nice gentleman, eager to prove his broad cultural views. “Still, it’s a horrible thing”, replies his wife, a little disgusted.
The scene repeats itself each and every day, for the heads sitting under the glass.
And few of the visitors understand they’re not actually looking at real objects from an ancient, distant culture. They are admiring a fantasy, the idea of that culture that Westerners have created and built.


The two basic kinds of heads presented in anthropological sections of museums all around the world are tsantsas and mokomokai.

The most famous tsantsas are the ones hailing from South America and created by the Jivaro peoples; among these tribes, the most prolific in fabricating such trophies were undoubtedly the Shuar and the Achuar, who lived between Ecuador and Peru.


The Shuar technique for shrinking heads was complex: an incision was made from the nape to the top of the head; once completely skinned, after paying specific attention as to keep all the hair intact, the skull was discarded. The facial skin was then boiled. Any trace of soft tissue had to be eliminated by rolling red-hot pebbles inside the skin, which was then further scraped with hot sand, roasted on flat stones, and so on. It was a delicate and meticulous procedure, until eventually the head was reduced to one fourth of the original size.

What was the purpose of such dedication?
The tsantsas were part of solemn celebrations which lasted several years, and were meant to capture the extraordinary power of the victim’s soul. They were not actually war trophies, in spite of what you can sometimes read, because the Shuar and Achuar usually lived quite peacefully: the occasional raids organized by the various tribes to hunt for tsantsas were a form of socially accepted violence, as there was no purpose in it other than obtaining these very powerful objects.
Great feasts welcomed the return of the headhunters, and these celebrations were the most important in the whole year. The intrinsic power the tsantsas was transferred to the women, assuring wealth and plenty of food to the families. After seven years of rituals, the shrunken heads lost their force. For the Shuar, at this point, the tsantsas had no pratical value: some kept the heads as a keepsake, but others got rid of them without giving it a second thought. The focus was not the material object in itself, but its spiritual power.

That was not at all the case with Western merchants. To them, a shrunken head perfectly summarized the idea of a “savage culture”. These indigenous people, in the collective imaginary of the Nineteenth Century, were still depicted as brutal and animal-like: there was a will to think them as “stuck in time”, as if they had been lingering in a prehistoric underdeveloped stage, without ever undergoing evolutions or social transformations.
Therefore, what object could be a clearer symbol of these tribes’ barbarity than a macabre and grotesque souvenir like tsantsas?

If at the beginning of European settlements, in the Andes region and the Amazon River basin, the colonists had traded various tipes of goods with the indigenous people, as time went by they became ever more autonomous. As they did not need the pig or deer meat any more, which until then the Shuar had bartered with clothes, knives and guns, the settlers began to request only two things in exchange for the precious firearms: the indios’ labor force, and their infamous shrunken heads.
Soon enough, the only way a Shuar could get hold of a rifle was to sell a head.

That’s when the situation got worse, along with the exponential growth of Western fascination with tsantsas. The shrunken heads became a must-have curiosity for collectors and museums alike. The need for arms pushed the Shuar people to hunt heads for purposes which were not ritual any more, but rather exclusively commercial, in an attempt to satisfy the European request. A tsantsa for a gun, was the usual bargain: that gun would then be used to hunt more heads, exchanged for new arms… the vicious cycle ended up in a massacre, carried out to comply with foreigners’ tastes in exoticism.
As Frances Larson writes, “when visitors come to see the shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum, what they are really seeing is a story of the white man’s gun“.

The tsantsas lost their spiritual value, which had always been connected with the circulation of power inside the tribe, and became a tool for accumulating riches. Ironically, the settlers contributed to the creation of those cruel and unscrupulous headhunters they always expected to find.

The Shuar by then were killing indiscriminately, and without any ritual support, just to obtain new heads. They began making fake tsantsas, using the remains of women, children, even Westerners – confident that someone would surely fall for the scam.
In the second half of the ‘800, the commerce of tsantsas flourished so much that even peoples who had nothing to do with Jivaros and their traditions, began fabricating their own shrunken heads: in Colombia and Panama unclaimed bodies were stolen from the morgue, their heads given to helpful taxidermists. In other cases the heads of monkeys or sloths, and other animal skins, were used to produce convincing fakes.
Today nearly 80% of the tsantsas held in museums worldwide is estimated to be fake.

The history of New Zealand’s mokomokai followed an almost identical script.
Unlike tsantsas, for the Maori people these heads were actually war trophies, captured during inter-tribal battles. The heads were not shrunk, but preserved with their skull still inside. Brain, eyes and tongue were gouged, nostrils and orifices sealed with fibers and gum; then the heads were buried in hot stones, in order to steam-cook them and dry them out. The mokomokai were meant to be exposed around the chief’s house.

In the second half of ‘700, naturalist Joseph Banks, sailing with James Cook, was the first European to acquire a similar head, after convincing an elderly man at a village to part from it – thanks to his eloquence, and to a musket pointed at the old man’s face. In all the following trips, Cook’s company spotted only a pair of mokomokai, a clue suggesting that these objects were in fact pretty uncommon.

Yet, after just fifty years, the commerce of heads in New Zealand had reached such intensity that many believed the Maori would be totally annihilated. Here too, the heads were traded for guns, in a spiral of violence that seriously threatened the indigenous population, particularly during the so-called Musket Wars.

Collectors were mainly attracted by the intricate tā moko (carved tattoos) which adorned the chiefs’ faces with elegant and sinuous spirals. So, Maori chiefs began tattooing their slaves just before beheading them – in some cases giving the Western buyer the option to choose a favorite head, while the unlucky owner was still alive; they tattoed heads that had already been cut, just to raise their price. The tā moko, a decorative art form of ancient origin, ended up been emptied of all meaning related to courage, honor or social status.
In New Zealand, even Europeans began to get killed, to have their heads tattoed and sold to their unsuspecting fellow countrymen: a fraud not devoid of a certain amount of  black humor.

Trading mokomokai was outlawed in 1831; the import of tsantas from South America was only banned from 1940.

So, in displays of ethnic artifacts in museums around the globe, in those darkened exotic heads, one is able to contemplate not only an ancient ritual object, packed with symbols and meanings: it is almost possible to glimpse at the very moment in which those meanings and symbols vanished forever.


Tsantsas and mokomokai are difficult, controversial, problematic objects.
Among the visitors, it is easy to find someone who feels outraged by an indigenous practice which by today’s standards seems cruel; after reading this article, maybe some reader will be disgusted by the hypocrisy of Westerners, who were condemning the savage headhunters while coveting the heads, and looking forward to put them on display in their homes.
Either way, one feels indignant: as if this peculiar fascination did not really affect us… as if our entire western culture did not come from a very long tradition of heads cut off and exposed on poles, on city walls and in public places.
But the beheadings never stopped existing, just as the human head never ceased to be a very powerful and magnetic symbol, both shocking and irresistibly hypnotizing.

Most of the information in this article, as well as the inspiration for it, comes from the brilliant Severed by Frances Larson, a book on the cultural and antrhopological significance of severed heads.

17 comments to “Savage” heads

  1. Franco says:

    Sempre molto interessante! Non so se conosci i libri di Desmond Morris, zoologo ed etnologo, tra cui “La scimmia nuda” e “L’animale uomo”. In uno di questi libri dice che il viso umano, con la sua espressività e le sue forme, è la forma più complessa che esiste in natura. I visi sono diversi biologicamente per sottolineare la riconoscibilità e l’individualità di ogni essere umano, cose importanti per lo sviluppo della nostra specie. Questo lo dico anche come disegnatore 🙂 Quindi è interessante l’attrazione per queste teste.

    • bizzarrobazar says:

      Sì, conosco i libri di Morris. È vero, il volto e le mani sono le parti più espressive del corpo umano (per questo, oltre che per motivi pratici, sono le uniche zone che non copriamo con i vestiti); ma in una testa tagliata c’è un’ulteriore ambiguità, e cioè il fatto che si tratti contemporaneamente di un oggetto e di un non-oggetto. La riconosciamo cioè come una semplice “cosa” ormai inanimata, ma allo stesso tempo non possiamo impedirci di attribuirle una personalità, un’anima, un’identità – forse proprio come dici tu perché il volto è talmente distintivo ed espressivo. Avendo avuto l’occasione di maneggiare più di una volta delle teste tagliate, in contesti museali, sono rimasto anch’io sorpreso nell’accorgermi che mi muovevo con un rispetto e una delicatezza del tutto diverse da quando toccavo altre parti anatomiche.

      Questo mi riporta alla mente quel dialogo straordinario ne L’Inquilino del Terzo Piano (1976) di Polanski:

      Dimmi… in quale preciso momento un individuo smette di essere quello che crede di essere? […] Mi tagli un braccio… va bene, io dico “me e il mio braccio”. Mi tagli anche l’altro braccio. Io dico “me e le mie due braccia”. Poi togli il mio stomaco e i miei reni, ammettendo che sia possibile, io dico “me e il mio intestino” […] Se mi tagli pure la testa, che cosa direi io? “Me e la mia testa” o “me e il mio corpo”? Che diritto ha la mia testa di chiamarsi “me”?

    • Tarrr says:

      E’ un’ipotesi. Un’altra, che mi permetto di suggerire, è che la nostra mente sia abituata a differenziare meglio i dettagli a cui per noi è importante dare significato, anche banalmente sulla base dell’esperienza.
      Ad esempio, per uno sguardo occidentale le persone dai tratti asiatici (se ne conosciamo poche) tendono ad essere piuttosto simili e indifferenziate. Ma a loro capita esattamente lo stesso nei nostri confronti: questo proverebbe che è il nostro sguardo ad omologarle, magari perché ne vediamo poche. Ci manca l’esperienza (e in più di solito non ci è di particolare utilità, quindi il cervello se ne disinteressa). Altro esempio: se guardo un gregge di pecore mi sembrano tutte uguali, distinguo solo quelle colorate diversamente. Sono certa che per il loro pastore sono tutte differenti, che ognuna ha una sua fisionomia. Poi, senza nulla togliere all’ottimo Desmond Morris, considerare addirittura il volto umano come la forma più complessa presente in natura mi sembra riflettere una visione antropocentrica.

  2. AlmaCattleya says:

    Ti ringrazio molto per questo post e sì non è che la nostra civiltà sia immune dal lato macabro.
    Mi è venuta in mente una storia del Decamerone dove c’era una donna che conservava la testa del suo amato ucciso dai fratelli di lei. Anzi, è lei che gli taglia la testa e poi la mette in un vaso con del basilico. Oppure il mito delle Menadi che decapitano Orfeo per averle rifiutate dopo che lui ha perso per sempre Euridice e la sua testa avrebbe continuato per sempre a cantare.
    Sì, sono miti (e ce ne sono ben altri) però testimoniano bene il valore simbolico della testa anche per la nostra cultura

  3. Elisa says:

    Grazie per scrivere articoli sempre così ben approfonditi e ricchi..nonché per tener viva la nostra capacità di meravigliarci!

  4. Livio says:

    Sempre splendidi, articolo e commenti!

  5. gery says:

    Ah le teste rimpicciolite! ricordo la prima (e unica) volta in cui le vidi dal vero ed è stato al museo di storia naturale di Venezia. Suscitano sentimenti contrastanti. Devo dire che per chi non le conoscono, possono essere scambiate per pupazzi (ed è un po quello che cercò di far credere ad una scolaresca sconcertata, una maestra in visita al museo).

  6. Silvia says:

    Sempre molto interessanti i tuoi articoli, grazie. Hai mica trovato da qualche parte il motivo della bocca cucita negli tsantsa?

    • bizzarrobazar says:

      Credo che sia principalmente un motivo pratico inerente alla preparazione della testa. Se poi abbia assunto anche significati simbolici, non saprei.

  7. A me cio che fa inGASare quando leggo articoli come questo o quello di Manzetti, non è l’ingiustizia dei ricchi, facoltosi, fortunati, vincenti contro i poveri, malcapitati, sfortunati, integri di cuore etc etc.
    A me cio che fa inGASare è l’ipocrisia e la ricerca del supereroe.
    Mi spiego meglio: secondo me l’essere umano è selvatico e quindi presenta in se tutte le caratteristiche dell’animale che puo uccidere cosi come amare senza dividere le due cose.. senza idea di “coerenza”.
    Cio che invece oggi la gente insegue è la “normalità” ovvero l’opposto della selvaticità ovverò l’illusione che si possa separare l’assassino dal santo. E così i vincenti da una parte ed i perdenti sfigati dall’altra.

    Per chiudere riferendomi ad un passo di questo tuo articolo.. tu dici che forse dopo aver letto quest’articolo la gente smetterà di essere indignata di fronte alla brutalità degli indigeni e comincerà forse ad esserlo nei confronti dei ricchi cattivi etc etc.

    Io invece credo che dopo aver letto questo articolo una persona possa guardarsi dentro ed amplificare i propri dubbi esistenziali fino ad impazzire con la domanda senza risposta <>. A quel punto smetterebbe di farsi problemi e si sentirebbe libero di essere selvatico.

    • PS. Nel testo qui sopra è stato eliminato il contenuto della “domanda senza risposta”.
      Lo riscrivo qui 🙂 :
      “…amplificare i propri dubbi esistenziali fino ad impazzire con la domanda senza risposta: Dov’è il Bene, Dov’è Il Male?”

    • bizzarrobazar says:

      Per chiudere riferendomi ad un passo di questo tuo articolo.. tu dici che forse dopo aver letto quest’articolo la gente smetterà di essere indignata di fronte alla brutalità degli indigeni e comincerà forse ad esserlo nei confronti dei ricchi cattivi etc etc.

      Nel passo in questione dicevo appunto che è facile indignarsi verso la crudeltà, di una o dell’altra parte. Ma l’indignazione è sorella della presunzione, implica una distanza e un giudizio. Facile indignarsi, più difficile come dici tu riconoscere l’ombra anche in noi stessi (esercizio d’umiltà).

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