VSL:SCIENCE // Shrinking heads the old-fashioned way

The Jivaro-Shuar live in the upper basin of the Amazon and pass their days engaging in bouts of ritualized violence — pitched battles — with neighboring tribes. So far, so typical: War is a universal constant. But according to a new article in Neurosurgery, what happens next is unique. After the battle, when the jungle is littered with corpses, the Jivaro-Shuar do something that sets them apart from other Amazonians: They shrink the heads of their enemies.

Once the Jivaro-Shuar shaman identifies a victim (powerful hallucinogens are involved in the selection process), that person’s head is lopped off. Next, the skin is peeled away and the skull discarded, leaving a flap of face that’s boiled and sewn into a pouch. The eyelids and mouth are also sealed, and the remains filled with hot sand. The process, which takes several hours to complete, is accompanied by fervent chanting and dancing, and the ritual’s more than a morbidly fascinating anthropology lesson — it’s also helping researchers like Jared Diamond better understand the primal roots of human vengeance. (In this case, an especially brutal vengance, in which enemies aren’t just killed but literally defaced.) What do the Jivaro-Shuar do with these stuffed and shrunken heads? That’s the oddest part of all: They throw them away.

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