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How shrunken heads are made and why on Secrets

shrunken heads
The Shaur people made shrunken heads from their defeated enemies right up until it was banned in the 1960s

This week on Secrets, just how do you make a shrunken and head what gave rise to this strange cultural practice?

We’ve all seen Hollywood’s version of aboriginal peoples with shrunken heads adorning their tribal huts or the grizzly trophies hanging around their necks, but the truth behind this practice is something anthropologists have been studying for years.

This documentary examines both the process of making a shrunken head and more interestingly looks at the culture that spawned their creation. It was back in the 1840s that explorers in the Amazon rainforest first came across the ritual of shrinking heads. Once the wider public got wind of it there was a real buzz about it and a roaring trade in the strange trophies emerged.

Several shrunken heads
The heads were used to seal in the spirits of their enemies, whom they thought could still harm them after death

Now scientists are looking into the history of the Shuar tribe and using DNA testing and research try to understand a culture of this remote people.

The Shaur are the only tribe who were never conquered by the Spanish Empire and they put great hold in spirits and the power of the heads, known as tsantsa. They believed that a defeated enemy could still harm you and this could only be prevented by sealing their spirit in the head through the shrinking process.

Secrets airs Mondays on Smithsonian at 8 PM. 

James has worked for Monsters and Critics since it started back in 2003. He oversees the business and technical side of things. You can contact or follow him on Twitter.

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