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Neurosurgery. 2004 Nov;55(5):1215-21.

The science of shrinking human heads: tribal warfare and revenge among the South American Jivaro-Shuar.

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Division of Neurosurgery, University of California at San Diego, San Diego, California, USA.


THE PRACTICE OF "head-shrinking" has been the proper domain not of Africa but rather of the denizens of South America. Specifically, in the post-Columbian period, it has been most famously the practice of a tribe of indigenous people commonly called the Jivaro or Jivaro-Shuar. The evidence suggests that the Jivaro-Shuar are merely the last group to retain a custom widespread in northwestern South America. In both ceramic and textile art of the pre-Columbian residents of Peru, the motif of trophy heads smaller than normal life-size heads commonly recurs; the motif is seen even in surviving carvings in stone and shell. Moreover, although not true shrunken heads, trophy heads found in late pre-Columbian and even post-Columbian graves of the region demonstrate techniques of display very similar to those used by the Jivaro-Shuar, at least some of which are best understood in the context of head-shrinking. Regardless, the Jivaro-Shuar and their practices provide an illustrative counterexample to popular myth regarding the culture and science of the shrinking of human heads.

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