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National Geographic Expedition Week 2009

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Search for the Amazon Headshrinkers
Tsantsa Head in the Quito Amazonia Museum

Tsantsa Head in the Quito Amazonia Museum

© Diverse Productions, Ltd

National Geographic's Expedition Week 2009 kicks off on Sunday, November 15, 2009, with "Search for the Amazon Headshrinkers". The program is a sort of reality TV version of the classic NatGeo video, with an everyman narrator stumbling into the deep dark jungle to find stuff out. I'm afraid that, sadly, no anthropologists were (apparently) involved in the making of this video; my guess is that they would have turned the writers down flat, if they were asked.

The narrator/adventurer of Search for the Amazon Headshrinkers is Piers Gibbon, a British fellow who has made a reputation for himself for doing odd stuff. According to his own website, he is a TV presenter and a voice-over artist—his page on NatGeo says his resume includes having swallowed a live millipede as part of a Peruvian shaman initiation ceremony. No argument about this: Gibbon is an engaging fellow.

Shuar and Tsantsas: A Bit of Context

The "Amazon Headhunters" of the title in the National Geographic special are the Shuar, egalitarian hunter-horticulturalists who live in the eastern-most foothills of the Andes, and the northwestern-most fringe of the Amazon rainforests of Ecuador. They mostly grow plaintains and sweet manioc, and they rely on timber sales and trade goods. They are known as one of the few tribes who were able to fend off the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century and hang on to their lands.

Their egalitarianism—that means they lack a social hierarchy that includes a permanent leadership—is sustained by placing the decision-making power in small kin-based work groups, who work together on various tasks and keep one another in line by social pressure. Egalitarianism was, in the past, also maintained by conducting frequent battles over control of the region with neighboring people. The Shuar people gained (at least temporary) power and influence in the society by being successful warriors, and, no argument about that either, part of that was head-shrinking. The Shuar, like many tribes in the Amazon before the Spanish came, cut their enemies' heads off and through a highly ritualized process, shrank them down to about the size of a fist. These shrunken heads are called tsantsas, and the ritual was conducted well into the 20th century.

In the early 1960s, Polish explorer Edmundo Bielawski spent three years filming in the Amazon, with an emphasis on the daily life of the people who lived there, including the Shuar. A lot of Bielawski's film was lost during the exploration, but a slice of what survives includes what appears to be the Shuar ritually shrinking the head of someone killed in revenge for a recent accident to a Shuar boy.

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