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National Geographic Expedition Week 2009

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Piers Gibbon and HeadShrinkers
Traditional Shuar Dance performed in Sucua

Traditional Shuar Dance performed in Sucua

© Diverse Productions, Ltd

The Shuar apparently don't shrink heads any more, since they became 'federated' in the early 1970s, a sort of loosely organized self-governmental body allying the Shuar with other tribes in the region. Those allied tribes include the Achuar, the former enemies of the Shuar and the main target for head-shrinking. Many of the Shuar men today make their living by joining the Ecuadorian army. They are useful, say their commanders in the film, because they are familiar with the Amazon rainforest; Gibbon adds that they are probably really fierce, too.

Piers Gibbon and HeadShrinkers

Search for the Amazon Headhunters is interesting in an experimental archaeology sense (don't try this at home, kids!), but it doesn't tell us a lot of about the Shuar and how they lived in the past or how they live today. Bielawski's video did cover many elements of Amazon life, but that isn't covered here. For more information about how the Shuar lived, and live, you can do like I did: read the anthropological literature (and you'll find a bibliography on the next page).

Instead, Search for the Amazon Headhunters is really about Gibbon, who goes off into the Amazon in his jeep to discover if Bielawski's film could be legitimate. To be frank, I found the NatGeo video to be quite off-putting. The "danger" that Gibbon describes seems to be largely manufactured. If there is head-shrinking going on in the neighborhood, according to the local priest, it's not the Shuar, but entrepreneurs who want to cash in on the hot trade among the Europeans. The Shuar people that Gibbon meet all seem perfectly calm and decidedly unscary. They also seem accepting of their head-shrinking past, despite Gibbon' attempts to discover any shame or guilt or remorse or surprise—well, it's hard to know what reaction Gibbon wants out of the Shuar from his attempts to enlighten them about their past. They did enjoy the Bielawksi film, though. No, the entire focus of Search for the Amazon Headhunters, whether by design or by accident, is on Gibbon, in particular his reaction to the idea of head-shrinking as a real, serious, true, honest-to-god, cultural practice.

Which, as it turns out, should be of interest to the scholars who have studied the Shuar and their head-shrinking practice. Because, you see, the Shuar don't own any shrunken heads today. The local museum has several that were repatriated from the Smithsonian Institution and other places—but the Shuar's original practice was to discard the shrunken heads after they had completed a series of ritual ceremonies. The Shuar don't have any need for them. It was the Europeans who made shrunken heads into a relic of importance, the Europeans who actively traded the Shuar for the shrunken heads starting in the mid-19th century, and, according to Gibbon, it is the Europeans who now pay up to US$30,000 for "genuine" examples.

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