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Anecdotes about the Shuar people

For this third blog I want to tell you more about the Shuar people. I only mentioned them in the previous blog relating to the MUSA museum in Naples, but knowing how much there is to tell about them, I have prepared this little in-depth analysis.

In the following image a Salesian missionary among the Shuar Quito, Ecuador – 1895 –

In 1963 there were 11 Salesian houses in the middle of the jungle, with several parishes and a group of Salesians assigned to work among the local indigenous people.

We have seen that they are an indigenous tribe from the southwest Amazon rainforest, better known to the general public as the 'Jivaros,' a term meaning barbarians. But why were they labeled as barbaric? To understand this better, we must first talk about Tsantsa, which you may have seen in movies and TV series, and if you're lucky, in some museums around the world.

Tsantsa refers to shrunken human heads, and the Shuar are not the only ones with this tradition; other tribes like the Achuar and Huambisa also practiced it. (For Harry Potter fans, think of the small head seen in the Knight Bus). Remarkably, even today, albeit exceptionally, this practice continues, despite being prohibited by the laws of the state of Ecuador.

Why create a Tsantsa? The practice was closely tied to the spiritual beliefs of the Shuar people. According to their tradition, an individual's spirit persisted after death. Therefore, when they triumphed over rival tribes, they created Tsantsas using the heads of their adversaries. This was done through a magical ritual to imprison the spirits inside the heads, preventing them from turning against Shuar warriors and the tribe. It was believed that the shrunken heads possessed magical powers and were often used in religious ceremonies or as war trophies.

In reality, the practice initially began to create auspicious talismans. The first shrunken heads were not from rival tribes but were those of Shuar warriors themselves. By trapping their powerful spirits to serve and protect the community, Tsantsas were created using their remains, and their powers were invoked for the well-being of the village

Teste rimpicciolite nella collezione permanente di Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle

The process of creating a tsantsa involved various phases and could only be carried out by high-ranking members of the Shuar society. After an individual's death, the body was decapitated, and the skull was removed. Subsequently, the skin was separated from the skull, boiled, and reduced in size. The final result was a shrunken head, usually the size of an apple, with the facial features still quite recognizable. The skin was often treated with herbs and resins for preservation, and the length of beard and hair remained unchanged, resulting in a noticeable disproportion in many specimens.

Tsantsas sparked significant interest among ethnologists, anthropologists, and collectors, leading to the creation of a black market dedicated to them. For a period, the Shuar were willing to kill each other to meet the demand from interested parties who unscrupulously purchased these spiritual symbols as collectibles. Western morbid curiosity created such a high demand for this product that the Shuar ceased the once intricate rituals accompanying head-making, turning them into a consumer product. The price was a gun for one tsantsa.

The firearms obtained in this manner gave the Shuar the ability to hunt even more heads, which, in turn, allowed them to acquire more weapons in a toxic cycle. If the heads were once only those of men, they began obtaining them from women, children, monkeys, sloths, or even from the colonists themselves, taken without much effort from unclaimed bodies in city morgues.

In this way, the very same white colonists, with their continuous demand, genuinely produced those 'unscrupulous headhunters,' those 'Jivaros' they had imagined. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand that most tsantsas around the world, displayed in various museums, are of a commercial rather than ceremonial nature. Quoting anthropologist Frances Larson:

"Visitors see these artifacts and mistake them for gruesome trophies of a wild and still virgin people, when in reality, they are gruesome trophies produced by European and American fascination with the concept of the wild and still virgin people. The fakes speak of nameless dead, of poor and marginalized individuals falling victim to the international trade of exotic collectibles, which had little to do with the indigenous beliefs of the Amazon jungle."

Today, there are various publications of authoritative anthropological and scientific research that help us understand the extent of the commercial tsantsa phenomenon. Below is the link to a couple of these studies for more technical insight:

Shrunken head exhibited at the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida.

To better understand the Shuar, according to this people, in addition to the conventional soul, called nekás wakán, which accompanies us from the beginning and with which we identify, there are at least two other souls created under specific conditions.

One is called wakáni, meaning "soul, shadow," and it is a vengeful soul. It is generated a few days after death if the person has been killed. It only has the desire for revenge, wanting to kill the murderer in turn and possessing no memories except that of its own death, through which it can find the aggressor.

The second is called arútam* wakán, "soul of the arútam" (the arútam is a totemic spirit; various types exist, representing archetypal characteristics of specific animals). It involves the gift of an ancestor, delivered to one of the Shuar men during a ritual. For example, obtaining the arútam of the Jaguar means that one of our ancestors, in one of its existences, was a Jaguar and possesses the power of that arútam.

Regarding death, the Shuar people believe that once the body begins to decompose, so does the spirit. There is a boundary between the skin of the human body and the spiritual realm, so as the skin begins to decay over time, the spirit similarly diminishes. The soul, no longer held together by the spiritual body, follows different destinies. The body and soul turn to dust, but the soul can rise again to Earth in the form of an animal or human life, somewhat reincarnating.

Beautiful specimen of Tsantsa sold by Darwin&Wallace.

In the roots of ancient Native American cultures, shamans emerge as bridges between the earthly and the otherworldly realms. In the heart of Shuar culture, these shamans are known as Uwishìn, embodying mystery and wisdom, with powers that reveal an intricate connection between humans and the land.

The aspiring Shuar shaman embarks on an initiatory journey, a path of acquiring unknown powers. Initially, few instructions outline the way; only with time and dedication should the 'spirits of great strength and wisdom' unveil the complete shamanic knowledge. These instructions are considered secret and not known to the rest of the people, making it a true initiatory path. As Uwishìn face trials and immerse themselves in the surrounding nature, this direct and prolonged contact should awaken their understanding of the spiritual and material relationship between humans and the earth.

For the Shuar, illnesses have spiritual roots, delving into the 'Other Reality' and can be manipulated by the Uwishìn. During the healing process, shamans carry with them the Tunchi, creatures considered allied spirits and guardians. Alongside them, they invoke the Pasuk, guiding spirits that lead them in the search for lost souls or the origin of evil. Shuar shamans navigate the path of healing through intricate rituals. They use specific plants and materials, showcasing their centuries-old knowledge of the available territory and nature. Physical healing, though important, is seen as the outermost layer; the shaman aspires to restore balance between humans, higher spirits, ancestors, and the entire cosmos.

The ultimate goal of the Uwishìn is not only physical healing but rather the recovery of meaning in the lives of those who seek them, viewing their physical illness as a manifestation of a deeper vital imbalance.

Exhibit at the Museum of Man, San Diego, California, USA

"Among the curious customs of the Shuar people is the 'túna' or pilgrimage to the waterfalls. Shuar men and women undertake this journey in search of visions, often motivated by moments of crisis or psychological difficulty.

The objective of the pilgrimage is to obtain a vision called 'arútam.' Participants seek to see and touch the arútam, often represented by creatures like giant jaguars or anacondas. The vision is associated with personal meaning and must be kept secret for a certain period. Upon returning to the village, the spirit of the arútam enters the seeker's body, who must wait at least a year before sharing their experience with others.

In addition to the collective waterfall ritual, the Shuar may also engage in individual vision quests in a specially constructed hut. In this case, the individual seeks the guidance of a 'wea' (village elder) to assist in the vision quest, personally preparing psychoactive plant-infused beverages.

There is much more to say about the Shuar and their ancient customs, which can be challenging for us to understand. Practices such as geophagy during childbirth, female initiation rites like 'nua tsankram,' literally translating to 'tobacco woman,' the use of psychoactive substances derived from the maikiúa plant for enemas, and beer made from saliva and manioc—all of these warrant an in-depth exploration. These are century-old traditions that sometimes sharply contrast with contemporary Western ethical perspectives, deserving a nuanced understanding to remove the judgmental veil that we inevitably bring from our social and cultural context.

I cannot conclude this brief exploration without addressing the ongoing challenges that the Shuar people, who have endured to the present day, face in safeguarding their culture and territories. In the past year (2022), they have finally secured national protection for a portion of their land after decades of battling deforestation and pollution in their biodiverse rainforests.

The Ecuadorian National System of Protected Areas now includes the ancestral Tiwi Nunka forest spanning 5,497 hectares, home to the Shuar community of El Kiim. This decision should shield the land from future exploitation, including mining, livestock farming, and agricultural invasion. The area not only preserves many ancestral traditions, such as the collection and production of medicines and ritual bathing in waterfalls but also crucial biodiversity like the mountain tapir and spectacled bear.

To conclude, I share the words of Shuar community representatives: "We are protecting the forest because these are the last trees we have for timber and medicines," said Washington Tiwi, a resident of El Kiim and former community leader. "Some species, like bears, howler monkeys, and tapirs, are so protected from extinction. Our children and future generations will be able to see them and know that these species exist and are protected."

Nature gives us many things to survive, and that's why we must preserve this protected area," stated Milton Asamat, President of the Shuar Kiim Center. "Our elders left us with the task of taking care of nature and all species. We want to preserve water, plants, and everything that has life."

*Arutam: The concept of arútam is polysemic and has been variously defined as the spirit of ancestors, a powerful being, a mythical being, soul, force, or power, potential destiny, and guide animal. These definitions correspond to partial understandings of what an arútam is, aiming for better comprehension from a cultural perspective that lacks a parallel concept in its vocabulary and imagery. Arútam is primarily understood as a form of spiritual power that an individual can attain through visions induced by psychoactive substances, residing in their body and becoming part of their personal identity. Appearances of supernatural beings during visions are also called arútam, as are cultural heroes or deities from Shuar mythologies. It is often perceived as a 'vision' or something encountered during a vision that becomes incorporated into the experiencing individual. An individual can possess multiple arútam, and the more they have, the greater their power and respect within the social group. When an individual dies, the arútam they possessed detaches from the body and continues to exist independently, remaining in the natural environment—forests, rivers, or preferably waterfalls—until another individual appropriates it through their own vision. If someone encounters an arútam during a vision, it initially manifests as a metaphorical figure and later as an anthropomorphic figure resembling the deceased person to whom it belonged.

Jerome and Ardath Welo and Wendell Baker with the Shuar, early 20th century.

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