Focus on the Collection: Shrunken Heads: Shuar Collections from Ecuador

The Shuar people (popularly known as the Jívaro) are one of the most famous American Indian groups. Living in the tropical forests of eastern Ecuador, these hunter-gatherers and slash-and-burn farmers are known for their customs of head-hunting and the production of "shrunken heads." The Hearst Museum is fortunate to preserve over 400 Shuar objects, collected over more than half a century (ca. 1926-1985).
The largest and most important of the Museum's Shuar collections were gathered by graduate student Michael J. Harner (b. 1929). After study with Alfred Kroeber and John Rowe, Harner decided to investigate Shuar culture in order to clarify the confusing and sensational information about them. Over 1956-57, Harner conducted field research for his doctoral dissertation on Shuar technological change (1963). Funded by the museum, he returned in 1964 for further research and collection. His well-documented collections (268 objects and 56 items, respectively) are very comprehensive, ranging from hunting and farming implements to ceremonial regalia, and are supplemented by a valuable collection of sound recordings.
16-8853; Head trophy (tsantsa); gourd, human hair, beeswax. 
Collected by Michael Harner, 1957
 
In more recent years the Museum received another substantial Shuar collection. Numbering 110 items, it was acquired over 1984-85 by graduate student Pamela E. Israel (1947-86). After early work as an artist and professional photographer, especially in Guatemala, Israel decided to study the relation between gender and ethnic identity among the Shuar. However, during her fieldwork, she became ill and died soon thereafter. In a wonderful--and no doubt intentional--complement to the Harner collection, Israel chose to focus her collection on social change, a theme she noted in her detailed field catalog.
Both Michael Harner and Pamela Israel collected Shuar "shrunken heads," or versions of them. "Shrunken head" trophies (tsantsa) were created in order to suppress the power of the victim's avenging soul. Although "authentic" shrunken heads exist in other museums, it is interesting that none of the nine Shuar "shrunken heads" at the Hearst are made of human heads; they are either fakes, use just human hair, or are made of animal heads, especially sloths. 
Unlike the usual kind, made from the scalp of a non-Shuar enemy, Harner's example was fashioned when the victim was a Shuar but not a relative. Loose hair, taken from the slain man, was stuck onto a gourd covered in beeswax. After its use in three ceremonies, the trophy lost its power and could be sold to outsiders.
16-19405; "Shrunken head"; sloth head, cotton cordage. 
Collected by Pamela Israel, 1985
 
Israel's, composed of a sloth head, was made by an older man to sell. By the time of her fieldwork, she noted, the traditional rites of passage--including head-hunting--had been discontinued, and even the killing of a sloth was considered dangerous for men who had not learned the skill when they were young.
Objects from the Harner and Israel Shuar collections have been featured most recently in our exhibition, 99 Bottles of Beer. These two well-documented collections, made by successive generations of graduate students, record social and material change among the Shuar. They are rarely seen samples of the Hearst Museum's significant collections from tropical South America.
 
Ira Jacknis, Research Anthropologist