Peter Crystal, “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads)” (2017)
Shrunken human heads are the kind of macabre curio objects, beloved of museums and oddball collectors, sure to arouse curiosity and revulsion alike – but the history of how shrunken human heads came to the attention of 19th-century European explorers in South American and sparked a collection mania among museums, private organisations and individual collectors throughout the world masks a sordid history of Western capitalist exploitation and undermining of a culture and its worldview. The episode begins innocently if breathlessly with a supposedly impartial team of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians using the latest methods including DNA analysis to examine and discover the origins of various shrunken heads found in museum collections in places as far apart as Philadelphia and Warsaw – and what they discover leads narrator Mark Bazeley and his audience into a shocking underworld of bodysnatching, cold-blooded murder, fakery and near-genocide.
To its credit, the episode spends time explaining the role of shrunken heads in the worldview of the Shuar people in Ecuador: the Shuar decapitate their enemies in warfare and shrink their heads so that the spirits within are trapped and cannot wreak revenge on the Shuar for killing them. (To be on the safe side, the head’s eyes, nostrils and mouth are sewn shut.) Over time, the spirit’s power is used by the Shuar people for peaceful and beneficial purposes. Once Europeans contacted the Shuar and began demanding – and paying for – shrunken heads to furnish their museums, the Shuar were drawn into economic and trading networks in which an aspect of their culture became commodified, and the Western demand for shrunken heads led the Shuar down a dangerous path in which they became increasingly violent and any traditions and customs that they had which had preached peace were forgotten. In time, the Shuar were not only killing their warrior enemies for the head-hunting trade, they were killing their own – men, women, even children – and raiding graves for heads. Over time, the Shuar’s own culture and traditions became degraded and the people acquired an unjustified reputation as being bloodthirsty and violent.
At the same time, the episode does titillate Western curiosity by devoting considerable time to an anthropologist’s attempt in recreating the process by which heads were shrunk by the Shuar with a pig’s head. The fellow then tries through digital means to reverse the shrinking process and to reveal what the face of a man whose head was shrunk might have looked like in real life.
The novelty of seeing shrunken heads wears off very quickly and the really fascinating aspect of this phenomenon is how a cultural tradition originally aiming to mitigate violence and restore peace came to be corrupted through Western contact and co-opted into providing a commodity in capitalist society, in the process being stripped of its benevolent intentions and turning into a sick, twisted and degraded parody spreading fear and violence. Viewers will be heartened to discover that head-hunting was made illegal in Ecuador in the 1960s but only after Christian missionaries contacted the Shuar and persuaded them to give up this violence. It seems a shame that the Shuar could only give up head-hunting by being herded into accepting a foreign religion rather than be allowed to turn back to their traditions to find a remedy to end the violence and instability created by head-hunting. We learn nothing about how the Shuar have since tried to rebuild their culture and communities, and regain the peace and stability they once had.
If there is something valuable to take away from this story about shrunken heads, then the narrative of how the Shuar nearly killed themselves off but instead recovered to reclaim their society and reputation and by doing so saved themselves and survived should have been at least as important as the phenomenon of the shrunken heads themselves.