Ecuador and Peru ( South America)
First european contact: 16th century
Shuar, in the Shuar language, means "people". The people who speak the Shuar language live in tropical rainforest between the upper mountains of the Andes, and the tropical rainforests and savannas of the Amazonian lowlands, in
Ecuador extending to . Shuar live in various places: thus, the muraiya (hill) shuar are people who live in the foothills of the Andes; the achu (swamp-palm) shuar (or Achuar) are people who live in the wetter lowlands east of the Andes ( Peru Ecuador and ). Peru
Shuar refer to Spanish-speakers as apach, and to non-Spanish/non-Shuar speakers as inkis. Europeans and European Americans used to refer to Shuar as jívaros or jíbaros; this word probably derives from the 16th century Spanish spelling of "shuar", but has taken other meanings including "savage" (and Shuar consider it an insult); outside of Ecuador, Jibaro has come to mean "rustic".
From the time of first contact with Europeans in the 16th century, to the formation of the Shuar Federation in the 1950s and 1960s, Shuar were semi-nomadic and lived in separate households dispersed in the rainforest, linked by the loosest of kin and political ties, and lacking corporate kin-groups or centralized or institutionalized political leadership. The center of Shuar life was a relatively autonomous household consisting of a man, his wives (usually two), unmarried sons, and daughters. Upon marriage sons would leave their natal household, and sons-in-law would move in. Men hunted and wove clothes; women gardened. Both men and women were involved in feuding warfare with other groups. When Shuar first made contact with Spaniards in the 16th century, they entered into peaceful trade relations. They violently resisted taxation, however, and drove Spaniards away in 1599. Colonization and missionization in the 20th century however have led Shuar to reorganize themselves into nucleated settlements called centros. Centros initially facilitated evangelization by Catholic missionaries but also became a means to defend Shuar land claims against those of non-indigenous settlers. In 1964 representatives of Shuar centros formed a political Federation to represent their interests to the state, non-governmental organizations, and transnational corporations.
Prior to missionization in the 1940s and 1950s Shuar culture functioned to organize and promote a warrior society. Boys of about eight years would be taken by their fathers or uncles on a three to five day journey to a nearby waterfall, during which time the boy would drink only tobacco water. At some point the child would be given maikua (Datura arborea, Solanaceae), in the hope that he would then see momentary visions, or arútam. These visions were produced by a wakaní or ancestral spirit. If the boy were brave enough he could touch the arútam, and acquire the arútam wakaní. This would make the boy very strong, and possession of several arútam wakaní would make the boy invincible. Shuar, however, believed that they could easily lose their arútam wakaní, and thus repeated this ritual several times. A Shuar warrior who had lived to kill many people was called a kakáram. Shuar believed that if a person in possession of an arútam wakaní died a peaceful death, they would give birth to a new wakaní; if someone in possession of an arútam wakaní were killed, they would give birth to a muísak.
Shuar generally do not believe in natural death, although they recognize that certain epidemics such as measles and scarlet fever are diseases introduced through contact with Europeans or Euro-Americans. They fought primarily with spears and shotguns, but — like many other groups in the region — also believed that they could be killed by tsentsak, invisible darts. Any unexplained death was attributed to such tsentsak. Although tsentsak are animate, they do not act on their own. Shamans (in Shuar, "Uwishin") are people who possess and control tsentsak. To possess tsentsak they must purchase them from other shamans; Shuar believe that the most powerful shamans are Quichua-speakers, who live to the north and east. To control tsentsak Shuar must ingest natem (Banisteriopsis caapi). Many Shuar believe that illness is caused when someone hires a shaman to shoot tsentsak into the body of an enemy. This attack occurs in secret and few if any shamans admit to doing this. If someone takes ill they may go to a shaman for diagnosis and treatment.
Well-known by: Shrunken heads.
Most known shrunken heads were manufactured either by indigenous peoples in Melanesia and the
, or by European or Euro-Americans attempting to recreate the practice. In Amazonia, the only people known to have shrunk human heads are the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna, collectively classified as the Jivaroan peoples of Amazon Basin Ecuador and . Among the Shuar, a shrunken head is known as a tsantsa, also transliterated tzantza. Peru
The process of creating a shrunken head begins with removing the skull from the head. An incision is made on the back of the neck and all the skin and flesh is removed from the cranium. Red seeds are placed underneath the eyelids and the eyelids are sewn shut. The mouth is held together with three palm pins. Fat from the flesh of the head is removed. It is here that a wooden ball is placed in order to keep form. The flesh is then boiled in water that has been steeped with a number of herbs containing tannins. It is then dried with hot rocks and sand, while molding it to retain its human feature. The skin is then rubbed down with charcoal ash. Decorative beads are added to the head.
In the headshrinking tradition, it is believed that coating the skin in ash keeps the muisak, or avenging soul, from seeping out.
Shrunken heads are known for their mandibular prognathism, facial distortion and shrinkage of the lateral sides of the forehead; these are artifacts of the shrinking process.
Among the Shuar and Achuar, the reduction of the heads was followed by a series of feasts centered on important rituals. The practice of preparing shrunken heads originally had religious significance; shrinking the head of an enemy was believed to harness the spirit of that enemy and compel him to serve the shrinker. It was said to prevent the soul from avenging his death.
Shuar believed in the existence of three fundamental spirits:
- Wakani - innate to humans thus surviving their death.
- Arutam - literally "vision" or "power", protects humans from a violent death.
- Muisak - vengeful spirit, which surfaces when an arutam spirit-carrying person is murdered.
To block the last spirit from using its powers, they decided to sever their enemies' heads and shrink them. The process also served as a way of warning those enemies. Even with these uses, the owner of the trophy did not keep it for long. Many heads were later used in religious ceremonies and feasts that celebrated the victories of the tribe. Accounts vary as to whether the heads would be discarded or stored.
At first, cultural restrictions meant that deaths from traditional conflict were relatively rare, and few shrunken heads were prepared. When westerners created an economic demand for shrunken heads, however, there was a sharp increase in the rate of killings in an effort to supply collectors and tourists. Guns were usually what the Shuar acquired in exchange for their shrunken heads, the rate being one gun per head. But weapons were not the only items exchanged; during the 1930s, when heads were freely exchanged, a person could buy a shrunken head for about twenty-five dollars. A stop was put to this when the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments worked together to outlaw the traffic in heads.
Also encouraged by this trade, as early as the 1870s people in
Colombia, Panama, and unconnected to the Jívaros began to make counterfeit tsantsas. They used corpses from morgues, or the heads of monkeys or sloths. Some even used goatskin. It has been estimated that about 80 percent of the tsantsas in private and museum hands are fraudulent, including almost all that are female or which include an entire torso rather than just a head. Currently, replica shrunken heads are manufactured as curios for the tourist trade. These are made from leather and animal hides formed to resemble the originals. Ecuador
Some words in their language:
my name is ___: wiña naárka ___ aiti
goodbye: ayu, pujumata, weajai
© Text by Wikipedia, image by
Pitt Rivers Museum