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A Price on Their Heads

Ever since my aunt lifted me up to a glass case at the back of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, at the impressionable age of eight, I have been hooked on shrunken heads.

Like so many schoolboys before me, my lower jaw dropped as I gazed in awe at the array of miniature human heads, correctly known as tsantsas. There was something wholly captivating about their gnarled features, the sewn lips, little hollow necks and manes of jet black hair.

I longed to learn the secret processes, known to a tribe deep in the South American jungle, which enabled decapitated human heads to be shrunk to the size of a grapefruit.

Despite an ongoing debate about whether museums should harbour human remains, the Pitt Rivers Museum still holds five, and the British Museum has at least ten. Interest in the gruesome exhibits remains strong. A roaring private trade in the illicit handicraft has developed, with heads being snapped up by wealthy collectors, many from the Far East and Japan.

The genuine article comes from the Upper Amazon, a region on the Pastaza river between Peru and Ecuador.

To continue reading, please see my article at Explorers Connect.

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