Do Ick Yourself
How do you make a shrunken head? Mary Roach gives it a try.
LATE ONE AFTERNOON in the Ecuadoran Amazon, a short but imposing Achuar tribeswoman walked up to me with a knife in her hand. The Achuar are the tribe next door to the Shuar, who are known for their historical tradition of shrinking the heads of slain enemies. (Both tribes were formerly, and politically incorrectly, known as the Jívaro, which comes from the Spanish jíbaro, meaning “savage.”) The Achuar had, at the time I visited in 1998, the world’s second-highest murder rate. I was there with an anthropologist named John Patton, who studies intratribal murder and revenge, and the Conambo River Valley was a fruitful place for him to be. Achuar men do not so much as go out for a piss without bringing a rifle.
The woman spoke loudly in words I couldn’t understand. With her free hand, she grabbed my hair. “She wants to make paintbrushes,” Patton said. My hair is finer than Achuar hair, and the woman saw its potential for achieving precise lines and decorative embellishments on the clay bowls she crafted. I went back to the States minus a crudely lopped hank of hair and with a new story that grew with each telling. The knife, which might have been a pair of scissors—I honestly don’t recall—became a machete. The machete acquired bloodstains. The potter took on a stony glower that I claimed to have interpreted as: This scrawny woman in the bulbous shoes annoys me, and I will take her head.
It was a preposterous story. The Achuar were not head shrinkers—as adversaries of the Shuar, they were the shrinkees—and I knew this. I was the latest in a long line of white folk who’ve visited Jívaro country and come home with embroidered tales of scary encounters.
AMERICA’S FASCINATION with “savages” and shrunken heads began in the early 1900s, with the publication of the first English-language Jívaro ethnographies and the arrival of the first tsantsas, as ceremonial heads are known, in U.S. museums. The fascination flourished throughout the first half of the 20th century. In the thirties and forties, self-styled “explorers” like Robert Ripley and Lewis Cotlow made a living off travelogues depicting life in deepest, darkest you-name-it. Adventure travel as a recreational pursuit did not yet exist. If a man went deep enough into the bush, no one could check his facts.
MY FOUR YEARS WITH THE HEAD HUNTERS OF THE AMAZON, announces the cover of a circa-1940 brochure detailing a lecture that a man named Gustav Struve would give, for a fee, at your local Shriners club or ladies’ auxiliary. The pamphlet describes him as the sole survivor of an “illfated botanical expedition.” Struve, it says, was taken captive by headhunters, married the chief’s daughter, and learned “the secret process of shrinking human heads and even entire bodies.”
Shrunken bodies? Struve appeared to have proof; a photo showed a shrunken man nestled in his palm like a passenger in a bucket seat.
Longtime readers of Outside might recognize Struve’s name from a 1994 article called “Little Men,” by natural-history writer Caroline Alexander. Having learned about two shrunken men on display at New York City’s Museum of the American Indian (MAI), Alexander set out to determine their origins. Museum records provided little beyond this: a doctor from Ecuador, Gustav Struve, had sold them to the museum in the early 1920s. Eventually, Alexander located Struve’s son, now deceased but then living in Quito, who told her interpreter, “Papa used to make the mummies.” No explanation or motive was offered. The director of an archaeological museum in Guayaquil, Ecuador, told Alexander that he’d heard of medical students around that time shrinking unclaimed bodies “as a joke.” The trail ended there, leaving the reader with an image of Struve as an enigmatic grotesquerie.
One person who saw the story was Struve’s grand-nephew David Brown, the manager of a natural-foods co-op in Boise, Idaho. During an expedition to his parents’ Idaho basement in 2003, Brown stumbled upon a box of the old man’s papers. Gustav’s wife, Gertrude, was the sister of Brown’s grandfather. Gustav and Gertrude had no children, so the elderly couple’s belongings wound up with Gertrude’s brother and eventually made their way to the Browns’ basement.