The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is well-known for its large display cases of shrunken heads. However, they might not be part of the museum’s exhibitions for much longer, as an Amazonian tribe has asked for their return.
The Shaur people of the Amazon rainforest regard the seven small human heads with special religious significance, and do not feel the museum, which is attached to Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, is representing their culture well.
Dr Laura Van Broekhoven, director at the Pitt Rivers Museum, told the Oxford Mail: “We know the collection of heads is cherished by many, but there are also many people who feel uncomfortable with it.”
The heads have been on display at the museum since the 1940s in a case labelled ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’.
The exhibition demonstrates how the Shuar and Achuar people of Ecuacdor and Peru used to shrink an enemy’s head and prepare them with human skin and hair. These tsantsas, as they were known, were regarded as important as they harnessed the spirit of their enemy, preventing their souls from coming back to take revenge for their deaths.
Dr Van Broekhoven went on to say the Shuar people were not comfortable with how their culture was being represented with this display, commenting: “Their concerns are whether there is a proper understanding of the way this elaborate leather making of human skin into a ceremonial object was done.”
She added the practice is no longer conducted today, although the heads still have a historical, cultural and religious significance to the tribe.
Shuar live throughout Ecuador and Peru in South America, and do not just have to defend themselves against cultural misunderstanding. Thanks to oil discoveries in the upper Amazon, they also have had to protect their land from oil giants.