Secrets of the Shrunken Heads

Hello! My name is Alexandra Brennan and I am an intern at the Salisbury House this summer. I have been working “behind the scenes” at the Salisbury House, learning about the unique position a historic home holds as a center for education, history, and culture. Although I only have a few weeks left until I leave to go back to school, I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to explore the Salisbury House’s history and collections over the past couple months.

Among all the objects in the Salisbury House’s collection, few are as mysterious as the shrunken heads. It is unclear when, where, and from whom the Weeks family acquired the heads; the only evidence of Carl’s interest in shrunken heads is a novel in the library written by a friend on the topic. When the ISEA moved into the Salisbury House in the mid-1950’s, the shrunken heads, also called tsantsas, became an integral part of the museum for school children. The heads were displayed in the Indian Room as curiosities—strange artifacts sure to stick in memories of young visitors. In recent years, the tsantsas have been in storage, partly due to the objects’ fragility and partly due to changing sensibilities regarding the display of human remains in museum settings. The shrunken heads remain among the most contentious, memorable, and gruesome objects in the Salisbury House, with their individual histories and even authenticity a matter of conjecture.

The only shrunken heads in the world come from the Jivaro peoples in Ecuador and Peru. “Jivaro” actually refers to a group of tribes with a shared language, though the many different tribes share cultural and religious beliefs. One of the shared beliefs between these Jivaro tribes is that a person’s soul is not fixed in one body, and that by killing others, a new soul may be imparted into the killer. Constant warfare, paradoxically, was meant to bring eternal life. It was because of this culture of killing that the practice of shrinking heads developed.

The first step to creating a shrunken head was to carefully peel the skin off the skull. The skull was discarded, and the skin was pulled over a wooden ball to maintain the shape of the head. Then, the skin was shrunk by boiling the head in a mixture of water and tannins. The head was dried with hot sand and rocks, and the skin rubbed with ash. Like Egyptian mummies, shrunken heads are preserved to last for centuries (one of the heads in the Salisbury House’s collection may be over 200 years old). However, Egyptian mummification took 70 days, and the entire process for shrinking a head took less than one week.

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Front cover of Tsantsa. New York: Brentano’s, 1932.

So how did such strange artifacts end up in the Salisbury House? Unfortunately, there are no neatly kept receipts or records to suggest how two shrunken heads came to Iowa. The only connection is through a bookseller and an author. From the 1920’s to the 1940’s, Carl Weeks bought many of his rare and antique books from a bookseller in New York City named Harry Marks. It was through Harry Marks that Carl acquired much of his collections of D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, as well as many of his letters from famous historical figures and old Bibles. Harry Marks was also the man who sold Carl books by a man named Isadore Lhevinne, an author and philologist who had studied and lived among the Jivaro people in Ecuador.

Lhevinne was born in Bobruisk, Russia in 1896. He attended school in Poland, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1920’s with a degree in philology. Although his earlier works focused on stories about the Jewish experience throughout the world, Lhevinne’s interest in foreign languages sent him to southern Ecuador. It was there, in the sparsely populated and thick jungles of Ecuador, that Lhevinne was first introduced to the Jivaro peoples. He spent part of 1931 living among the Jivaro people, studying their language and culture. It is unclear when Carl Weeks and Isadore Lhevinne met, whether it was before or after Lhevinne’s trip to Ecuador. What is certain, however, is that by 1932, the two men were close enough that Lhevinne dedicated Tsantsa to Carl Weeks.

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Note from Harry Marks to Carl Weeks, pointing out a story about Isadore Lhevinne in “Young Wings” magazine. Note says: “To C.W. See pages 9-4-5. Harry”

Tsantsa itself is not a scholarly work. Instead, it tells a story of a white American man who travels to Ecuador and falls in love with a 15-year old Jivaro girl. The novel is an adventure story filled with “fervent eroticism” and takes advantage of the exotic setting to shock readers. The novel includes scenes of head shrinking and drug-induced ceremonies, and the protagonist even kills a 15-year old girl’s husband in a duel. The book uses many of the prevalent stereotypes and prejudices of the era, depicting the Jivaro people in turns as independently noble and ferociously savage. Although it sold fairly well, today Lhevinne and Tsantsa are largely forgotten to time.

Perhaps it was through this close relationship between Isadore Lhevinne and Carl Weeks that the tsantsas came to the Salisbury House. Certainly, if Lhevinne spent time living among Jivaro people, he would have had access to shrunken heads. Today, the Salisbury House has very little remaining correspondence between the two men, so it is unclear if the tsantsas were gifts from Lhevinne.

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Story in “Young Wings” magazine about Isadore Lhevinne regarding his novel The Enchanted Jungle, 1933. “While he was in Ecuador, Dr. Lhevinne…traveled in a light canoe over dangerous water falls and swirling currents interrupted by an endless series of whirlpools. He hacked his way through the trackless jungle ants so thick there was no room to sit down; he traveled on horseback, muleback, and foot, and endured the never-to-be-forgotten experience of a siege by an enemy tribe while he was living among the Jibaros.”

In the early 20th century, shrunken heads became a popular tourist souvenir and collector’s item, and the thriving market led to an abundance of fake tsantsas made from monkeys, sloths, and other animals. According to some forensic researchers, “presence of sealed eyelids, pierced lips with strings sealing the mouth, shiny black skin, a posterior sewn incision, long glossy black hair, and lateral head compression are characteristic of authentic tsantsas.” According to these guidelines, one of the tsantsas in the Salisbury House may be real; the other’s lips are not sewn shut, but that may indicate that it was made only for trade purposes and not as a ceremonial war trophy. Another way to determine whether the heads are truly human is to look at the ears, which should simply appear to be smaller versions of human ears, since the many folds of the ear are hard to copy. Once again, the Salisbury House’s tsantsas appear to be authentic, although according to the Smithsonian, more than half of the shrunken heads in museums and private collections in the United States may be fakes. The most reliable method of determining whether shrunken heads are authentic is to do a DNA analysis. Perhaps one day we will learn who made these heads and how they came to be in Des Moines, Iowa. But for now, the secrets of the tsantsas remain hidden behind sewn-shut lips.

Shrunken

The tsantsas will be on display at our Night at the Museum event, August 24, 2017. Please visit our website or call (515) 274-1777 for tickets and more information.