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Quito, Ecuador
May 2, 1943

How to Shrink and Preserve the Heads of Your Enemies

           The following is a story related by an American who has spent most of his life in the jungles of Ecuador for a fortune of gold purported to have been hidden by the Ancient Incas at the time of their great empire in Ecuador. During these trips into the jungles to the east of Ecuador in the upper regions of the Amazon, Richard Francis D'Orsey has come to know and has lived with many of the jungle tribes including the headhunters about which most living men have little knowledge. Human heads which have been dried and shrunken are seen about Quito and other parts of Ecuador. Civilized man has never understood how they were shrunk and dried. Here is Mr. Richard Francis D'Orsay's story. He is well known here and the story is very authentic. (I might add here that these heads are forbidden to be sold and taken to the States for obvious reasons--Ray Stenger.)

           "Much has been written about the "Jibaro" (pronounced Hivaro), headhunters of the upper Amazon basin. I am neither an ethnographer nor a writer, but believe that I know the Jibaro better or at least as well as the scientists that have studied them. This may be due to the fact that I have never made an effort to study them.

           "In my capacity of prospector and gold miner, for the best part of two years, I have travelled up and down Santiag-Zamora, jungle province of the Republic of Ecuador, and uncharted region of endless wilderness. I lived with the Jibaros, ate with them, slept in their houses, travelled, hunted and fished with them. I differed from the stereotyped explorer like the flivver plane differs from the Flying Fortress, and thus was able to get nearer to them than other gringos (Spanish for foreigners) who have been in this region before and after me. I was never taken for a "white god" or some other awe-inspiring person, but simply as another man who was almost, but not quite, as good a hunter, woodsman, and canoeist as they. They never put on a show for me, and I was able to observe them in their unpretentious naturalness.

           "There were many interesting features about these indians that I was able to observe, but the object of this story is to relate how the "Tzantzas" (shrunken heads of human beings) are made, as it fell my privilege to witness this process from beginning to end. While I was working a "gold placer" on the river Yuquiantza during the year 1934, I lived in the house of a Jibaro headsman named "Piruchicuna". The Jibaros do not form tribes, but live in isolated families or clans, in well fortified eliptical houses. Some clans that are either related by blood or live in the same region form some sort of alliance, but there is a constant state of feuding between different groups. The Jibaros are extremely superstitious and believe that all deaths, illnesses and misfortunes that befall their family are due to a curse placed on them by one of their enemy clans. To lift this curse after the misfortune, the enemy must be killed, and one death calls for retribution and hence they live in a constant state of fear.

           "Piruchicuna was a fine physical specimen of an indian; almost six feet tall, a beautifully proportioned body, his color that of a lifeguard at the end of a season, and his skin satin-smooth. His features were manly and pleasant, not Mongolian but rather on the Semitic side. A piece of cloth wrapped around his waist and reaching down to his knees (Itipi), was his only garb and a necklace of jaguar teeth an a few macaw feathers his only ornaments. He wore blue-black long hair, hitched up and wound around his head. Piruchicuna moved around with the oily smoothness of a panther and the diginity of a lion. He had four wives, some twelve sons and a few daughters with their wives and husbands, but his authority over his clan and his neighbors was absolute and never disputed.

           "I spoke a few words of Jibaro and Piruchicuna spoke some Spanish, and we had many interesting conversations on the bank of the Yuquiantza or around the fire in his house, and we became great friends. This language is most flowery and poetic. It was strange to hear a naked native say "It is many moons since my father crossed the dark river and passed beyond the great mountain where the sun changes into the moon at night" instead of saying simply that his father had died.

           " It happened that "Yacuma", the youngest and favourite son of Piruchicuna fell ill with a mysterious sickness that caused him to fade into a shadow in less than ten days. Piruchicuna sent for the famed witch-doctor, "Nanchi", who lived in the Camanjai region. The price for the professional service was to be one double-barrelled shot-gun if the boy lived and a single-barrelled shot-gun if he died. The messenger and the witch-doctor arrived in three days, although it took me six days to cover this same distance. Nanchi took one look at Yacuma, gave an order to his assistant and proceeded to drink about one pint of this bitter brew called "Natema". He became thoroughly drunk or more likely doped by this drug and fell into a trance that lasted throughout the night. During this trance he kept up a conversation with the great spirit "Iuanchi", his questions being answered by this spirit through the mouth of Nanchi but the tone was entirely different. While this was going on, Nanchi's assistant kept sucking on the arms and legs of the sick boy. In the morning the boy was dead, the women of the house immediately set up an awful wailing, and Piruchicuna shed a few tears.

           "When the witch-doctor relieved himself from the coma, he told of his conversations with "Iuanchi". He said that the boy had died because "Uyucuma", the head of the "Copotaza" tribe of the Jibaros had placed a curse on the house of Piruchicuna. (it seemed that Nanchi, the witch-doctor had an account to settle with Uyucuma) Piruchicuna did not say a word but took a stick of trade lead and began to fashion slugs for his twenty-gauge muzzle-loader and it was obvious he was not hunting animals since they used shot for this type of hunting. The womenfolk prepared a calabash full of masticated "Yuca" (Mandioke) pulp, which when mixed with water, would make the food drink of the Jibaros, called "Chicha" or "Nijamanchi". The boy was buried inside the house; the women putting plenty of food inside the grave. Piruchicuna was gone the following day.

           "I had often expressed my desire to see the process of headshrinking and had told Piruchicuna that I would gladly give my 30.06 repeating rifle for the privilege of observing this most secret process of the Jibaros. My chance came one week later when "Charupe", one of the boys from the house, came down to the beach where I was shoveling gravel into a long-tom and uttered one word, "Uinita" (meaning "come") and I went immediately. He took me about a mile away from the house and pointed at a small lean-to in the forest, and with that indication he left me. I advanced to the hut, my hand unconsciously stroking my revolver. Piruchicuna was squatting on his heels under the palm thatch, lines of weariness showed through the red and white war paint on his face. After a spell of silence, he asked me if I had meant what I had said about the rifle. I nodded in the affirmative, realizing what a momentous moment this was for me.

           "Piruchicuna straightened up wearily, left the hut and disappeared into the brush, returning shortly bearing a roundish object wrapped in large leaves under his arm. Taking the leaves off one by one he let the head drop to the ground. I am one of those who shiver with goose-flesh when passing a butcher shop and had to force myself to look. The head was severed low, just above the shoulders, between raw muscles and sinew, part of the vertebrae was showing. The eyelids were closed, but the lips were partly open in a crooked grin. The silence was abysmal and I became conscious of a hissing sound that turned out to be my own breath.

           "He placed an earthenware pot filled with water on the fire and put four small bunches of herbs and leaves and two kinds of knotty roots into the water. He told me the names of each and it's purpose, but in my excitement I forgot all save the fact that the stuff contained some tanic or embalmic property. I watched with horror and fascination as Piruchicuna went to work on the head. He first took a palm needle and some colored thread and carefully sewed up the lips and the eyelids, on the lips using individual stitches. He braided the long ends of the thread and left them hanging as tassels. The expression on his face seemed to be a mixture of gloating, intense excitement and fear.

           "The next step in the operation was the parting of the hair straight down the back of the head and slitting the scalp from vertex to cervix. That done, he began to peel the skin off the skull. This was a difficult process and it was necessary for him to place the head between his feet and grab the ears and pull with all his strength. When the back of the head was skinned the indian took a deep breath, folded the triangular pieces of scalp forward, grasped the ends firmly and with a terrific yank, pulled the face off. The skull slipped out from between his toes and rolled to a stop at the base of my feet. It was greenish-white, slightly irridescent; the eyeballs were stuck in their sockets and appeared to be staring at me. At this point, I got thoroughly and violently ill, and was quite surprised when I looked up from the palm tree to which I was clinging and saw that Piruchicuna was also sick. My first impulse was to run, but I thought of my promise to Piruchicuna, my 30.06 Winchester that had cost me about $50.00 and so I returned to the lean-to. I had already learned that the skull of the human beings were not shrunk, as is the general belief, but that the skin undergoes the shrinking process. Piruchicuna picked up the skull gingerly, using leaves to hold it with, took it a few feet from the hut and buried it. After washing his hands in the nearby stream, he returned and put some wood on the fire and waited until the brew came to a good boil. After the water or brew had again simmered down from a boil, he placed the shapeless mess which was formerly the pride of Uyucuma within the pot, and forthwith it began to cook.

           "By this time night had fallen and with all the gore out of sight, I lit my cold pipe and finally found my voice. I asked him if he had had a hard fight. He began to talk very fast in both Spanish and Jibaro with his mouth, hands and face: "Walking two days very fast--hiding in caña grove one day and one night--putting fresh powder in the primer every now and then--waiting, waiting, waiting---Uyucuma came in view one morning with two barrelled gun--Iuanchi jumps me out of cane--Uyucuma cannot move. Piruchicuna, brave he is, friend of Iuanchi very good, yells with thunder; 'Uyucuma, coward, snake, enemy of Piruchicuna, good and brave you die, Iuanchi want it, boom makes gun of Piruchicuna. Uyucuma no more is."

           "In spite of the eager sincerity with which he talked, I knew perfectly well how Uyucuma had died. There had been no speech. He had got both barrels right in the back at about ten feet. The Jibaros, like all primitive people, cannot afford the luxury of chivalry in their fighting. Their trade-guns are not good, they often misfire, the aim is uncertain, the range is less than fifty yards and there is never time for reloading, so Piruchicuna took no chances. Even these cast iron and tin guns are bad in the hands of the Jibaro and these blunderbusses will eventually be responsible for the total extermination of this race. In the old days, when the hard wood lance was the only offensive weapon of the Jibaros, the birthrate could keep in step with the death rate, but this is no longer the case. There is a general consensus of opinion that the poison darts of the Jibaro would kill a human being or a large animal, but this is not the truth. This "curare" poison used on these darts is not poisonous enough in small quantities to allow enough to be put on the tip of the needle-pointed bamboo splinter. These blowpipes are used only against birds and small animals.

           Piruchicuna sat by the fire all night applying wood and attending to the simmering pot of stew. I fell off to sleep a time or two and each time undergoing a dream which left me limp. In the morning the stew was allowed to cool and then he lifted the scalp out with a stick and then dumped the water out. It was not unlike mutton stew. The scalp was allowed to dry over the fire for a few minutes and then the cut down the back of the head was carefully sewn up. Now it was a pouch, and Piruchicuna filled it with hot sands and small pebbles that he had heated on the fire. After a short while he would dump out all the sand and rocks and replace them with fresh hotter ones. This process continued all morning and the trophy gradually began to take shape and it hardened as it became more dry. He shaped the features with loving care, like a sculptor working clay. When the head was completely dry it was no longer repulsive, and when tapped with the fingernail it sounded like plywood or papier-mache. It was now the size of a medium-sized orange; looked like a doll's face, its expression was somewhat blank with a touch of sincerity. The hair was unusually dense, but this is easy to explain in view of the fact that the amount of hair is the same, when its base, the scalp, is about one-fifth of its regular size.

           "With the Tzantza ready, we started back to Piruchicuna's "Jibaria" (the houses are called Jibaria). My friend was in a pensive mood. Now a long period of fasting would begin; the body of Uyucuma was dead, but his soul continued to hover above the head of the killer, looking for a chance to enter the mouth. It is a general belief that the soul of the dead man will enter the body of the killer if he eats flesh, fowl, or fish. Hence Piruchicuna could eat neither for a period of from six weeks to two months.

           "Since the cartridges were not included in the bargain, I dumped them all into the river, knowing full well that Piruchicuna would be unable to replace them, and gave him the gun. Six weeks later the soul of Uyucuma was presumed dead and Piruchicuna broke his fast. There was a grand feast and the whole clan got drunk with the well fermented chicha. The Tzantza was brought out and placed on a pole, and then Piruchicuna re-enacted his battle with Uyucuma. He hurled lances at it, spat insults right and left until the head finally fell to the ground and all took part in kicking it around on the ground. After this became monotonous, they gradually returned to the feast and began their drinking again, leaving the head forgotten in a nook. I retrieved it and later gave my “marble” hunting knife for it.

           "When I left this region I felt a pang of genuine sorrow, since I had grown to love these savages in spite of their bellicose habits. Piruchicuna accompanied me to the nearest trading post, hugged me goodbye and pleaded with me to return and bring him some cartridges for his rifle. This was about seven years ago, but every time I look at the shrunked skull of Uyucuma, I smell the acrid smoke of that fire under the pot of stew, and see the glassy eyes staring at me from the greenish skull. I remember my savage friends who laughed with the delight of a child at a joke, but who would cut off the head of an enemy with the same ease and pleasure. I also remember Piruchicuna’s tear cheeked face as he lowered the body of his son into the grave.

           “A few months ago I met a botanist who had just returned from the Yuquiantza region, and he told me that Piruchicuna had been killed. Perhaps I should have left him those cartridges; I am sorry to see him go, yes, sorry to see them all go, but they must. They are fine people, free as only an eagle can be free; and they will remain as they are as long as they live, for civilization means slavery and peonage. They do not want any of it, and will retire one jump ahead and my spirit of adventure tempts me many times, to follow in their footsteps. It is sad to think of a race that is doomed to die, but I have the consolation that when the last Jibaro brave crosses the dark river into the hand of Iuanchi, he will hold his head high, lifting his musket and horn above to keep his powder dry.

           “The Ecuadoreans are rather touchy about the Jibaros and the stories that have been told about them, and they naturally do not want the world to think that Ecuador is all jungle and well-populated with headhunters. Nothing is further from the truth. The headhunters are an asset rather than a liability to Ecuador. Beautiful cities nestling in the laps of 20,000 foot mountains. Towns where Old World charm is mingled with the New World plumbing. And practically in their backyard, on the other side of the majestic Andes, honest-to-God headhunters. What Steve Hannagan could do with all this.”

           (Translator’s note - Every man to his own opinion -RJS.)

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob