And now it seems, the legends are true.
In a dusty attic, a 45-year-old film was recently discovered by author and explorer Piers Gibbon. First of its kind to be deemed truly authentic, this film documented the entire process of shrinking a cut-off human head.
The practice is unique to the Shaur tribe of Ecuador, dating as far back as 1452 (and even farther), when the Spanish Conquistadors conquered every area of the Amazon except the lands of the Shaur, for fear of the tribal headshrinkers. Rooted in the Shaur's belief that no death is accidental, not even one caused by a storm or a falling tree, the practice of shrinking their enemies' heads was an act of self-preservation in the tribe's eyes. Each time an accidental death occurred, the Shaman (the tribal witch doctor) would go into a trace to divine the true identity of the culprit. And once that was fathomed, a killing party would set up to get the head of that man.
By sewing the lips shut, the Shaur believed that they prevented the spirit of the dead man from cursing them. By sewing his eyes, they kept the spirit from seeing them. And by shrinking the head in cauldrons filled with concoctions of spices, they believed the enemy's spirit was rendered powerless to wreak revenge.
Until the 1930's the Shaur continued with the ritual of head shrinking. But with the arrival of missionaries and the introduction of Christian religion, the practice was slowly abandoned, outlawed and forbidden. And yet, deep within the Amazon, rumors speak of men still cutting off the heads of their enemies and shrinking them.
In the documentary Headshrinkers of the Amazon (airing on the National Geographic Channel), explorer Piers Gibbon and director Oscar Humphries take that dusty old film out of the attic and trace a path deep into the world's largest rain forest. Beginning their search in an Ecuadorian museum, they are led deep into the Amazon in search of the Shaur tribe. Many deny that head shrinking is still going on. And yet there are those who secretly admit to practicing the old art and selling the shrunken heads to museums and collectors around the world.
So if you are planning to visit beautiful Ecuador, keep in mine what the tourist board will not admit, nor the brochures advertise. The Shaur still live in the rain forest, practicing their own religion, speaking their own language. And there are those among them who might take your head along on a mind boggling, one-way trip.