Of all the stories to come from journeys into far away lands, one of the most terrifying is that of the Amazon head-hunters. In a world of superstition and blood revenge, the only way to remain safe was to shrink your enemy’s head.
Piers Gibbon, author of Tribes Of The World, has come across previously unseen footage of a 1960s exploration into the Amazon, which reveals a macabre head- shrinking ceremony. Could this horrific scene be real and are such acts still going on in the jungle? Part adventure, part investigation Search for the Amazon Headshrinkers sees Piers set out on a journey to discover where this ritual took place. He is on a mission to uncover the motivation behind the shocking practice and discover what has become of the headshrinkers from the footage.
Piers’ journey begins in the UK where he learns more of Edmundo Bielawski, the European explorer who filmed the head-shrinking episode; back in the 1960s Bielawski set out to document the definitive travelogue of the world’s largest rainforest. What started out as a 6 month project in the Amazon turned into a three year obsession for Bielawski and his fellow filming assistants and guides, resulting in dehydration, disease and the death of one of the team.
Armed with Bielawski’s maps and travelogues, Piers heads to Quito, Ecuador, where his investigation begins in earnest and he attempts to retrace the intrepid explorer’s footsteps through the Amazon. Piers heads south-east to the Morona Santiago region, territory of the legendary Shuar people. The second largest of the Amazonian indigenous groups, the Shuar have a long history of survival and defense against outsiders, and have a reputation as head-hunters and fierce warriors.
After carefully negotiating a letter of permission to travel through Shuar territory from the omnipotent Shuar Federation President, Piers veers off the tourist trail accompanied by a Shuar guide. He learns about the history of bloodshed on Shuar lands in centuries past, fuelled by Whites demand for shrunken heads, known as tsantsa. In Shuar communities Piers is shocked to learn that far from being rooted in the past, the power of the tsantsa is very much alive. He discovers that his new found Shuar friends would be prepared to make a tsantsa at any given moment if it meant protecting their people and territory from being exploited from the government and multinationals.
As Piers’ journeys deeper into the jungle on his search for people connected to Bielawski’s footage his emotions are running high: one moment he is unexpectedly bearing witness to a shaman’s dramatic healing ceremony, the next held up at Shuar road block by an angry mob. Just as his search for people from the footage reaches a climatic point Piers unwittingly uncovers a murky illicit trade of shrunken heads. He discovers that a tsantsa can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market and that the demand for these curiosities means head-hunting and head- shrinking may never completely disappear.
Visiting a community whose indigenous leader ‘disappeared’ following his denouncement of Shuar involvement in trafficking heads to the United States Piers discovers why it is still so dangerous to seek out The Amazon Head-Shrinkers.
Tune in to Search for the Amazon Headshrinkers this Sunday at 7P. Missed it? The full episode is available online!