Reviews — From the December 2014 issue

Heads Will Roll

The story of a morbid curiosity

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Discussed in this essay:

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Found, by Frances Larson. Liveright. 384 pages. $27.95.

Jivaro is the name of a professional headhunting firm with offices in four American cities. The company’s website boasts of finding individuals with the “expertise, knowledge and drive needed to help take your company to the next level.” Its logo features a stylized red warrior striding along with his spear hoisted for the kill.

The term “headhunting” is now synonymous with executive searches, but few of Jivaro’s clients, I would wager, have read F. W. Up De Graff’s 1923 classic Head Hunters of the Amazon: Seven Years of Exploration and Adventure, the most thorough account of the technique of procuring and preparing human heads as it was practiced by the Jivaro tribes of the upper Amazon. After a victim was decapitated with axes, blades, or sharpened clamshells (sometimes while he or she was alive and struggling) the head was strung up, with a bark rope passed through its neck and out its mouth, then transported for fireside preparation. A medicine man blew chewed tobacco up a warrior’s nose, and then the warrior peeled the flesh from the skull, sewed up the eyelids and mouth, plugged the nose, basted the neck meat, and cooked the head in hot, but never boiling, water. When the cooking was finished, the head was filled with sand. A slick of yellow grease floated atop the cooking water.

Ernest Morris, an explorer of South America, poses with shrunken heads from the upper Amazon, 1877 © Granger, New York City

Ernest Morris, an explorer of South America, poses with shrunken heads from the upper Amazon, 1877 © Granger, New York City

Books like De Graff’s rode an American and European vogue for shrunken heads, tsantsas, which were originally used only in sacred tribal rites. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the usual price of a tsantsa was one gun. The guns that were traded for heads were used to kill more people and produce more heads. Almost right away, Frances Larson writes in her fascinating new book, Severed, “women’s and children’s heads, severed by European knives, ended up on the streets of South American towns and cities to be sold as souvenirs.” By the early twentieth century, a tourist could buy a shrunken human head, now known as a tourist head. The demand for these items fed markets in grave robbing and murder, though many heads were taken from unclaimed bodies in morgues and hospitals. You could purchase a shrunken head and have it delivered to your home.

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’s most recent book is Bicentennial: Poems (Knopf). His last review for Harper’s Magazine, “The Humble Vernacular,” appeared in the November 2012 issue.

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