The Shuar Indians live in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. They are a sub tribe of the notorious Jivaro. In addition to the Shuar, there are three other sub-tribes of the Jivaro, they are the Ashuar, the Aguaruna, and the Huambisa . Although many peoples through out the world have taken the heads of their enemies, the Jivaro are the only ones to practice head shrinking. The shrunken heads are called tsantsa. The Jivaro were fierce warriors. A Spanish governor who was greedy for gold was killed by pouring molten gold down his throat. The notoriety of this incident and their practice of taking and shrinking heads kept outsiders at bay. Thus they were never conquered by the Spaniard and are called "the unconquered ones".
The Shuar have a population of approximately seventy-three thousand, while the Huambisa in Peru have an approximate population of fifty-five hundred; both tribes occupy the basins of the Santiago, Yaupi, Zamora, and Morona rivers. Another smaller tribe, the Achuar, occupies borderland east of the Shuar and Huambisa along the Pastaza River. They number around seven thousand in Ecuador and forty-eight hundred in Peru.
The name "Jivaro" shares its roots with the word savage. This named was originally assigned to the indians of the South East orient of Ecuador by the first European explorers to become aware of their existence. Jivaro is the name that linguists and anthropologists have assigned to the Amazon tribes Shuar, Huambisa, Aguaruna, Achuar and Shiviar who share the same language with slight variations in dialect. The historical center of the Jivaro was in Macas, Ecuador. Over the years after the Spanish conquest they migrated south, eventually occupying territory in what is now Peru. Currently the Jivaro occupy nearly seven-and-a-half million acres of jungle land along the Peru-Ecuador border.
Households often consist of one man, his two wives, and their offspring. Households function independently within the tribes and are self-sufficient. The houses are approximately 30’ x 50’ constructed with palm trees with doors on each end. The ceilings are likely to be 15 feet with 7 feet walls. The family may dwell in each house for up to 9 years depending on the local firewood, vegetation and game. Gender roles are that the men protect, hunt, fish, clear forest, and cut wood. The women cultivate the land, cook, make beer, care for the children and animals. The two separate entrances to the house are gender specific, and the woman will only enter the man’s side when she is serving the food.
There are 3 main sources from which the Jivaro derive their subsistence. 1) farming, 2) hunting and fishing and 3) gathering various species of insects, fruits and plants. The Jivaro are also known to keep domestic animals such as chickens, ducks, and pigs. These are kept in case they host a large number of guests, or if there was no game on hand. Common crops that households grow are sweet manioc, sweet potato, white maize, squash, gold bananas, peanuts, sugar cane, and cotton. The men will usually not travel no further than a day’s walk, about 8 miles to search for game. Common prey are Anaconda, toucan, monkeys, peccary and armadillo. They use blowguns and well as rifles to catch their prey. The Jivaro will go to local streams and rivers to fish, and use methods such as bare-handed fishing, hook-and-line fishing and a complex system of river poisoning.
The Jivaro's practice of head-hunting and their ability to shrink heads may be one of the most well known aspects to the Jivaro culture. Today, the practice is limited, though raids used to occur twice monthly. The process of shrinking a head may take up to six days and results in the size of a man's fist. Here is an excerpt from M. Harners book People of the Sacred Waterfalls:
"The process of preparing a tsantsa [shrunken head] has a number of steps. With the aid of a machete or a steel knife, the victim's skin is peeled back from the uppermost part of his chest, shoulders and back, and the head and neck are cut off as close as possible to the collarbone... here he makes a slit up the rear of the head and carefully cuts the skin from the skull and throws the latter into the river as a gift to the anaconda. The skin is boiled for half and hour. It is then dried. Then the skin is again scraped... the slit in the rear is sewn... Heated stones or sand then is rolled around in the head... Three pins are put through the lips and lashed with string. The skin is rubbed daily with charcoal so it will become blackened..."
(The text above is an excerpt from Eric Schniter's Shuar of Ecuador web site.)