June 16, 2012

0250 ECUADOR - The tsantsa, or how to keep trapped the enemy's soul

Not even the conquer of the Inca Empire couldn't enrich all conquistadors, so those less fortunate began to explore beyond the borders recently achieved. Thus in 1549 Hernando de Benavente led an expedition into the tropical forest of the Amazonian lowlands, to the East of the Andes (now in Ecuador and Peru), venturing into the territory of the Shuar tribe, at the headwaters of the Marañón River, and attempting to settle in it. Aborigines proved hostile, so, for their own good, the Spaniards abandoned the idea.

Shortly after that, the Viceroy of Peru sent a second expedition, this time the Spaniards managing to initiate peaceful trade relationships with some of the Shuar. In 1552 the settlers set up two settlements, Logrono and Sevilla del Oro, even though some of the Shuar remained hostile. Eventually, the settlers have forced the Shuar people to pay mita, a tributes to the Spanish crown in gold dusts. In time, greed has overwhelmed prudence, and Spaniards demanded ever more gold, what made the Shuar unhappy. Settlers had forgotten that isn't good when the Shuar are unhappy.

In 1599, the Shuar patience came to an end. The cities of Logrono and Sevilla del Oro were plundered and the governor was captured. Molten gold was poured down the throat of the governor to satisfy his thirst for gold. In addition, the Shuar killed 30,000 Spaniards in one week, and so ended Spanish rule in Shuar territory. Known by then as an intensely warlike group, tremendously protective of their freedom and unwilling to subordinate themselves to other authorities, the Shuar enjoyed their independence and isolation from the white settlers up until the mid 1900s, despite the fact that they inhabited one of the richest regions in South America for gold deposits.

Well, though who are the Shuar people? In their own language, Shuar means simply people, and they are members of the Jivaroan peoples, from which belong also Achuar, Humabisa and Aguaruna. The term jívaros or jíbaros, used by Europeans and European Americans, probably derives from the Spanish spelling of shuar, but has taken other meanings including savage (and Shuar consider it an insult).

The myth of the violence of these tribes, along with an unusual custom named tsantsa, have caught the attention of the Western world. There were many headhunting cultures throughout the world (a few examples being the Dayak from Borneo, Saisiyat from Taiwan, or Asmat from New Guinea), but only one group, Shuar, was known for the practice of shrinking human heads. This is tsantsa. The tsantsa was something new to the white traders so they began trading with the Shuar for they. That stimulated the Shuar to obtain more heads to trade it for more goods. Moreover, because of increasing demand, other people outside the region started making and sell tsantsa, although the custom was banned in the early 20th century. Is still practiced today? Nobody can say with certainty that no.

Contrary to the view of many, tsantsa aren't trophies of war, but have another meaning. In Shuar society, there is no natural death. Every ill or unfortunate turn has as source the evil intent of an enemy. So death, from whatever cause, is considered to be murder, and it must be avenged, their desire for revenge being therefor "an expression of their sense of justice". The shaman held a ceremony and decide whose sorcery is at fault. Someone must to be blamed, and the revenge is often executed for generations. The result is incessant intertribal warfare.

The reason behind the preparation of the tsantsa is to paralyze the spirit of the enemy attached to the head so that it cannot escape and take revenge upon the murderer. This also prevents the spirit or soul from continuing into the afterlife where it could harm dead ancestors. When the warrior kills his enemy, he is not only after the victim's life, but more importantly he seeks to possess the victim's soul. After the ceremony, the finished product loses its value, so the Shuar didn't keep the finished shrunken heads.

Obviously, the postcard shows a Shuar man making a tsantsa. I couldn't find out when was taken the photo, which appears on many sites of anthropology.

About the stamps
The stamps are part of the series Las 7 Maravillas de Quito (The 7 Wonders of Quito), issued on September 8, 2011. The series comprise 7 stamps with the same value ($0.75):
Basílica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow)
Virgen del Panecillo (The Virgin of the Panecillo)
Estación de Ferrocarril de Chimbacalle (Chimbacalle Railway Station)
Convento de San Francisco (Convent of San Francisco)
Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square) – it’s on the postcard
Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (Church of the Society of Jesus) – it’s on the postcard
Iglesia de la Virgen del Quinche (and Church of Our Lady of Quinche) – it’s on the postcard

sender: Scherida (direct swap)
sent from Santiago de Guayaquil (Ecuador), on 02.06.2012
photo: Bodo Wuth

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