Headshrinkers of the Amazon – Revealed: Episode 5

The historical documentary series continues. Recently discovered film from the 1960s appears to show footage of a headshrinking ceremony in the Amazon basin. Piers Gibbon travels to Ecuador in a bid to authenticate the film and discover its location. His journey leads him into the heart of the jungle, where he learns about the headshrinking ceremony and the culture surrounding it.

Piers Gibbon is on a mission to uncover the truth surrounding footage shot by the Polish explorer Edmundo Bielawski. In 1961, Bielawski and a team of seven ventured into the Amazon and captured extraordinary scenes of Shuar Indians preparing a shrunken head. If authenticated, it will be the only known footage in the world of this legendary tribal custom. “The problem is, I don’t even know which country he was filming in,” Piers says.

Although headhunting tribes were found all over the world, the practice of shrinking heads was limited to one particular band in the Amazon – the fearsome Shuar. A study of Bielawski’s notes gives Piers reason to believe the headshrinking footage was shot near the border of Ecuador and Peru, so the first stop on his quest is the Ecuadorian capital, Quito.

After visiting a museum in the capital, Piers heads to the frontier town of Macas, where he meets a missionary who converted Shuar Indians in the 1960s. Padre Siro Pellizzaro believes the headshrinking custom was merely the Shuar’s version of capital punishment. “The criminal killed an innocent man, so according to the law, he should die. So it wasn’t about being a war trophy,” he explains. “There’s nothing savage or brutal about it.” The missionaries taught the Shuar the Christian principle of forgiving one’s enemies rather than killing them.

Although the practice died out in the 1960s – shortly after Bielawski’s expedition – there is disturbing evidence that some foreigners still pay for shrunken heads (known as ‘tsantsa’). The tsantsa black market was recently uncovered by a Shuar leader, who was subsequently kidnapped and killed by the traders. Piers meets the man’s widow and brother, who describes how the community took the law into its own hands to punish one of the black marketeers suspected of exploiting their culture.

With his Shuar guide, Oswaldo, Piers then crosses a military checkpoint into Peru. Along the way, he meets some modern-day Shuar warriors now serving in the army. “I come from a family of warriors and we are proud of being so,” says one soldier.

Across the border, Piers finds further evidence that the Shuar remember their old customs when he encounters a tribal chief named Marcelo. The chief reveals that they recently scared away miners by threatening to kill them and shrink their heads. “To get the miners out of this area… they threatened traditional Shuar punishments,” Piers says.

While showing Bielawski’s footage to the natives, Piers suddenly makes a breakthrough. Not only do the Shuar believe the ceremony on film could be genuine, Oswaldo recognises one of the men on screen. “I know this person,” he says. The warrior is called Kampurim and his village lies downriver.

Piers and the crew travel to Kampurim’s settlement by canoe, only to discover the old warrior died just one year earlier. However, his brother Sanim is still alive, and is the last survivor of the old generation. Can Sanim confirm that his brother was involved in tsantsa ceremonies and prove that Bielawski’s film is genuine?

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