Shuar Indians

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 live in an area of mountainous rain forests in eastern Ecudor at the headwaters of the Marañón River. Their homeland sits on what were once rich gold deposits. The foothills of the towering Andes mountain chain form their western border. The other boundaries are formed by rivers filled with dangerous rapids, making them difficult or impossible to navigate. Nature has served the Shuar well to isolate them from the advances of conquistadors, explorers, and settlers who would not be halted elsewhere.

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 Shuar are one of the few tribal groups to have successfully resisted the efforts of rivals and foreign powers to conquer them. Their reputation started with the mighty Inca empire, which ruled a population of more than 12 million in the fiteenth and early sixteenth centuries, but could never subject the Shuar.

The Spaniards managed to gain a foothld in the late 1500s. Driven to extract as much gold as possible, their greed and merciless taxation of the Shuar led to a massive revolt. This uprising took place in 1599, when the Shuar banded together to free themselves of Spanish rule. They captured, tortured, and executed the Spanish governor of the region and then slaughtered most of the 20,000 Spanish settlers in the area.

Follow this uprising, they remained unchallenged for more than three hundred years in their mist shrouded forest homes. It was not until the nineteenth century that morbid curiosity and a genuine cultural interest brought this group out of the shadows. Anthropologist Michael Harnet, who lived with the Shuar in the 1950s and the 1960s, was one of the first people to study them seriously.

Head Shrinking (tsantsa)

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…”

Warefare, headhunting, and revenge were accepted ways of life for the Shuar. Enemy households were often raided by war parties and their inhabitants slain. The threat posed by an enemy warrior did not die with his body, however. To eliminate the desire for revenge from the dead warrior’s soul, the Shuar decapitated the victim and set about reducing the size of his head. Following the completion of the head-shrinking process, a large celebration was held. During this feast, the shrunken head or tsantsa (SAN-sah) was shouted at and insulted. The Shuar believed this would intimidate the spirit and soul of the enemy warrior, so that it would not seek revenge against the victorious Shuar warrior. Once the celebration was over, the tsantsa was buried or discarded, its power having been removed.

It is commonly misunderstood that tsantsa were trophies of warfare. It was not until the 19th century and early 20th that the Shuar started keeping the shrunken heads. They kept them in order to trade with Europeans and Euro-Americans for manufactured goods such as guns. This demand lead to an increase in tribal wars which amounted to head hunting and further gave the Shuar a bloody reputation.

Shuar Spears

These Shuar spears are hand carved from wood with a very sharp point. They are decorated with colorful feathers.

Shuar spears Shuar spears
Large measures approx. 28″ long. Small measures approx. 20″ long.

Shuar Dance Belts

The Shuar are musical and perform many traditional dances and rituals. They make dance belts which are hand woven. From the woven part of the belt they hang beads, from the beads they continue down with the shells of nuts and/or sea shells which rattle when they dance.

Below are Shuar women dancing with dance belts.

Shuar women dancing with dance belts.

Below are beautifully made Shuar dance belts.

shuar belt shuar belt
Belt length 38″ Belt length 36″

Shuar Seed Jewelry

The Shuar are a very artistic tribe. One art form that they are very adept at is the making of jewelry from seeds, nuts, teeth, bone and other natural objects. Below are items that a Shuar mother and daughter modeling seed jewelry made. The necklaces are made entirely of natural items and beads by the Shuar Indians.


shuar indian necklace
Seed and tooth necklace hangs 21″ in length. Seed and bead bracelet is 6 1/2″ in length.
shuar indian necklace shuar indian necklace
Seed and bead necklace hangs 10″ in length. Seed and tooth necklace hangs 20 1/2″ in length.

Seed purse hangs 27″ in length, the body of the purse measures 4 1/2″ x 4 1/2″.

Seed purse

Photos property of Hands Around the World.

Additional Information

The Jivaro Indians : History of the Shuar : Shrunken Heads
Shuar Amerindians – Amazon Jungle Guides
Shuar Federation
Shuar Language (Jivaro)
Resources on the Shuar
Eric Schniter’s Shuar of Ecuador web site

3 thoughts on “Shuar Indians”

  1. I am looking for information about Hilario Choral. I first met him in 1996, but have come across some bad writings about him and land selling. I have always held Hilario with respect but I do need to check out the negatives I have read.
    If you can held in this any info positive or negative from his people will be appreciated.
    Thank you n blessings

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