Circulation, Accumulation, and The Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads

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What can shrunken heads teach us, not about the "savagery" of "primitive peoples," but about circulation, accumulation and value? What can they teach us about contemporary indigenous communities in Latin America, and about Northern collectors and museums? In the current issue of Cultural Anthropology, Steven Rubenstein’s essay, "Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads," describes how tsantsas, the shrunken heads of enemies slain in wars, are meaningful today for Shuar, a group indigenous to the Ecuadorian Amazon - despite the fact that Shuar no longer collect tsantsas, nor even possess tsantsas collected earlier, other than the few recently repatriated from North American collections and museums. Rubenstein also describes how tsantsas were valued in their long sojourn abroad, showing how, as things circulate in and out of different worlds, their value is transformed.

In the past, Rubenstein argues, tsantra rituals played a crucial role in expressing and regulating the important Shuar value that power circulates; through trade with whites, the heads began to circulate in a much larger economy. After being stored in western museums, however, the repatriated heads now express the capitalist value of accumulation. For Shuar today, tsantsas represent distance: the distance of contemporary Shuar from their past, and the distance between Shuar leaders and their constituents. Tsantsas, according to Rubenstein, register Shuar ambivalence - towards the violent power originally unleashed by tsantsas rituals, but also towards globalization (through which Shuar traded tsantsas for manufactured goods) and the Ecuadorian state (which outlawed tsantsas rituals while co-opting in regional wars the Shuar's reputation for violence). Tsantsas remain important to Shuar, not because they retrench traditional forms of sociality and power, but because they reconfigure them.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a range of articles on circulation and accumulation as cultural processes. See, for example, James Ferguson’s review "Cultural Exchange: New Developments in the Anthropology of Commodities" (1988); Anna Tsing’s "The Global Situation" (2000); and Karen Ho’s "Situating Global Capitalisms: A View from Wall Street Investment Banks" (2005).

Cultural Anthropology has also published other articles on the politics of indigeneity. See, for example, Faye Ginsburg’s "Indigenous Media: Faustian Contract or Global Village?" (1991); Andrea Muehlebach’s "‘Making Place’ at the United Nations: Indigenous Cultural Politics at the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations" (2001); and Charles R. Hale’s "Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology" (2006).

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