Thom Cuell reviews Frances Larson's Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, in 3:AM Magazine:
In the early 1950s, my grandfather Alan Cuell was called up for national service and sent to the rainforests of Borneo. On his first patrol, he was ordered to bring up the rear of the regiment; the only person behind him was the local Dayak guide. Alan had barely been outside Essex before, so he was intrigued by the guide’s traditional costume, particularly the items dangling from the man’s waist. Asking what they were, he was disconcerted when the translator replied, “Shrunken heads.” He spent the remainder of the patrol in constant fear that his next step would be his last, later describing it as the most terrifying experience of his life.
What Frances Larson sets out to demonstrate in Severed is that the significance of decapitated heads to the Dayak people is not as exotic as it must have seemed to my grandfather – from medieval times to the present day, severed heads have featured with at least equal prominence in European culture. It’s not all about the spectacle of heads on pikes, either: “Over the centuries,” she argues, “human heads have embellished almost every facet of our society, from the scaffold to the cathedral, and from the dissecting room to the art gallery.” This fascination with the head is reflected in our everyday speech — how often do we refer to someone putting their head on the block, or keeping their head while all those around are losing theirs?
If Alan had ever been to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, he might have seen their famous display of shrunken heads collected by the Shuar people of Ecuador and Peru. Displayed in amongst a collection of ceremonial knives and trephination tools, the heads are regarded as one of the main attractions of the museum, with school-children and tourists crowding in to get a glimpse of them.
Larson’s examination of the shrunken heads reveals a surprising underlying dynamic: many were created specifically to meet demand from Western traders in the nineteenth century. The Shuar in fact saw the head as rather insignificant compared to the power of the soul within. The head, once shrunken, is like an envelope after the letter has been taken out. As trade increased, the heads “lost their spiritual power and became commercial products; now some Shuar simply murdered people in order to sell their heads. In this way, Europeans and Americans helped to create the indiscriminate, bloodthirsty headhunters they expected to find.”