Call me sick, but I’ve always been fascinated with shrunken heads.
“OK, you’re sick!”
Fine, but you’re still reading this, aren’t you?
Throughout history many cultures took heads as trophies, including the ancestors of many Gadling readers–the Celts. Celtic warriors used to cut the heads off of enemies and attach them to their chariots to look extra intimidating in battle. Japanese samurai, Maori warriors, and angry peasants in the French Revolution all took enemy heads as trophies.
Yet only one culture, the Jivaro of South America, actually shrank heads. Living in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador and Peru, the Jivaro people developed the strange custom of cutting off an enemy’s head and shrinking it down to the size of a man’s fist. Called tsantsa, these shrunken heads served not only as proof of a warrior’s valor but also as a way to destroy the victim’s spirit, which might otherwise take revenge.
The process was gruesome but simple. Different sources give different recipes. This one comes from the well-researched site Head Hunter. Once you get a head, cut open the back so the skin and hair can be peeled from the skull. Throw the skull into a river as an offering to the anaconda. Sew the eyes shut, and close the mouth with wooden spikes or thorns. Boil the head for no more than two hours, then turn the skin inside out to clean off any nasty residue. Turn the skin right side out and sew up the slit you cut in the back.
%Gallery-126587%To shrink further, drop hot stones through the neck hole. Roll them around to ensure even heating and prevent any unsightly burn marks. The head will continue to shrink until the neck hole is too small to allow stones to enter. Now use hot sand to shrink the head even more. Press hot stones against the face to singe off any excess hair and shape the face to look nice, and use a hot machete to dry the lips, which will not have shrunk as much as the rest of the head.
Now put three chonta, or palm thorns, through the lips and tie them together with long, decorative string. Hang it over a fire to harden. You may also want to blacken the skin with charcoal to avoid the man’s spirit from seeing out. Pierce a hole through the top of the head so you can put a string through and wear your trophy around your neck.
The whole process takes about a week but with a bit of patience and practice, you’ll have a keepsake of your favorite battle and a surefire icebreaker at parties.
Shrunken heads fascinated early European explorers. They became a hot commodity and warfare increased in order to meet the demand. Often tribesmen found it easier and safer to make a fake head by using an animal head or making one out of leather. Some researchers estimate that up to 80% of all heads on display in museums are actually fake. This week a study was released of a DNA analysis of a shrunken head in an Israeli museum that turned out to be genuine. Researchers are hoping to test more heads to determine if they’re legit.
Some fake heads are actually real, in a sense. When a warrior killed an enemy but couldn’t get the head for whatever reason, or killed an enemy who was a blood relative and therefore wasn’t allowed to take the head, he could make a head from that of a sloth as a stand-in. Magically this was considered a real tsantsa.
Controversy over displaying human remains and the demands by some tribes to have them back has meant that many museums have removed their displays of shrunken heads. So where can you still see these little darlings?
Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia. This branch of Ripley’s fun chain of museums has several shrunken heads on display.
Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle, Washington. Forget the Space Needle, this is the coolest attraction in Seattle. Once you’ve seen the real shrunken heads, head over the the gift shop to buy a cruelty-free replica.
Lightner Museum, Saint Augustine, Florida. This huge collection of nineteenth century bric-a-brac housed in an old mansion is an odd place to find a shrunken head collection, but people collected all sorts of things back then.
Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, England. Britain’s favorite museum has artifacts from all the world’s cultures, including a display case full of shrunken heads and trophy heads.
Madrid, Spain. Get a double dose of headhunting here at the Museo de América and the Museo Nacional de Antropología.
If you’d rather do some armchair traveling, check out the shrunken heads flickr group and Doc Bwana’s Shrunken Head Museum online.
Do you know of any other places still exhibiting shrunken heads? Tell us about it in the comments section!
[Photo courtesy Joe Mabel. In my opinion these are fakes, mostly made from monkeys, but they do look cool]