Five places to see shrunken heads

srunken head, shrunken heads
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]

New photos released of remote Brazilian rainforest tribe

Survival International, a UK-based rights group dedicated to protecting indigenous communities worldwide, has just released new photographs of an “uncontacted” group of indigenous people living on the Brazilian-Peruvian border. This is only the second time in two years photos of the isolated Indians have ever been released.

FoxNews reports the photos were taken by Brazil’s Indian Affairs department, which monitors various indigenous tribes by aircraft. Uncontacted tribes are so described because they have limited interactions with the outside world. Survival International estimates that there are over a hundred uncontacted tribes left globally.

The organization came under fire for creating a hoax when the first photos were released in 2008; the president of Peru even hinted that such tribes were an invention of environmentalists opposing Amazonian oil exploration. The myth of “first-contact” tribes also prevails amongst unscrupulous companies catering to tourists. Survival International’s website quotes Marcos Apurinã, Coordinator of Brazil’s Amazon Indian organization COIAB as saying, “It is necessary to reaffirm that these peoples exist, so we support the use of images that prove these facts. These peoples have had their most fundamental rights, particularly their right to life, ignored … it is therefore crucial that we protect them.”

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The Brazilian government is a believer, however, and has dedicated a division to helping protect uncontacted tribes. Many indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been the victims of disease or genocide (due to war or, uh, “eradication”) or displacement by petroleum companies. The Brazilian government is concerned that an increase in illegal logging in Peru is forcing uncontacted tribes over the border into Brazil, which could result in conflict.

Survival International reports that the Brazilian Indians appear to be in good health, as evidenced by their appearance (FYI, their skin is dyed red from the extract of the annatto seed), as well as that of communal gardens and a plentiful supply of food including manioc and papaya. The tribe was also recently filmed (from the air) by the BBC for the television series, “Human Planet.”

While there is admittedly a certain hypocrisy in buzzing uncontacted peoples with planes, the bigger picture is the necessity of proving their existence in order to save them, as Apurinã points out. Look for my forthcoming post on my stay with the remote Hauorani people of Ecuador, who had their first contact with the outside world in the late 1940’s. Over the last twenty-plus years, they have waged legal land rights battles against various petroleum companies in order to preserve both their land and their existence.

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Sole survivor of Amazon tribe is most isolated man on Earth

He’s the last of his kind.

Nobody knows his name, nobody knows his tribe’s name, and nobody knows what happened to the rest of his people. The last man of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon is now being protected from the outside world by the Brazilian government.

Officials have created a 31 square-mile exclusion zone in his patch of rain forest to keep out loggers, something local logging companies aren’t too happy about. In fact, nobody is allowed inside.

Isolated tribes have always fascinated outsiders. Early explorers tracked them down to photograph them, like this Amazonian tribesman photographed in the 1922 publication People of all Nations. Anthropologists have tried to contact the sole survivor of the unknown tribe for 15 years now, but he’s always shied away. Once an agent got too close and received an arrow in his chest.

A report by Slate says he’s the most isolated man on Earth. His patch of rain forest is now an island amid ranching and logging areas, a potent symbol of what’s happening to isolated tribes all around the world. Tribes that have little or no contact with outsiders are highly susceptible to disease and exploitation and there’s a growing movement to help them. For example, there’s an ongoing controversy in the Andaman Islands over a resort built near the Jarawa tribe. The government wants to close it in order to take pressure off this tribe of only 320 people.

Grim evidence suggests what may have happened to the unknown Amazonian’s people. He is known to build a distinctive style of hut, and a village of identical huts was found in the rain forest–run over by a bulldozer.

A flyover of another uncontacted tribe two years ago resulted in some dramatic photos showing the startled tribesmen shooting arrows at the airplane. While the media made a big hype about how they had probably never seen planes before, that seems unlikely. They’re simply protecting their territory from an outside world they perceive as dangerous and hostile. In other words, they want to be left alone.