Like most fads regarding curios, whether they be Egyptian mummies, or shrunken heads from the amazon, under closer scientific scrutiny the reality isn’t always what was originally thought. In mid-19th century South America, a lucrative trade in shrunken human heads leads to a rash of fake heads being passed off as real. In the video below, one museum sets about to find out if their own Shuar shrunken head is a fake.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, a shrunken head is a decapitated human head that is shrunk through a cooking process by members of the Jivaroan tribes of the northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador and Peru.
Shrunken heads are a key part of the “scary tribal people” setup. And some cultures did, in fact, create miniature heads for religious and spiritual purposes. But how does someone take a regular sized human skull and miniaturize it?
Staci Lehman writes:
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Once removed from the pot, the head would be about 1/3 its original size and the skin dark and rubbery. The skin would then be turned inside out and any leftover flesh scraped off with a knife. The scraped skin was then turned with the proper side out again and the slit in the rear sewn together. The process wasn’t done yet. The head was shrunk even further by inserting hot stones and sand to make it contract from the inside. This also “tanned” the inside, like tanning an animal hide, in order to preserve it.
Once the head reached the desired size and was full of small stones and sand, more hot stones would be applied to the outside of the face to seal and shape the features. The skin was rubbed with charcoal ash to darken it, and as tribesmen believed, to keep the avenging soul from seeping out. The finished product was hung over a fire to harden and blacken, then the wooden pegs in the lips pulled out and replaced with string to lash them together.
H/T – Today I Found Out