A lesson in head-shrinking in Quito

By Emma.

My inner nerd thrummed at the idea of hopping over the equator, balancing an egg on a nail and the plughole direction experiments (hmm the time may have come to tackle that sad, sad inner nerd!) but at the incredibly touristy Intiñan Solar Museum what absolutely grabbed my attention was the shrunken heads. Real shrunken heads!!!The Jivaro people, a community living deep in the Ecuadorian jungle, believe that by keeping and shrinking the heads of enemies beaten in battle, they will gain that person’s strength in life. The spirit of the slain, so-harnessed, is also prevented from seeking vengance.

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But how can you shrink a head to make it no bigger than a tennis ball? A ghoulish curiosity? Probably. Warning: if you have a weak stomach, read no further!

How to Shrink a Head as per Clark, Josh.  “How Shrunken Heads Work”  11 May 2011.  HowStuffWorks.com. http://people.howstuffworks.com/shrunken-head.htm  who describes the process in far more brilliant detail than our guide at the museum

1. The heads that are taken are removed by cutting the skin at the extreme base of the neck, just above the clavicles.  Once the head is removed, a hair band or vine is passed through the open neck and out of the mouth, creating a loop that makes for easy transport as the warrior swiftly makes his way back home.

2. The head of the victim is first prepared by cutting from the base of the ear down or from the base of the skull, either way creating a flap that begins to loosen the skin from the skull. Muscles and tissue that connect the skin to the skull are severed with a knife. The skull and the eyes are removed and discarded and the cartilage that anchors the nose and ears are cut away, leaving just the skin and hair that makes up the face and scalp. The mouth is held closed with wooden pegs.

3.  A small ceramic pot is filled with water and put over a fire. The head skin is inserted into the hot water three times and then left to simmer for 30 minutes. The skin shinks to about one-third its former size. It is then placed on a spear to dry.

4. Once dry, the mouth and eyes are sewn shut. Hot rocks and sand are inserted through the neck to cure and shape the head.

5. Finally the head is dangled over a fire to finish the process, darkening and toughening the skin; charcoal ash rubbed over the skin darkens it further.

Murals as seen at the  Intiñan Solar Museum, Quito:

So that’s that anthopological interest satisfied!

Interestingly, nowadays, the Jivaro people keep the tradition of head-shrinking alive by practicing on monkeys and sloths.

A shrunken sloth head

A shrunken sloth head

Oh and there was also the ” true equator”!

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Obligatory touristy photo

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