There are few requests Arca Noctis gets more often than for authentic shrunken heads. While they are a Hollywood staple of freak shows, oddities shops and bazaars of the bizarre, they don’t come up for legitimate sale very often. Despite their rarity, most serious oddity dealers have come to know them very well over the years, mostly due to customers’ questions about these rare relics.
So where do shrunken heads come from? Who came up with the idea? And how did they get them so small? Read on for a few (rather graphic) answers.
First, a distinction should be made between head hunting and head shrinking. Throughout history, head hunting has been a fairy common practice. Decapitating a foe in battle and then presenting the deceased’s head on a stake, a belt or a shield was a sure way to stoke the fires of terror in any opponent. In many cultures, it was also seen as a mark of disrespect for the fallen as separating the head from the body made a smooth transition to the afterlife either difficult or impossible.
Head shrinking, however, is a practice that (historically) has been limited to Amazon rainforest tribes in Ecuador and Peru. Collectively known as the Jivaroan tribes, this group includes the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna. As with head hunting, the goal was simply to curry both shock and awe in battle. History suggests that it worked.
The recipe for head shrinking is fairly simple and somewhat consistent across the tribes. The head of a fallen foe would be removed while keeping intact as much of the neck and shoulder skin as possible. After battle, the skin along the back of the neck would be cut and split, allowing for the removal and disposal of the skull.
Before treatment, the eyelids and nostrils would be sewn shut while the mouth would be pinned shut with three sharp palm pins. A wooden ball would replace the skull to help keep the form as the head was boiled in a tannin-rich tanning water. After an hour or two, the head would have shrunk by more than half but the hair would not yet be ready to fall out.
As the boiled head dried, fire-heated stones would help keep the shape, followed by sand as the head continued to shrink. The palm pins would be removed and thick cord would be used to sew the mouth shut. A final step involved coating the outside with ash and curing the trophy over a warm fire.
Where does one find a real shrunken head in today’s market? Arca Noctis first reminds all potential buyers that these are remains of a human being and should be treated with the ultimate in respect. If a buyer persists, the best course is to work with a reputable online dealer. Fakes abound both online and in shops around the world. Shady collectors will often try to pass chimp heads and even pigskin molds as the real thing. If a buyer isn’t certain that he or she is buying the real thing, Arca Noctis always recommends enjoying the real thing in a museum instead.