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How Are Shrunken Heads Made?

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Head shrinking is rumored to have occurred all over the world, but documented only among a few indigenous South American tribes living in Peru and Ecuador. To the Jivaroan people, a head taken from an enemy and shrunk—called a tsantsa—was more than just a battle trophy. Jivaro warriors believed that the ritual of shrinking the head paralyzed the spirit of their foe and prevented it from taking revenge, and also passed the victim’s strength onto the killer.

How do you take a flesh-and-bone head and shrink it? A typical Jivaro head-shrinking ritual, as recorded by European explorers in the 19th century, went something like this.

Step One: Deflesh

After getting a safe distance away from the battlefield with the severed heads of fallen enemies, victorious warriors feast, and then begin the work of making the tsantsa. First, the victim's scalp is removed, starting at an incision made across the back of the neck parallel to the bottoms of the ears. The warrior tugs on a flap of skin created by this cut and pulls toward the top of the head and then again toward the face, peeling the skin away from the skull on the back and top of the head. He then uses a knife or a sharpened piece of wood to work the flesh away from the bone around the facial features and scrape away the cartilage from the nose and ears. The eyelids are sewn shut and the lips held together with three wooden pins. Eyewitness accounts report that an experienced warrior could de-flesh a head this way in as little as 15 minutes.

Now, the stumbling block for me, whenever I thought about shrunken heads before researching them (not that it was something I thought about often, I swear I’m not a weirdo), was how the skull was miniaturized. Turns out, it wasn’t. Once the skin was removed, Jivaro warriors simply tossed the skulls away.

Step Two: Simmer

With the flesh taken from the head, the warrior goes to the nearest river with a ceremonial pot to gather water. The filled pot is set on a fire to heat up, and the flesh from the head is placed in it to simmer for an hour or two. When it’s removed, the head is a little smaller than it was originally, but not much. The head is turned inside out and stripped of any remaining fat, cartilage or muscle, and the incision on the back of the neck is sewn shut.

Step Three: Apply Stones and Sand

The head, now completely sealed except for the hole where the neck used to attach, is further shrunk with sand and stones heated on another fire. The hot stones are dropped into the head through the neck hole and the head is rotated continuously to avoid scorching. When the head shrinks and becomes too small to accommodate the stones, sand is poured in it instead and the head is shaken to drive the sand into the crevices the stones couldn’t reach. Once the head is the right size, the warrior carefully uses hot stones to sear the exterior skin and shape the head and facial features. The finished product is then left to further dry and harden. The entire process takes about a week.

After the head is done, the warriors and the rest of the tribe partake in more victory feasts, the last of which may happen up to a year after the battle it celebrates. Once these rituals are complete, the shrunken head has served its purpose for the warrior. Its significance was in the process of its creation, and not the final product. The tsantsa is usually then discarded in a river or in the jungle, or given to a child in the warrior’s family or village as a toy.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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