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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
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

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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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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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