Perhaps one of the most unusual things on exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man is a series of shrunken heads from northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest — some made from ground sloths and others the genuine article. Our visitors are frequently surprised to find out that our shrunken heads are real, and that you can actually shrink a head that small. I overheard one dad tell his son “You can’t really shrink a skull.” He was right; you’ve got to take the bony parts out first. We live in a very different world today than our friends (who are now shrunken heads) did nearly 100 years ago.
Growing up in the ancient forests of Ecuador, you knew one of two things: how to shrink a human head, or how to run quickly from those who did. As a member of the former group, you believed preserving enemies’ heads gave you power. You’d spend hours practicing this sacred and difficult skill on tree sloths (much to their chagrin). Then, as you entered manhood, your skills would finally be put to the test.
First, you had to slay your enemy (while avoiding being slain). Next, you would carefully remove the acquired head (as any good headhunter would). Then, you’d return to your village and the chief would authorize its preparation. You’d start by making a long incision with a flint knife down the center of the skull. Next, you’d peel the scalp down over the face and sew the eyes and lips shut to prevent any dangerous or evil spirits from escaping (you wouldn’t want evil spirits escaping, you know). Then, you’d boil the head in hot tanning liquids to preserve and shrink the skin. Finally, you’d stuff the head with hot rocks or sand to remove excess fat and connective tissue. And voila, one shrunken head for your trophy rack.
We are not suggesting that you try this at home, just commenting that the human experience is a lot broader than we normally think about in our day-to-day lives, and sometimes you have to stop and look at something like a shrunken head in order to realize how good we have it. For now, it makes me glad I work at a museum and I’m not sitting on a shelf in one. Maybe later they can have my head and try to shrink it, but I’d like to hold on to it for a little while.
—Rex Garniewicz, Chief Operating Officer