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How Are Shrunken Heads Made And Are They Really Human?

Updated July 31, 2019 29.1k views13 items

Shrunken heads have earned themselves a lasting place in pop culture and can be found in museum collections across the world. When gazing upon one, it's hard not to wonder just how it arrived at its shrunken state. Because of how shockingly common they are, it's also natural to assume that shrunken heads are little more than manufactured oddities designed to shock and appall. So, are shrunken heads even real? The answer depends entirely on which heads you happen to encounter.

Actor Nicolas Cage happens to be an avid collector of shrunken heads, a hobby which may or may not be totally legal. And an official ruling about the legality of his strange collection can't even happen until an examination proves whether or not they're the real deal in the first place. Perhaps this is the same reason why airport personnel found an abandoned Gucci bag containing a bunch of shrunken heads in the 1980s. After all, importing artifacts of this type is typically illegal in the U.S., which could lead to jail time and a serious financial penalty.

Knowing how to make a shrunken head isn't exactly the best option for acquiring such an artifact for your own collection; however, it's undeniable that the process of making shrunken heads provides a fascinating look at this peculiar part of human history.

  • Making A Shrunken Head 101: Shrinking It Further And Finishing Up The Process

    Photo: AV Dezign | / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    A shrunken head still had a long way to go after the skin was flipped back over. At this point, headhunters would take numerous steps to shrink the head even further. The first thing that they would do is place sand and hot stones into the head, which caused it to contract more while also preserving it on the inside.

    Once the head was shrunk to its desired size, it was time to shape the face. By applying additional hot stones to the face, it was possible to give the features some definition while also sealing the skin to make it last for centuries.  They would then spread a charcoal ash across the skin according to the tribe's aesthetic and superstitious needs. 

    Lastly, the head would be hung over a fire to blacken and harden it. It was after this that the peg that had been placed between the lips was finally removed and the mouth was stitched up. In some cases, a hole on top of the head would also be made in order to make it easier for people to carry or wear the now shrunken heads. 

  • Western Culture's Fascination With Shrunken Heads Led To Many Deaths

    Shrunken heads became highly sought after souvenirs in the western world during the mid-1800s. It's unclear whether purchasers truly believed that these curious display pieces came from real human heads or not, but it still led some tribes to use it as a way to trade for things of value, including guns and gold. As a result, the practice of literal headhunting increased, as did the killing of innocent people. The practice of freely exchanging and selling these shrunken heads in shops around the world continued well into the 20th century. 

  • Real Shrunken Heads Sold To Tourists Aren't The Same As Ceremonial Heads

    Photo: brenski / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Most trinkets that are sold to tourists are known to be of low quality, and interestingly enough, this proves to be true for real shrunken heads as well. There are two types of real heads, and they're made entirely differently. The first, Tsanas, are authentic ceremonial heads, which feature extremely dark skin, a narrow face, and vertical nostrils. Meanwhile, the non-ceremonial human heads were made specifically for tourists and collectors, and are designed to maintain their proportional appearance so that they look more like a non-shrunken human head.

  • Nazis Had Shrunken Heads During WWII

    Nazis definitely weren't afraid of committing horrific acts of violence. Therefore, it's not at all surprising that two shrunken heads were presented as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials. It's been hotly debated as to whether the Nazis actually made these heads themselves or if they came from South America. Either way, though, these items could have easily been used to intimidate their prisoners. In a more modern example, some people believe that ISIS has also been shrinking heads and selling them to raise money for their terrorist activities