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How Are Shrunken Heads Made And Are They Really Human?

Updated July 31, 2019 29.9k 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.

  • Shrunken Heads Are Actually Made From Humans... Some Of The Time

    The idea of someone killing and beheading another person is gruesome enough. Adding the intentional shrinking of the victim's head to create a trophy goes even further beyond what many people are comfortable with, but this doesn't make the shrunken heads any less real. In fact, a DNA analysis of one of these artifacts actually confirmed the unthinkable. There is at least one South American tribe that actually did make shrunken heads from the remains of real people. In other words, your local museum may have actual human body parts on display.

  • Making A Shrunken Head 101: Preparing The Head For Boiling

    Photo: Narayan k28 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    It's intriguing to learn the method behind making a shrunken head - if only for historical purposes, of course. Keep in mind that attempting to follow these steps will lead to serious legal consequences. Before the actual boiling could begin, the head needed to be properly prepared by doing the following:

    1. The back of the head and the neck were cut.
    2. The skull was removed.
    3. A peg was placed into the mouth to keep it shut.
    4. The eyelids were sewn shut.
  • Making A Shrunken Head 101: Boiling The Head

    Photo: Ed Suominen / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    At this point, the prep process was already complete and it was time to move forward with the actual shrinking. To do so,  the heads would first have to be placed into a pot of boiling water for 90 to 120 minutes, during which time the skin would slowly shrivel to 2/3 of its original size.

    The heads could become compromised if the boiling time wasn't properly calculated. For example, removing the head too soon made it gooey, while on the other hand, if the head stayed in the pot for too long, all of the hair would fall out. But if the skin came out looking rubbery and dark, then the head was probably cooked for the appropriate amount of time. 

  • Making A Shrunken Head 101: Scraping Away The Remaining Flesh

    Photo: dksesh / flickr / CC-BY-ND 2.0

    When it came time to remove the head from the water, it was necessary to take proper precautions. Just as you wouldn't remove a hot pan from the oven without using a glove, headhunters would also use specific tools to carefully pull the head out of the boiling water. From there, they moved into the next stage of the process, which involved first flipping all of the flesh inside out to continue the skinning process. Since no remaining flesh could stay on the inside of the head, any excess residue required scraping. Lastly, the skin would be flipped back into its proper form and stitches would be made to close the slit on the back of the head.