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Shrunken Heads

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Some tribes in South America became famous for their practice of shrinking heads. Early explorers to the continent would often bring back examples of these and showed them at circus freak shows and the like.

What follows is a description of how the South Americans used to shrink heads and a fun project using apples.


Warriors in battle collected the heads of their defeated adversaries as they believed this endowed them with the soul and skills of their victim. The first step in shrinking the head was to cut a slit in the back of the scalp and peel the flesh off the skull in one piece. The skull was thrown away and the skin boiled for about an hour. This would shrink the skin by as much as fifty percent. The skin was then allowed to dry in the open air.

Once dry, the skin was turned inside out and any remaining flesh scraped away before being turned right way round again. The slit in the back of the scalp and the lips were sewn shut and a cord threaded around the neck like a purse-string. Stones were heated in a fire and then dropped into the skin by the neck, the 'purse-strings' were tightened and the whole head shaken to encourage the stones to roll around. The heat thus applied shrank the head further. When the head had shrunk so far that it was difficult to use stones, hot sand was used instead.

Eventually, the head reduced to about the size of a man's fist, but the facial features were still quite recognisable. A hole was made in the top of the head and a cord passed through to allow the head to be worn around the neck.

Have a Go Yourself With an Apple

You're probably itching to have a go yourself now. Be advised that cutting off heads in order to shrink them is nowadays regarded as extremely antisocial and is illegal in most parts, but you can create a convincing facsimile with an apple.

Taking an apple, remove the peel. With a knife, carve a face into the apple. This may take some practice - remember to make the features like the nose and ears slightly larger than would seem proportional. Once you're happy with how it looks, put the apple in a jar with about 4 parts water to half a part of salt and a few tablespoons of lemon juice. Leave overnight to soak. In the morning, push a piece of thick wire through the head from the bottom to the top. Bend the wire in a small 'U' shape at the bottom to hold it in place and make a loop with the wire at the top to hang it from a cord. Suspend the head in a cool, dry place for two weeks.

You will be amazed just how much the apple will shrink, probably to around twenty percent of the original size. Before adding details like wool for hair and stitching the lips, varnish the whole piece to avoid having it spoiled by moisture.

Once decorated, it can be worn on a cord around the neck and will look exactly like the real thing - without the messy inconvenience of corpses and police inquiries.

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