How to Make a Shrunken Head

Shrunken Head drawing by Steve Ryder

Congratulations, you just slaughtered your enemy! Decision time: Are you going to just pick up your blowgun and go home, or are you going to make it interesting and shrink his head?

Honestly, why wouldn’t you make a shrunken head? In just a few simple steps you can please your ancestors, warn others, and trap your enemy’s spirit before it can take revenge!

When a person is murdered (for example, by you, seconds ago), a muisak is created within him. This vengeful spirit resides in his head. Don’t let it escape! Follow these instructions closely to prevent the muisak from using its powers. 

Materials: Dead enemy, bamboo knife, cooking pot, needle and some kind of natural twine, pegs made from a palm tree, rocks and stones

Step One – Decapitate Your Enemy

Slaying your enemy was the easy part. Making a shrunken head (or as your community calls it, a tsantsa), takes work.

Start right away by decapitating him where he fell. This is working smarter, not harder – there is no point in transporting the whole body when you just need the head.

Once you have the head, leave the rest behind. It’s time to get to shrinkin’.

Hack: For easy carrying, put your headband through your enemy’s mouth and neck hole. Then you can just sling it over your shoulder like a bag of kickballs after gym class.

Shrunken head facing left
Lightner Museum,
St Augustine, FL

Step Two – Find a Prep Space

Obviously, there’s no place like home. But you had to slaughter your enemy wherever he was, and that might be some distance from your village. It will take about a week to shrink a head to the size of a fist. So you might want to take the first few steps while you’re on the road.

First, cut a vertical slit along the back of the neck and head — big enough to get the skull out. Very carefully peel the skin from the skull. (It goes without saying, but leave the skull by the river as an offering to the anaconda.)

Next, sew the eyes shut. Then poke slivers from a palm tree through the lips. These are not strictly aesthetic touches — blocking the exits from the head keeps the vengeful muisak spirit inside where it belongs. 

Step Three – Let the Boiling Begin!

You’re going to want to be back in your village for this next part. 

Now, upon your arrival, your neighbors are going to throw a week-long festival to celebrate your conquering of the enemy. There will be lots of food. There will be lots of cassava beer. You are going to be tempted to party hearty.

Don’t do it! You’re not done yet, and this shrunken head isn’t going to make itself.

Light a fire and get a clay cooking pot. Simmer the head for 1½ – 2 hours, or until it is ⅓ its former size. The skin should feel rubbery to the touch. 

Tip: If the hair starts falling out, it has boiled too long!

Shrunken head facing right
Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum,
St Augustine, FL

Step Four – The Ol’ Scrape & Sew

Turn the partially shrunken head inside-out and scrape off any extra flesh. Then turn it right side out again and sew up the slit in the back. Heat up some small rocks and sand, and stuff the head with it (through the neck hole). This will cause it to shrink from the inside.

Step Five – Finishing Touches

When it has reached the size you like, use a hot rock to reshape the face, as needed. Then remove the palm slivers and sew string through the holes in the lips. Hang the shrunken head by a fire until it is hard.

The smoke will darken the face, but do not skip this step: Rub ash on the skin. This is the final step to keep the muisak inside the head. Now it can’t come after you, nor can it make it to the afterlife and take revenge on your ancestors.  

Step Six – Who Cares

Once you have made the shrunken head, join the celebration. Wear it around your neck, let other people admire it. Drink all the cassava beer you like.

Afterwards, what do you do with the shrunken head you have made? I don’t know. Prop up a wobbly table with it? Give it to the kids to play with? It doesn’t matter. Like my undergraduate degree in English, it is the process rather than the product that is important here. 

Although, if you have a lot of enemies, you could set up a lucrative side hustle. Western tourists are crazy about these things. If it is before 1930 where you are, selling shrunken heads is perfectly legal. The going rate is about $25. In fact, lots of people shrink the heads of monkeys or sloths and pass them off as human shrunken heads. The only way tourists can tell the difference is with a DNA test, or by closely examining the ears

But you probably don’t run into a lot of tourists. To unload those heads, you’re gonna need … a middle man.

Sorry for the pun. Please put down that blowgun.

All Art by Steve Ryder

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