Saturday, October 11, 2008

Shrunken Heads and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Shrunken heads… I remember our family going to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History when I was young. Dad drew my attention the shrunken heads exhibit. It was strange, and captivated the imagination. Each time we returned to the museum, I would seek out that shrunken head exhibit. It was creepy. Those were real heads of humans, yet so small. How did they do it?

We moved to New Jersey the year I turned twelve and to this day I have not seen a shrunken head. Yet I recall them vividly.

Today, due to the marvel of the Internet, I can find more info than I ever wanted to know about shrunken heads, and numerous images reminding me of those first gruesome memories.

The biggest mystery was how a whole head could be so reduced to the size of a large orange. Well, now I know. They remove the head from the skull first, then boil it down, dissolving the fat. The lips are sewn or pinned together.

When Westerners first discovered the Jivaro Indian tribe that did these things, there was probably both horror and fascination. What did they think when they first saw these shrunken heads in the remote jungles of Ecuador?

Well, it wasn’t long before a few of the more entrepreneurial of the bunch realized they could make a little money selling these to museum folks back home. “Got any more of these?” the white man asked.

The natives talked amongst themselves. “Sure… for guns we'll get you get a few more.”

And so, for about $25 a head the bartering began between natives and Westerners. And the exhibits garnered the desired attention from a grateful public. Did no one stop to think that the Javaro’s were taking other peoples’ lives in order to obtain these artifacts?

Eventually, the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments had to crack down on this game,. passing laws against the trafficking of human heads. We're talking 1930's, not 1680.

Yes, the practices of cannibalism and making shrunken heads are barbarian. Are we, who imagine ourselves more civilized, less barbarian when we allow the museums who purchased these items at the cost of human lives to profit from selling us tickets to see them?

It's a strange thing to think about too deeply. Westerners unintentionally contributed to the killing of other human beings in order to obtain many of these primitive relics.

3 comments:

ENNYMAN said...

The image on the lower right is not a shrunken head... rather, it is a mask from a museum display in San Francisco. Shrunken heads are easily unearthed with a basic Google search: shrunken heads.

Sandra said...

This is an interesting story and not something I would normally have thought of. I enjoy you writings and look forward to the next each day.

ENNYMAN said...

So often we see or experience things and they have a certain meaning to us, and then we see things from another angle and the light has shifted. The story of Oedipus is one of suddenly being blinded by light...

Certainly the path from childhood innocence to responsibility in adulthood gives us differing angles... and as we look at history from different vantage points, well... the same.

Thanks for the visit and encouragement...