shrunken head, ecuador, peru, halloween, jivaro, moesgaard museum, de etnografiske samlinger, ethnography, collections, museum, aarhus, denmark

Strange tourism: Fake shrunken head

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South America

The objects in our museum collections have often travelled far to get here. They have made their way to Denmark in the luggage of Arctic explorers, khaki clad adventurers, inquisitive anthropologists, devout missionaries, and curious tourists. But once in a while, they just show up unannounced, demanding to be seen. Such it was, one day a few weeks ago, when we received a call from the front desk: “Please come, we have a lady here with a shrunken head”.

Now, the shrunken head was fortunately not attached to the lady in question, instead she carried the head in a plastic bag. That in itself is, I suppose, morbid enough, but when the head came out of the bag it soon became apparent that it was (luckily, perhaps) not a real human head, but what appeared to be a fake, made from some kind of creatively shaved animal hide.

In fact, shrunken head souvenirs were, for a time, quite the rage for people travelling to South America. Here the Jivaro people, living in northern Peru and eastern Ecuador, had for many years practiced the shrinking of their enemies’ heads; a process, which involved peeling the skin off the skull, boiling it in an herb concoction, and filling the skin with hot rocks, till it was smaller than a grown man’s fist. When Western travellers, arriving in the area in the late 19th century, heard of this strange phenomenon, they greatly desired bringing home some of these odd objects to show their friends and relations back home. Consequently, the demand for shrunken heads skyrocketed, causing quite a number of unfortunate souls in Peru and Ecuador to lose their heads. The governments of Peru and Ecuador soon forbade the practice, and in the 1940s, the US forbade the import of shrunken heads. But while the production of shrunken human heads slowed down, and eventually stopped, a new trade in fake shrunken heads developed. These were usually made from different animals, such as monkeys, sloths, or goats, and could, at times, be extremely convincing.

So, perhaps our new friend is one of these fakes. That it is not human is pretty clear, but what it is made of, we do not know. All we know is that it was given as a present to a Danish primary school principal in the 1950s, that it spent some years in an attic (as it was deemed too creepy to stay downstairs with the family), and that it finally made its way to Moesgaard Museum in a plastic bag, on a cold and dreary March morning. Of all the many souvenirs we have in our collections, this is surely one of the strangest.

//Sophie Seebach

Photo: Jacob Due, Foto/medieafdelingen – Moesgaard Museum 

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