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Gross out? (Activities & Oddities).

Some people decorate their office with photos, but Virginia Hunt adorns hers with a shrunken head. "It's about the size of an apple," says the assistant curator of the Warren Museum at the Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass.

The head--not on public display--is one of many oddities at the museum, which was founded in 1847 by physician John Collins Warren. "He collected anatomical specimens for teaching purposes," says Hunt. At the time, corpses for medical studies were hard to come by, so Warren trotted out his preserved collection for students to examine. Later, people began donating interesting things to add to the collection--including jars of tumors (abnormal cell growth on tissues). "Somehow the head just found its way here," says Hunt.

Shrinking heads, or making tsantsa, an ancient practice associated mostly with the Jivaro tribe of South America, was believed to keep away avenging spirits. But the museum's head isn't the real thing: "The ones from South America are usually very ornate," says Hunt. "The lips and eyes are sewn together." A medical student made this shrunken noggin in the early 20th century. "We think he used the [tribal] recipe, if you can call it that, on a medical cadaver," she says.

The sacred tribal ritual involved removing the skull and brain from the head. After washing, heated rocks and sand were placed inside the skin. Heat sucks water from the skin cells a process called dehydration. Since up to 75 percent of human body weight is water, the head shrinks to a fraction of its original size.


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Author:Chiang, Mona
Publication:Science World
Date:Oct 18, 2002
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