Head-shrinking as a political art form …

WATCHING Parliament the other night got me to thinking of the Peruvian jungle, of headhunters and, given the cranial magnitude evident in Canberra, the Amazonians’ skills in shrinking heads.

Not the psychiatric head-shrinking, mind you there’s probably a job there, but the real thing _ the secret savage lore that’s fascinated everyone from anthropologists to horror film directors.  

Ghoulish practice that it is, head-shrinking’s a time-honoured, popular pastime which as recently as the mid-20th century was commonplace from Panama to Ecuador and Peru. Not Canberra, regrettably, but had the simple procedure for shrinking scones been better known … well, who knows?

It’s not so hard, really. When you’ve despatched your subject _ presumably an enemy of some species _ hack off his head as close to the body as possible. Slit the scalp from the crown downwards to the nape of the neck. Through the opening, flay out the skull, remove the flesh and skin of the face and scalp.

Still with me? Next, ditch the skull, unless you need a conversation-piece ashtray or somesuch. Stretch the skin over a wooden handle and immerse it a vessel of hot water to contract it a little.

If you’re a purist, like me, you’d then sew a ring made from a vine into the neck to keep it open so you can drop hot stones inside.

Add hot sand to the pebbles and keep the head in constant motion, swinging it about, to allow the heat to apply to all the parts uniformly. When things cool, tip the sand out, reheat it and repeat the process.

Gradually, the head will dry out and become smaller. Remember to knead the features with your hands, pinching and moulding the face to retain its natural appearance _ even its natural expression.

That’s it. Simple, really.

If you were ambitious, mind you, you might care to shrink the whole parliamentary carcass. Peru’s Jivaro folks abbreviated one particular Spanish officer, an old conquistador supposedly searching for El Hombre Dorado _ the Golden Man _ reducing him to just a shadow of his former self. From five feet nine inches to just 31 inches.

According to Robert Ripley, of Ripley’s Believe It or not fame, he’s located in the National Museum of the American Indian as best I can establish and possible relocated from New York to Washington in recent years. He sports a rather grand moustache for such a little bloke.

Funny but he looks a little like the late defence minister Jim Killen to me, which is odd _ he was one of the least big-headed figures to grace parliament.

The once wildly-popular Ripley has been resurrected by folks at Five Mile Press in a colourful scrapbook entitled Search for the Shrunken Heads and other Curiosities. It features everything from a bloke with a full-on horn growing out of his head to pink polar bears and ancient talking Egyptian statues.

But it’s the shrunken heads that are the stand-out curiosity. And Ripley, true to form, offers an intriguing insight into the custom.

“The taking and shrinking of human heads is an ancient rite with the Jivaros, and one which has not vanished with modern times.

“It has, rather, been stimulated by the demand of tourists for specimens of the head-hunters’ skill as souvenirs and all the laws against the practice that have been passed by the South American republics are of no avail.

“While there are traders to pay a price, and tourists to buy, the sale of human heads will probably continue.

“The method of reducing and shrinking the heads remained a secret for many years and it is comparatively recently that anyone has witnessed the actual process.

“Friends of my mine in Quito (Ecuador) told me of a German scientist who ventured into the unexplored Pongo de Seriche _ the land of the Jivaros _ in hopes of learning their secret, and six months later a shrunken and mummified head with a red beard and light hair was offered for sale.”

This article appeared in the Geelong Advertiser