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I’ve always wondered about shrunken heads. How do they shrink the skull? That’s bone, and I can’t figure out how anybody could shrink bone. I’m not planning to do any shrinking myself. I’m just curious. Thanks.

— Shrinkingman, via email

The elves and I figure you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking over this question. If you’d just put in another, say, five minutes of brain time, you’d probably have come up with the answer. It’s not too hard. Anyway, we won’t tell you directly. Your answer is inside this set of instructions for shrinking heads. We found it in Grandma’s file of craft projects, right next to the macramé plant hangers. So you wanna shrink a head? Here’s how:

  1. Separate your enemy’s head from his body using a medium-size machete. Chop it off leaving most of the neck attached to the head.

  2. Leave the body where it is. Carry the head off to the sacred head-shrinking place, where all your shrinking materials are neatly arranged.

  3. Preheat the sacred head-shrinking campfire, and put a pot of water on to boil. Add juice from the chinchini plant.

  4. Using the sharpest knife you have, make a slit in the skin, beginning at the top of the head and running down the back of the neck.

  5. Carefully peel the skin from the skull bones.

  6. Attention, Shrinkingman: Throw away the skull bones. Dump them in the sacred river as a gift for the god that lives in the sacred river.

  7. Carefully turn the skin inside out and scrape away all the fatty tissue.

  8. With a sharp spine and a fine piece of native grass, sew the eyelids closed with small stitches.

  9. Close the mouth. Punch holes along upper and lower lips. Secure with wooden pegs.

  10. Slowly lower the head into the pot of boiling water on the sacred fire. Simmer gently for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. (Caution: Do not overcook. If you boil the head too long, the hair will fall out. A full head of long, flowing hair is an important part of the effect of the finished project.)

  11. When the skin is removed from the pot, it should be dark and rubbery and reduced to about 1/3 its original size.

  12. Turn the skin right-side out. With more fine native fiber, sew closed the slit in the back of the skull. Leave the neck hole open.

  13. Put a hot stone inside the skin and roll it around to avoid scorching. As each stone cools, replace it with another hot stone. The heat will cause the skin to continue to shrink. At the same time, manipulate the facial features to keep them as realistic as possible. The best shrunken heads still bear a resemblance to the victim.

  14. When the neck hole becomes too small for the stones to fit, fill the skin with hot sand and continue to roll it around, paying special attention to the small structures in the face.

  15. Hang the head over the sacred fire for several hours. This will cure and harden it and further blacken the skin. After curing, wash the head and rub it until it shines.

  16. Remove the pegs from the lips. Replace them with long decorative strings.

  17. Make a small hole in the top of the skull, insert a small stick horizontally, loop a string onto it, and hang the head around your neck.

An easier way to get a shrunken head is to buy one of those things made in Taiwan. They’re either plastic or animal hide. But they look just as good hanging from your rearview mirror.

Hey, Matthew:

Who first decided it was a good thing to smoke? Were there big antismoking campaigns back in the Neanderthal age?

— Smokey, via email

According to old records, the Maya were puffing away around 600 BC. Indians from the American southeast were the first to be observed smoking by explorers. When Spaniard Rodrigo de Jerez returned to Spain and fired up one of the native tobacco rolls, the Inquisition threw him in prison for seven years for frightening everyone with the smoke that billowed out of his nose and mouth. Tobacco was introduced to England around 1564. The first antismoking protests date from 1604.

Beethoven Creeps North


I happened to pick up the June 26 copy of the Reader at the doctor’s office today and read your column about [classical music station] XLNC1. It is the only station I even listen to except when my neighbor comes thumping into the driveway next door with his car radio blaring. You have a few of your facts wrong about the station. With their new, stronger signal and new antenna on a higher hill in Tijuana, XLNC1 can be heard as far as Fountain Valley (Orange County).

— Nancy Wherry

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