Earlier this month Ripley’s vice president of exhibits and archives, Edward Meyer, travelled to Australia as a guest of Ice Water Press, the Australian publisher of the latest book in the Ripley’s franchise Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Strikingly True (Geoff Tibballs). Andrew Wrathall met the man behind the collection.
How did the Shuar tribe from the jungles of Peru shrink the heads of its enemies? ‘They slice the skin, cutting at the back of the head from bottom to top,’ explains Edward Meyer, vice president of exhibits and archives at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, on his recent visit to Australia.
‘They peel the skin back, like opening a book. They take the bone and the brain out and typically throw it away. They sew the skin of the head back up, put the string in it so they can hold onto it. The eyes are closed, the mouth is closed, and typically the ears are closed. All the orifices are closed so the spirit can’t get out.
‘The head is then turned upside down and boiled. The cavity is filled with hot rocks and sand to keep the shape, taking it out of the water now and then to keep it pliable. The head is boiled for three days, to become the size of a fist. When it is the size that they want, they smoke it over the fire, which hardens the skin. Then they wear it as a necklace for 12 moons.’
Meyer demonstrates how a shrunken head is worn—an act that is made less ghastly by the fact that he is holding a replica. Shrunken heads are rare today, he explains, because after a year the souls of the enemies were considered captured, and the heads were thrown away.
Meyer is in charge of acquiring the strange and bizarre for the many Ripley’s Museums around the world, including Ripley’s Australian museum at Surfers Paradise, and has personally bought 109 shrunken heads.
But the interest in shrunken heads goes back to the company’s founder, Robert Ripley, who discovered the tourist trade in these grisly objects in the early 20th-century. Ripley began his career as a cartoonist recording exotic places in journals, and with funding from media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, he published the first Believe it or Not, which stayed in print for over 20 years. The latest book in the Ripley’s franchise is Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Strikingly True (Geoff Tibballs, Ice Water Press).
Accompanying Meyer on his recent tour to Australia was a strange collection of objects, including a two-headed and three-winged crow, the 300-year old mummified head of Jeremy Bentham, a Tibetan skull mask, lint shaped into sushi, Micheal Jackson’s fangs from Thriller, Mark Gruenwald’s incredibly expensive Marvel comic Squadron Supreme, a ceremonial Fijian cannibal fork, 70 million-year-old dinosaur poo and the footprint of a chupacabra—an animal believed to inhabit the Americas and suck the blood of goats. Amusingly, the television series Border Security was on hand to film Meyer unpacking his extraordinary collection for customs at Melbourne Airport.