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How Are Shrunken Heads Made?

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Head shrinking is rumored to have occurred all over the world, but documented only among a few indigenous South American tribes living in Peru and Ecuador. To the Jivaroan people, a head taken from an enemy and shrunk—called a tsantsa—was more than just a battle trophy. Jivaro warriors believed that the ritual of shrinking the head paralyzed the spirit of their foe and prevented it from taking revenge, and also passed the victim’s strength onto the killer.

How do you take a flesh-and-bone head and shrink it? A typical Jivaro head-shrinking ritual, as recorded by European explorers in the 19th century, went something like this.

Step One: Deflesh

After getting a safe distance away from the battlefield with the severed heads of fallen enemies, victorious warriors feast, and then begin the work of making the tsantsa. First, the victim's scalp is removed, starting at an incision made across the back of the neck parallel to the bottoms of the ears. The warrior tugs on a flap of skin created by this cut and pulls toward the top of the head and then again toward the face, peeling the skin away from the skull on the back and top of the head. He then uses a knife or a sharpened piece of wood to work the flesh away from the bone around the facial features and scrape away the cartilage from the nose and ears. The eyelids are sewn shut and the lips held together with three wooden pins. Eyewitness accounts report that an experienced warrior could de-flesh a head this way in as little as 15 minutes.

Now, the stumbling block for me, whenever I thought about shrunken heads before researching them (not that it was something I thought about often, I swear I’m not a weirdo), was how the skull was miniaturized. Turns out, it wasn’t. Once the skin was removed, Jivaro warriors simply tossed the skulls away.

Step Two: Simmer

With the flesh taken from the head, the warrior goes to the nearest river with a ceremonial pot to gather water. The filled pot is set on a fire to heat up, and the flesh from the head is placed in it to simmer for an hour or two. When it’s removed, the head is a little smaller than it was originally, but not much. The head is turned inside out and stripped of any remaining fat, cartilage or muscle, and the incision on the back of the neck is sewn shut.

Step Three: Apply Stones and Sand

The head, now completely sealed except for the hole where the neck used to attach, is further shrunk with sand and stones heated on another fire. The hot stones are dropped into the head through the neck hole and the head is rotated continuously to avoid scorching. When the head shrinks and becomes too small to accommodate the stones, sand is poured in it instead and the head is shaken to drive the sand into the crevices the stones couldn’t reach. Once the head is the right size, the warrior carefully uses hot stones to sear the exterior skin and shape the head and facial features. The finished product is then left to further dry and harden. The entire process takes about a week.

After the head is done, the warriors and the rest of the tribe partake in more victory feasts, the last of which may happen up to a year after the battle it celebrates. Once these rituals are complete, the shrunken head has served its purpose for the warrior. Its significance was in the process of its creation, and not the final product. The tsantsa is usually then discarded in a river or in the jungle, or given to a child in the warrior’s family or village as a toy.

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Big Questions
What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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