Standing face-to-face with a shrunken head is an unsettling experience. It’s always uncomfortable to look into the eyes of a dead man, and the discomfort only increases when his face has been reduced to the size of a child’s fist. One can’t help but feel sorry for the hapless fellow: his lips have been sewn shut, and toucan feathers decorate what remains of his forehead.
Fortunately, this shrunken head is an antique on display in Mitad del Mundo, and our guide reassures us that headhunting has been illegal in Ecuador for over 50 years.
Mitad del Mundo is an open-air museum located at the exact geographical center of the world. This is unlike any museum I’ve been to before: it’s an entire mock-village reconstructed to resemble an Andean settlement located at the Earth’s exact geographical center. The replica village is filled with artifacts from ancient Ecuadorian history, including taxidermied snakes, caiman and, yes, shrunken heads.
I had always assumed that the stories of Amazonian warriors collecting shrunken heads were myths perpetrated by Hollywood movies and Disneyland rides. Our guide in Mitad del Mundo explains that the Amazonian warriors of old really did decapitate their enemies and turn their heads into necklaces or trophies of war.
“They close the eyes and sew the lips, to preserve the spirit and the power of the person in the head,” our guide says. Allegedly, the ancient people of Ecuador believed the spirit of the men they killed would be out looking for revenge unless they sewed the lips shut.
Today, the Ecuadorians who live in Mitad del Mundo still have a variety of unique crafts, though none of them involve decapitation or human taxidermy. One of their signature products is a cream-colored sunhat that rests on the top of the wearer’s head and helps them keep good posture. In a pinch, the hat also doubles as a weapon.
Like characters from a James Bond film, the Ecuadorians who wear this type of hat can also send it flying through the air, and the hard material is painful when it makes contact with an unsuspecting person.
“When they hit somebody, it’s like a frisbee or a boomerang,” our guide says. I’m skeptical, but I dare not question her, lest she decide to use me for target practice.
Shrunken heads and boomerang hats aren’t the only strange things about this museum. At latitude 00*00’00”, the effects of gravity are different than in any other part of the globe. For example, when water flows down a drain at latitude 00*00’00”, the liquid plummets directly downwards instead of swirling in a circle the way it does everywhere else. Walk a few feet away from 00*00’00″ and the water physics go back to normal. Bizarre physical phenomena like this allowed the indigenous South Americans to find the exact center of the Earth before the invention of longitude and latitude.
In certain circumstances, the unique gravitational effects at Mitad del Mundo also make it difficult to walk straight ahead. When our guide dares us to try walking straight ahead with our eyes shut, I’m only able to go forward a few feet before gravity pulls me in the wrong direction. It’s a little embarrassing, but not as embarrassing as having my head turned into a trophy of war.
After my visit to Mitad del Mundo, I started volunteering at the city zoo, where I met a massive animal that had been shot ten times and survived. But that’s a story for another issue.