3-inch ‘shrunken head’ sitting in Canadian museum confirmed to be real human remains

A South American shrunken head has been confirmed to be real human remains and not a fake, a new study reveals.

New CT scans show the 3.3-inch shrunken head, donated to a museum in Canada in the 1940s, is authentic and was once the chef of a Peruvian Indian woman.

Researchers say hair shafts can be seen to break through the top layer of skin, exactly the same way human hair follicles are embedded in the dermis (the inner layer of skin).

Shrunken heads or “tsantsas” are cultural artifacts that were produced by some indigenous cultures of Ecuador and Peru until the mid-20th century.

Tsantsas were believed to contain the spirit and knowledge of the individual from whom they were produced, and therefore were believed to hold supernatural power that could be bestowed on the owner.

However, some convincing counterfeit shrunken heads, made from animal body parts or other alternatives often used in commercial reproductions, make it difficult to distinguish between real and fake.

Commercial tsantsas were often made from the skins of animals, including pigs, monkeys, and sloths.

South American shrunken heads, some known as tsantsas, are common in many museum collections. However, it is currently difficult to identify whether they are authentic, including whether they were created from human remains. Researchers studied the tsantsa currently held in the collection of the Chatham-Kent Museum in Chatham, Ontario, Canada (pictured)

HEAD REDUCERS

Tsantsas (shrunken heads) are cultural artifacts that were produced by some indigenous cultures of Ecuador and Peru until about the middle of the 20th century.

These cultures included the Amazonian Shuar, Achuar, Awajún/Aguaruna, Wampís/Huambisa, and Candoshi-Shampra.

Typically crafted by men in an elaborate multi-step process, shrunken heads are crafted from the skull skin of enemies killed in battle.

Tsantsas were believed to contain the spirit and knowledge of the individual from whom they were produced, and were therefore believed to hold supernatural power that could be bestowed upon the owner of the head.

Using clinical computed tomography (CT) and high-resolution micro-CT, researchers were able to determine that the tsantsa currently held in the collection of the Chatham-Kent Museum in Chatham, Ontario, are in fact real human remains.

CT scans produce two-dimensional images of a “slice” of a body or part of the body, which are then collected and overlaid to construct three-dimensional images.

“This technique really redefines archeology because traditionally archeology can be aggressively destructive,” said Lauren September Poeta of Western University.

“Digital archaeology, including computed tomography, offers a whole new dimension of validity and refreshes the field by making it far less invasive.”

Researchers don’t know the age of the ‘Chatham tsantsa’, although they say it likely dates back centuries.

Usually made by men in an elaborate multi-step process, tsantsas were made from the skull skin of enemies killed in battle.

The gruesome process involved making an incision in the back of the head, removing skin and hair from the skull, and soaking it in hot water and hot sand.

Tsantsas are thought to have been created as early as the 1500s, to trap the soul inside the remains, as the eyes and mouth were sewn on, researchers say.

By shrinking the head of a fallen enemy, the victor was believed to harness his spirit for servitude and prevent the soul from avenging the death of the enemy.

Tsantsas were used in ceremonial rituals in which the power of a given shrunken head could be transferred to a household.

After the ritual, the supernatural power was considered to have left the shrunken head, at which point the tsantsas themselves originally became nothing more than a memory.

However, the influence of European and colonial visitors in the 19th century saw tsantsas after the ceremony acquire commercial value, with their owners willing to trade them.

New CT scans show the shrunken head donated to an Ontario museum in the 1940s is genuine and was once the head of a Peruvian Indian woman.  Pictured is a 3D rendered image of the tsantsa's micro-CT scan

New CT scans show the shrunken head donated to an Ontario museum in the 1940s is genuine and was once the head of a Peruvian Indian woman. Pictured is a 3D rendered image of the tsantsa’s micro-CT scan

Demand for trinkets quickly outstripped supply, creating a market for inauthentic tsantsas, some made from human remains, others from animal heads or synthetic materials, intended for export to European and North American buyers.

This particular tsantsa was donated to the museum in the 1940s by a local family, having been purchased while visiting the Amazon basin.

The original accession record lists the tsantsa as originating from “Peruvian Indians” of South America and nothing else, which is not unusual, but was not enough to determine conclusively whether it was genuine or counterfeit.

But the team knew they were examining human remains when examining eyes, ears and hair using high-resolution microscanners.

“You can see the individual layers of skin on the clinical CT scan, but on the micro-CT you can actually see the individual follicles, and it becomes really clear what’s going on,” said Andrew Nelson, chairman of the department of Western Anthropology.

Micro-CT image shows the incision at the back of the skull, fenestrated and leveled to remove hair

Micro-CT image shows the incision at the back of the skull, fenestrated and leveled to remove hair

The seam that was used to close the incisions, as well as the eyes and lips, can also only be critically examined using a micro-CT scan.

Although the team obtained conclusive evidence that the tsantsa were human remains, they were unable to determine whether the purpose of the head reduction was ceremonial or commercial.

A closer look at the materials used to seal the eyes and lips might reveal more.

“If vine materials were used to seal the eyes and lips, that would likely identify the tsantsa as ceremonial, but if a more modern, cheaper thread were used, it is more indicative of commercial interests when it was made,” said said Poeta.

Scholars will not know for certain the details and ultimate purpose of the construction of the shrunken head until other tsantsas – those guaranteed as ceremonial and those expected as forgeries – are examined.

“We always work respectfully and intentionally with our research subjects, and we look forward to working with our Ecuadorian colleagues, including Shuar and Achuar, to guide any future work,” Poeta said.

The results were published today in the journal PLOS One.

HOW SHRINK HEADS WERE MADE

Ceremonial shrunken heads were made in a complex, multi-step process that was passed down from generation to generation from father to son.

The process began by taking the corpse of a beaten opponent and removing the head as close to the shoulders as possible.

Then the hair on the back of the skull was parted, allowing an incision to be made from the top of the head to the base of the back of the neck.

The skin at the base of the neck would be carefully removed and separated from both the skull and the muscles as well as the tissues underlying the skin.

The separated outer layers of skin – the epidermis and the dermis – were then turned over to allow the eyelids, mouth and head-to-neck incision to be stitched from the inside using vegetable fibers.

Once done, the head was again turned “right side up” and first placed in cold water before being simmered over a fire, which would reduce the head to about a third of its original size.

The hollow flesh would then be parched by first dropping hot rocks into the head via the neck opening, then, as it shrank further, hot sand.

During this process – which saw the head shrunk to a fifth of its original size – the skin was manipulated by hand to ensure that the hot material within was evenly dispersed to ensure even contraction of the fabrics.

At the same time, hot flat stones would be used to iron the outside of the face, hardening the skin while burning off the light vellus hairs that cover the face and can be greatly accentuated by shrinkage.

The ashes would also be smeared on the skin to darken his complexion.

The ceremonial tsantsa was completed by being smoked over a fire and having a rope tied to the top of the head from which it could be hung.