A shrunken head from South America has turned out to be real human remains, not a fake, according to a new study.
New CT scans show a shrunken head donated to the museum in Canada in the 1940s is authentic and was once the head of a Peruvian Indian woman.
The researchers say the hair shafts pierce the top layer of the skin in the same way that human hair follicles pierce the dermis (the inner layer of the skin).
Shrunken heads or “tsantsas” are cultural artifacts produced by some of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador and Peru until about the middle of the 20th century.
Tsals were believed to contain the spirit and knowledge of the person from whom they were created, and thus were believed to have supernatural powers that could be transferred to the wearer.
However, some convincing fakes of shrunken heads, made from animal body parts or other alternatives often used in commercial reproductions, make it difficult to distinguish a real head from a fake.
Commercial tzants were often made from the skins of animals, including pigs, monkeys, and sloths.
South American shrunken heads, some of which are known as tzanks, are often found in many museum collections. However, it is currently difficult to determine whether they are genuine, including whether they were created from human remains. Researchers studied the tsantza currently in the collection of the Chatham Kent Museum in Chatham, Ontario, Canada (pictured)
Tsanza (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, Avajun/Aguaruna, Wampis/Huambisa, and Kandoshi-shampra.
As a rule, shrunken heads are made by men in a complex multi-stage process from the skin of the skulls of enemies killed in battle.
The dances were believed to contain the spirit and knowledge of the person from whom they were created, and thus were believed to have supernatural powers that could be transferred to the wearer of the head.
Using clinical computed tomography (CT) and high-resolution micro-CT, the researchers were able to determine that the tzanza, currently in the collection of the Chatham Kent Museum in Chatham, Ontario, is actually a real human remains.
Computed tomography creates 2D images of a “slice” of the body or part of the body, which are then assembled and layered to create 3D images.
“This method really redefines archeology because traditionally archeology can be aggressively destructive,” said Lauren September Poeta of Western University.
“Digital archeology, including computed tomography, provides a whole new dimension of authenticity and freshens up the field, making it much less invasive.”
As a rule, made by men in the course of a complex multi-stage process, tsalts were made from the skin of the skulls of enemies who fell in battle.
The gruesome process involved cutting the back of the head, removing the skin and hair from the skull and soaking them in hot water and hot sand.
Researchers say the tsatsas were created as early as the 1500s to trap the soul in the remains, as the eyes and mouth were sewn shut.
It was believed that by reducing the head of a fallen enemy, the victor uses his spirit to serve and does not allow the soul to avenge the death of the enemy.
Tsanza were used in ceremonial rituals in which the power of a given shrunken head could be transferred to the household.
It was believed that after the ritual, the supernatural power left the shrunken head, after which the dances themselves initially became nothing more than a keepsake.
However, the influence of European and colonial visitors in the nineteenth century saw post-ceremonial caltzes gain commercial value and their owners were willing to sell them.
New CT scans show a shrunken head donated to a museum in Ontario in the 1940s is genuine and once belonged to a Peruvian Indian woman. Pictured is a 3D rendering of a micro-CT scan.
Demand for curiosities soon outstripped supply, resulting in a market for fake tsantse, some made from human remains, others from animal heads or synthetic materials, for export to European and North American buyers.
Measuring just 3.3 inches long, this particular tzanza was donated to the museum in the 1940s by a local family after it was purchased on an Amazon tour.
The original entry record states that the tsanza comes from “Peruvian Indians” in South America and nothing else, which is not unusual, but this is not enough to conclusively determine whether it was real or fake.
But the team knew they were looking at human remains when they examined eyes, ears and hair with high-resolution micro-CT scans.
“You can see individual layers of skin on a clinical CT scan, but on micro-CT you can really see individual follicles and it becomes really clear what is going on,” said Andrew Nelson, chair of the Anthropology Department at Western.
The micro-CT image shows an incision in the back of the skull with a window and level for hair removal.
The sutures that were used to close the incisions, as well as the eyes and lips, can also be critically examined only with micro-CT.
Although the team obtained strong evidence that the cantsa were human remains, they were unable to determine whether the purpose of the head reduction was ceremonial or commercial.
Further study of the materials used to seal the eyes and lips may reveal more.
“If grapevine had been used to seal the eyes and lips, it would probably have identified the tsanza as ceremonial, but if a more modern and cheaper thread had been used, it would have indicated more commercial interests when it was being produced,” said Poeta.
Researchers won’t know for sure the details and ultimate purpose of the shrunken head’s design until other tsatsas are investigated – those that are guaranteed to be ceremonial and those that are expected to be fakes.
“We are always respectful and focused on our research subjects, and we look forward to working with our Ecuadorian colleagues, including the Shuar and Achuar, to guide any future work,” said Poeta.
The results were published today in the journal PLOS One.
HOW THE DRIED HEADS WERE CREATED
The ceremonial wrinkled 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 an emaciated opponent and removing the head as close to the shoulders as possible.
The hair at the back of the head was then 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 was carefully pulled back and separated from the skull and muscles, as well as from the tissues underlying the skin.
The separated outer layers of the skin – the epidermis and dermis – were then turned inside out so that the eyelids, mouth, and incision from head to neck could be stitched together from the inside with plant fibers.
Once this was done, the head was again turned “to the right side” and first placed in cool water and then boiled over a fire, causing the head to shrink to about a third of its original size.
The hollow flesh was then dried by first throwing hot stones at the head through a hole in the neck, and then, if it shrank further, hot sand.
During this process, in which the head was reduced to one-fifth of its original size, the skin was manually manipulated to ensure that the hot material was evenly distributed within and to ensure uniform contraction of the tissues.
At the same time, hot flat stones will be used to flatten the outside of the face, heal the skin, and also singe the blond vellus hair that covers the face, which can be sharply accentuated by shrinkage.
The ash was also rubbed into the skin to darken its complexion.
The ceremonial tsantsa ended with the fact that it was smoked over a fire and tied to the crown of the head with a rope from which it could be hung.