Canadian Scientists Establish Human Origin of Old Shrunken Head Found in Museum

A team of Canadian researchers have accomplished a feat that up to now had proven impossible. As they explain in an article just published in the journal PLOS One , they used clinical computed tomography (CT) and high-resolution micro-CT scans to verify that a shrunken head from South America, known as a tsantsa, was an authentic human head and not a fake manufactured from animal parts.

The study that produced this breakthrough discovery was led by anthropology graduate student Lauren September Poeta from Western University in Ontario. Poeta and her collaborators performed their tests on a tsantsa that is currently on display at the Chatham-Kent Museum in Chatham, Ontario. This unique artifact has been linked to the indigenous Shuar people of Ecuador and Peru, who began producing these relics in the 16th century.

This Ecuadorian tsantsa or shrunken head on display at the Chatham-Kent Museum in Chatham, Ontario has been forensically proven, with digital archaeology methods, to be 100% real and human. 

The Shuar Shrunken Head Makers of South America

Initially, tsantsas were hung from poles and kept permanently in Shuar settlements, as a reminder of past successes in warfare (the heads were procured from the corpses of their enemies). A market for Shuar shrunken heads developed in the 19th century. And consequently, the Shuar began trading or selling these artifacts to European settlers.

Once it became clear there was a demand for these curious objects among artifact collectors, counterfeiters began making fake shrunken heads from the skin and body parts of monkeys, pigs, and other animals. The counterfeiters developed their skills to the point where it was no longer possible for buyers to distinguish between the fakes and the real thing.

Many of the fakes undoubtedly ended up in museums, where they would have been passed off as authentic. Members of the Sulman family donated the tsantsa examined for this new study to the Chatham-Kent Museum in the 1940s, reporting only that they’d purchased it in the Amazon from “Peruvian Indians.”

The Science is Clear, the Head is Human

Even trained scientists cannot make a distinction between real and replica tsantsas based on a surface examination alone. Dissecting them to perform a more thorough analysis is not possible, since these are valuable artifacts that would be destroyed by such a process.

Seeking to solve this dilemma, Lauren September Poeta collaborated with Western University professor Andrew John Nelson and software designer Eric Fournier from Object Research Systems in Montreal, Quebec to create a high-tech scanning program that could penetrate deeply into the interior of a tsantsa without causing any physical damage.

To accomplish this unprecedented feat, the researchers decided to use CT scanning technology. With this type of scan, it is possible to create a series of super-thin two-dimensional images of a body or body part. These images can then be stacked one on top of the other to make a sharp three-dimensional recreation of that body part. The resulting composite image can be examined inside and out, down to the smallest detail.

Micro-CT scan of Chatham shrunken head (Image by Andrew Nelson/ Western University )

“This technique really redefines archaeology because traditionally, archaeology can be aggressively destructive,” Poeta explained in a Western University press release about this innovative new study. “ Digital archaeology , including computed tomography, provides a whole new dimension of validity and refreshes the field by making it far less invasive.”

The key to identifying true human remains can be found in the anatomy. After examining the structure of the ears and eyes of the tsantsa, the researchers knew for sure that it was human. They obtained more confirming data when examining the hair on the head, which was still attached at the roots (fake artifacts would only have human hair glued on).

Using existing, non-invasive medical forensic technologies like micro-CT scans the researchers were able to digitally visualization the cuts and stitching on the actual shrunken head artifact. Micro-CT image of the incision at the rear of the skull, windowed and leveled to remove the hair. 

The identification of the tsantsa as human strongly suggests it is an authentic tsantsa that might be several centuries old. However, the researchers can’t verify this just yet. Even though most of the fakes produced in the past were made from animal parts, there have long been reports (perhaps rumors would be the better word) that unclaimed human cadavers were sometimes stolen from South American hospitals and used to make more authentic-looking shrunken heads.


But the definitive truth may soon be revealed. The researchers plan to closely examine the stitching used to close the eyes and lips of the shrunken head, using precise micro-CT scanning technology. The goal of this analysis will be to identify the materials used to make the stitches.

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

Once the results of this examination are analyzed, Poeta and her team should know for sure if the object is an authentic relic from a past era.

The Secrets of the Shuar are Theirs to Share

For the purpose of this study, the researchers recruited archaeologist Maria Patricia Ordóñez from the University of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador to provide information about the indigenous Shuar people and their ceremonial practices (especially those that involved shrunken heads).

If the artifact were indeed authentic, it would have been made by the Shuar people centuries in the past, from the severed head of an enemy combatant. This individual most likely would have belonged to the Achuar people , a rival of the Shuar that also occupied what is now Ecuador and Peru.

Most ethnohistorians and anthropologists believe that heads were shrunken and sewn shut over the eyes and mouth to prevent the soul of the dead person from escaping. By keeping the spirit trapped, the Shuar could stop their deceased enemy from entering the spirit world and later returning to earth to seek revenge against his killers.

Should the artifact ultimately be judged genuine, the plan is to hand it over to representatives of the Shuar and Achuar people. To make amends for past colonial abuses, the global scientific community has launched new initiatives to return human remains, ancient art, and archaeological artifacts to indigenous communities judged to be their rightful owners.

Lauren September Poeta is Anishinaabe (a First Nations people from Canada’s Great Lakes region) and a project associate in Western University’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives, and she is an avid supporter of these efforts.

“Tsantsas are a very good representation of Indigenous history in South America, but also the commercial legacy of shrunken heads highlights colonial networks around the world,” Poeta noted. “Being able to partner with local researchers in Ecuador for this study, and connect with Shuar and Achuar Peoples, helps us work towards decolonization.”

Now that a good method has been developed for identifying authentic tsantsas, the researchers are anxious to try their technique on other artifacts of this type. As more data accumulates they will be better able to tell real shrunken heads from fakes, and also learn more about the way the real heads were actually made.

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