Aug 05, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

How to Tell if Your Shrunken Head is Real

How many times have you been searching on Etsy for the perfect gift for your friend who has everything, including the attitude of a person who has everything, and discovered a shrunken head that would look great on their mantle and is priced to fit your budget … but you wonder if it is a real shrunken head? Or perhaps you are giving the annual dusting to the shrunken head your weird Uncle Harry gave you and wondered if that story he told of his poor partner was really true. Well now you can accurately determine if your shrunken head is real or an amazing re-creation made from … well, you may not want to know because it could be worse than a human head. A research team from Western University in Canada developed a test for validating shrunken heads, used it to prove that an alleged head at a local museum was the real deal and published a paper on it so you can perform the same test on YOUR shrunken head. The paper also delves into something we’ve already implied – there is a market for shrunken human heads and the production has been commercialized. What kind of world do we live in? Let’s find out.

A display of shrunken heads.

“This project seeks to integrate the use of micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) scanning with methods used in previous studies (clinical computed tomography (CT) and visual inspections) to examine authentication procedures of shrunken heads (tsantsas) held in contemporary museum collections.”

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, opens with the obvious – to analyze little heads,  you need a micro-scanning technique. Lauren September Poeta, study co-author and project associate in Western’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives, explains in the university press release that micro-computed tomography scanning is a form of digital archeology in which researchers create “slices” of an object, then reassemble them into 3D images which allows them to look inside without destroying artifacts – especially those which might be human. Canada, as well as many other countries with indigenous people whose ancestral remains have ended up in museums, is trying to repatriate those remains to the cultures they were taken from, but also study them to learn more of their history. When it comes to shrunken heads, the predominant cultures are the Shuar and Achuar Peoples of Ecuador and Northern Peru.

“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. Being able to partner with local researchers in Ecuador for this study, and connect with Shuar and Achuar Peoples, helps us work towards decolonization.”

“Tsantsa” is the name the Shuar people use for shrunken heads, and the tsanta used in the study was donated to the Chatham-Kent Museum in Chatham, Ontario, in the 1940s was said to have been purchased on a tour of the Amazon basin from “Peruvians Indians.” (Photos and videos of the head can be seen here.) The Shuar believed that cutting off the head of an enemy and shrinking it would block the evil spirit in that enemy’s body from escaping. Displaying the shrunken heads was meant to serve as a warning to potential invaders, but were also used in religious ceremonies and victory feasts. The shrinking process is gruesome – it involves removing the skull, boiling the skin for hours to clean and shrink it, sewing the eyes and mouth shut from the inside, filling the head with rocks (an interesting version of the metaphor) and heating it to further shrink it, replacing the rocks with sand, drying it out and coating it with a preserving substance. That sounds like a lot of work, but it must have been worth it if it prevented wars. However, when the Europeans arrived, the Shuar and Achuar found their shrunken heads had another value – for trade.

Records show that by the early 1900s, the going rate for a shrunken head was a rifle, a Peruvian gold pound, 25 U.S. dollars or more. Not surprisingly, enterprising shrunken head makers with a ‘shrinking’ supply of heads turned to making them from reasonable facsimiles – the skins from the heads of pigs, monkeys, and sloths. Because they were so unusual and plentiful, shrunken heads came to be found in museums, both cultural and novelty, as well as private collections. Now that the terrible mistreatment of indigenous people has become more publicized and the history of stolen artifacts has been dragged into the open, mummies, skulls, bones and shrunken heads are being returned to their ancestral homes. However, nobody wants a shrunken head made from a pig (before you ask, it can’t be eaten), so Poeta and her team set out to devise a suitable test of shrunken head origin.

“You can see the individual skin layers on the clinical CT scan, but on the micro-CT scan you can actually see the individual follicles, and it becomes really clear what’s going on.”

Andrew Nelson, chair of Western’s department of anthropology and another co-author, said the micro-CT scanner was key in differentiating human from animal hair follicles by their length and density. The scanner also showed differences in the shape of anatomical features and the folding of the skin. As mentioned before, the arrival of the Europeans gave the shrunken heads a monetary value and some makers tried to get more human heads and speed up the process in order to meet the demand. The micro-CT scanner helped the researchers identify human heads shrunken for commercial purposes.

Real or fake?

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

In the end, it was determined that the tsantsa used in the study from the Chatham-Kent Museum was made from a human head. As a result, the team, the museum and Western University is working with researchers at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador and with representatives from the Shuar and Achuar Peoples of Ecuador and Northern Peru to return it as close as possible to the place and the people from which it came.

So, it should be obvious that all shrunken heads are not necessarily human, but owning one of any kind is disrespectful to the person it may have come from and the culture that made it – however horrified you may be at the practice. What if you already possess a shrunken head? Micro-CT scanners are not cheap, so a home test is probably out of the question. Donating it to a reputable museum or a university archeological department might help put it on the path to repatriation.

Uncle Harry would understand.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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