Decreased to the dimensions of an apple with their eyes and lips stitched shut, it is easy to overlook that these iconic shrunken heads are, the truth is, the stays of actual people who as soon as lived and breathed.


For hundreds of years, the well-known relics (often known as tsantsas) of the indigenous Ecuadorean Shuar folks have been offered as novelties, used as props in films and theater, and positioned on show to lure curious crowds.

So blurred is the road between cultural artifact and kooky tchotchke that it is all however not possible to inform which tsantsa are genuine merchandise of a misplaced tradition and which had been fabricated to money in on our fetish for the unusual and the unique.

Now, because of experimental work carried out by researchers from Western College and Object Analysis Methods in Canada, and College of San Francisco, Quito in Ecuador, anthropologists may, ultimately, have a device for distinguishing that are probably to be faux.

Utilizing totally different resolutions of X-ray scans to disclose contrasting ranges of element in cuts, anatomy, and stitching, researchers had been in a position to spot key variations that separate ceremonial from industrial tsantsas.

The historical past of the weird funerary follow is a murky one, obscured by an absence of written data and conflicting proof.

Some assume it is completely the area of the Shuar, who’ve known as Ecuador and Peru dwelling for hundreds of years. Others assume it extends to different cultures that talk considered one of a variety of intently associated languages.


Ethnohistorians estimate the motion of eradicating and preserving heads on this approach extends again so far as the 16th century, finished with the intention of trapping a person’s soul.

Although many thought it was solely ever carried out on the Shuar’s enemies, such because the Amazonian Achuar folks, up to date Shuar authorities declare it was additionally carried out on revered group leaders.

With out clear data on why and even how the ritual was initially carried out, many questions nonetheless stay. 

That mentioned, there’s a broad consensus on the essential steps of a ceremonial tsantsa creation.

Only a small phrase of warning for the squeamish… you may wish to skip the following three paragraphs.

Heads had been usually severed on the base of the neck and strung on a vine or thrown right into a basket to be taken again for processing. The scalp was cut up open with a bamboo knife or a pointy stone or shell, with the cranium eliminated and discarded into a close-by river.

The pores and skin was subsequently boiled for as much as two hours, killing microbes and inflicting the flesh to shrink barely. Then it was a matter of turning the face and scalp inside out, eradicating as a lot connective tissue as attainable, stitching the eyes shut with fibers from an Astrocaryum chambira palm, and turning the entire thing again the fitting approach once more.


As soon as the mouth was pegged shut with bamboo (or sewn with extra fibers) and different incisions stitched, sizzling rocks had been positioned inside the pinnacle to assist additional shrink it. Lastly, sizzling sand was poured inside to fill each nook and cranny, drying it out and serving to guarantee preservation.

(For individuals who skipped the above three paragraphs, welcome again.)

In contrast to what we would see in films or learn in books, tsantas weren’t worn – they had been as an alternative hung from poles.

We will solely think about the ideas of explorers and missionaries chancing upon these highly effective totems. But by the early to mid-19th century, the Shuar and Achuar had been buying and selling with close by European settlers. Among the many gadgets to make their approach into the arms of collectors all over the world had been these ceremonial magic vessels.

With rising demand – and excessive rewards – got here the temptation to show this follow into one thing extra industrial.

Subsequently, not solely did bona fide human heads discover their approach onto the market, skins from pigs, monkeys, and sloths had been cleverly reworked into one thing vaguely human.


Figuring out the road between one thing ceremonial and one thing that might be offered for a revenue is not as simple as analyzing the pores and skin and hair for indicators of a human origin, although.

Some accounts recommend even genuine heads had been adorned with hair and different supplies from animals. Questionable information experiences even recommended unclaimed human our bodies from native hospitals offered the supplies occasionally.

By touchdown on a small handful of specifics that can be utilized to extend the probability {that a} tsantsa in a group was produced for a ceremonial function – the stitching, the anatomy of the ear and the attention, and scalp anatomy – researchers argue it is perhaps attainable to fill in lacking data on these shrunken heads’ origins. 

As it’s, the authors are assured no clear line exists between purely ceremonial artifacts and people made just for industrial acquire.

However there are indicators of fakery if the place to look, within the form of anatomical options, the size and density of hair fibers, and the folding of the pores and skin – observations that may be made most simply with X-ray CT scans taken at a number of resolutions. 

The crew examined their standards on a tsantsa that had made its approach into the collections of the Chatham-Kent Museum in Ontario, Canada, within the 1940s. The artifact seems now to be confirmed as human, although not prone to have been made for ceremonial functions.

Understanding the historical past of any particular person tsantsa not solely provides anthropologists a way of learning the ethnography of South America’s indigenous folks. It returns a small quantity of dignity to a number of human stays that had been as soon as purchased and offered as mere curios.

This analysis was printed in PLoS One.


By 24H

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.