Once on display, this ceremonial head returns to the Amazon

Once on display, this ceremonial head returns to the Amazon

A dark artifact that had been on display for decades at a Georgia university has been authenticated as a human head taken from an enemy slain by an Amazon warrior nearly a century ago – and it is now on its way home. ‘where he came from.

Researchers at Mercer University in Macon say their tests show the shrunken head – called tsantsa in the Amazon – is an actual shrunken head made in a laborious ceremony of removing its skull and flesh, sewing its eyes and his mouth, to boil it and then fill it with hot sand and stones.

In 2019, Mercer University repatriated the verified tsantsa to the Ecuadorian Consulate in Atlanta. It is not clear if he has been returned to Ecuador yet, but researchers have said they hope he will eventually be part of a collection, possibly in a museum, where he will be treated properly.

“We wanted it to be seen by people who could appreciate it in an appropriate context,” said Mercer University chemist Adam Kiefer, co-author of a study on the shrunken head published in the journal Monday. Heritage Science.

Mercer University biologist and anthropologist Craig Byron examines the tsantsa for authenticity before it is returned to Ecuador.Adam kiefer

“It’s not a quirk – it’s someone’s body, it’s someone’s culture, and it’s not ours,” he said. “So from our perspective, repatriation was essential, and we were very fortunate that our university supported this endeavor.”

Shrunken heads were popular curiosities and souvenirs in parts of the Western world in the 19th century, and many fakes were made to meet demand – some of which were illicitly created from bodies taken from cemeteries and mortuaries. . This has led to justified concerns that the Mercer University tsantsa may also have been fake.

Kiefer and his colleagues at Mercer, biologist Craig Byron and biomedical engineer Joanna Thomas, were tasked with verifying that the shrunken head was genuine after academics decided it may have cultural significance and the Ecuadorian government has asked if it could be authenticated.

After several scientific tests, the researchers established that the object was a human head, possibly from a slain enemy.Byron et al. / Heritage sciences

The researchers studied her using a variety of techniques, including computerized tomography or computed tomography, which allowed them to reconstruct a three-dimensional model of the tsantsa with and without her long hair. Thomas said the CT scan verified that the head under the hair was cut to remove the skull and then stitched up as part of the ceremonial process that created it. CT scans were also used to create a three-dimensional model to take its place in the university’s collection.

Their tests showed that the shrunken head met 30 of the 32 scientifically accepted criteria for verifying authentic tsantsas, including the tiny hairs visible on her skin and in her nostrils, as well as her distinctive three-tiered hairstyle, which was characteristic of peoples. who then lived in the Ecuadorian Amazon region where he was originally from, Kiefer said.

Mercer’s tsantsa became part of the university’s collection after the 2016 death of faculty member, biologist Jim Harrison, who acquired it during a trip to the remote region of the Ecuadorian Amazon in 1942 while serving in the army during World War II.

The tsantsa was stocked with a local newspaper to protect it as it was transported from Ecuador to the United States in 1942.Adam kiefer

Harrison wrote in a memoir he traded with locals for tsantsa. “It was Indiana Jones,” Kiefer said. “When this was collected, science was different, everything was new … but almost 80 years later, we recognize its cultural significance, along with science.”

It is believed that the ceremonial process of making tsantsas may have originated as a means of overcoming a tradition of vendetta between certain peoples of the Amazon jungle; it appears to have been intended to trap the spirit of the slain warrior in the shrunken head so that his supernatural power can be transferred to the conqueror’s community.

Oddly enough, Harrison’s tsantsa also appeared as a movie prop in John Huston’s 1979 film “Wise Blood,” a version of a novel by writer Flannery O’Connor, who had lived near Macon. It was glued to a prop body for the film, and the damage caused could be seen by researchers.

Today, universities and museums often attempt to repatriate many human remains that were once exhibited in archaeological and anthropological collections.

In the United States, the Smithsonian Institution has been repatriating human remains and other artifacts of cultural significance since the 1980s, particularly in Native American communities. He repatriated more than 6,000 objects, including several tsantsas that were sent in 1999 to representatives of the indigenous Shuar people in Ecuador and Peru.

Last year, the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford in the UK removed a tsantsa exhibit that had been morbidly popular for decades.

“Visitors often called them horrible or disgusting, an abnormal or bloody spectacle,” said Laura Van Broekhoven, director of the museum. “People didn’t understand the more cultural significance of the tsantsas … so we weren’t doing a very good job of how we organized the exhibit.”

The museum has been negotiating for four years with South American universities and indigenous groups to repatriate the tsantas; all human remains and cultural objects acquired in the future will be treated according to strict rules adopted by the university, she said.

“We have to take things on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “It is often a long process.”