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“International” Shrunken Head From Ecuador Returns Home

“International” Shrunken Head From Ecuador Returns Home

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A ritualistic shrunken head from Ecuador that was made from the skull of a warrior in the tribal Amazon region found its way to a US museum and it has now been studied and recreated in 3D. The findings of a new study have determined that the shrunken head from Ecuador had served as a prop in a 1979 movie, but finally, the artifact has been returned to its country of origin.

“Shrunken heads” is the collective term referring to specially prepared severed human heads that served as war trophies and in rituals in ancient Ecuador and Peru, where they were an important part of the indigenous economy.

Just before the process of shrinking a head came the horrific act of “head hunting,” and tribal leaders would show off their collections of severed and shrunken heads to ward off territorial enemies.

You would think “ head hunting ” would be reserved to tribal South America but you’d be wrong as a team of researchers from Georgia University spent several years hunting for “the origins” of this shrunken head. Having been displayed in the university museum for decades after appearing in the 1979 film “Wise Blood,” now, the shrunken head, or “tsantsa,” as they are known in Amazonian languages, has been repatriated to Ecuador.

The shrunken head from Ecuador that got to go home again. Tsantsa of probable Ecuadorian origin as found in Mercer University’s cultural museum collection in 2018. a) The tsantsa was preserved resting under a plastic bell jar secured to a wooden base with adhesive. b) Skin characteristics of the tsantsa: darkened skin color, leathery skin texture at neck opening, and smooth cheeks. c) Anatomy of the tsantsa ears were well preserved and no evidence of ear piercing. Numbers correspond to the Tsantsa Authentication Checklist in Table 1 of the research paper, published by Heritage Science. (Heritage Science)

The shrunken head from Ecuador that got to go home again. Tsantsa of probable Ecuadorian origin as found in Mercer University’s cultural museum collection in 2018. a) The tsantsa was preserved resting under a plastic bell jar secured to a wooden base with adhesive. b) Skin characteristics of the tsantsa: darkened skin color, leathery skin texture at neck opening, and smooth cheeks. c) Anatomy of the tsantsa ears were well preserved and no evidence of ear piercing. Numbers correspond to the Tsantsa Authentication Checklist in Table 1 of the research paper, published by Heritage Science. ( Heritage Science )

Shrunken Head From Ecuador Has An Interesting History

A Eureka Alert article explains that this shrunken head had been on public display “for decades” at the Georgia university after the ritualistic artifact was used as a movie prop in the 1979 John Huston film “ Wise Blood .”

According to NBC News the university researchers spent several years performing a range of scientific tests to authenticate the tsantsa before agreeing to return it Ecuador's government. The tests included performing CT scans on the artifact and rendering a 3D construction of the head.

An article in The Independent says researchers from the Mercer University in Macon said Georgia University acquired the head after a former faculty member came into possession of the artifact while serving in the US military in Ecuador. This is the origin story that will appear in a new research paper about the ancient warrior’s head that is set to published this week.

Paper coauthor, Dr Craig D. Byron, told NBC that it was “a relief to have the specimen out of our possession.” He explained that the ritualistic artifact “had underground value” and that it was illegal to trade or sell the skin from a person's head. Thus, it was something of a hot potato.

Key anatomical features of the tsantsa of probable Ecuadorian origin. a) Profile of tsantsa with hair lifted off side of face. b) 3D volume rendering of tsantsa CT scan. c and d) Surface renderings of tsantsa CT scan. Virtual removal of the tsantsa’s hair revealed an elongated profile. Visible artifacts of handling during preparation and preservation include extension of the mouth, distended lips and superiorly turned nostrils. Also evident are distinct depressions at the temples. (Heritage Science)

Key anatomical features of the tsantsa of probable Ecuadorian origin. a) Profile of tsantsa with hair lifted off side of face. b) 3D volume rendering of tsantsa CT scan. c and d) Surface renderings of tsantsa CT scan. Virtual removal of the tsantsa’s hair revealed an elongated profile. Visible artifacts of handling during preparation and preservation include extension of the mouth, distended lips and superiorly turned nostrils. Also evident are distinct depressions at the temples. ( Heritage Science )

The Shrunken Head Is Now Heading Home Again To Ecuador

You might not know it but the world is awash with fake shrunken heads that are generally sold in shops that sell cheap incense, dreamcatchers, wolf T-shirts, and books about star signs . This meant that the Mercer University research team first had to determine the tsantsa's authenticity.

However, NBC reported that the team’s analysis revealed that “30 of the 33 authentication factors, including the hairstyle unique to the Ecuadorian Amazon region from where it came.” It was learned the creators of the artifact had carefully removed the skin and flesh from the head, and then "stitched the eyes and mouth shut before boiling it and filling it with hot stones.”

Before becoming a museum display piece, this particular tsantsa featured in the film version of author Flannery O’Connor’s novel " Wise Blood .” For the John Huston film the ancient shrunken head from Ecuador was glued to a tiny body prop and worshipped by one of the film's characters. Researchers said they identified particular damage to the artifact that had been caused by glue from the movie’ effects department.

While the head was officially repatriated to the Ecuadorian Consulate in Atlanta in 2019 it was until now unclear if it had actually been returned to the country yet. However, co-author of the study, Adam Kiefer, told NBC that it has, and that it will now be interpreted and compared with its original cultural background .

Top image: Just one of many examples in existence: a shrunken head from Ecuador. Source: Fotos 593 / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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