Museum’s shrunken head confirmed to be human remains

Western University researchers have verified the authenticity of a South American tsantsa (shrunken head) as a human remains, a milestone in the global effort to decolonize and preserve and understand Indigenous history .

The results were published today in the high-impact journal PLOS One.

Using clinical computed tomography (CT) and high-resolution micro-CT, researchers were able to determine that the tsantsa currently held in the collection of the Chatham-Kent Museum in Chatham, Ontario, are in fact real human remains and not a counterfeit made from animal body parts or other alternatives often used in commercial reproductions.

This is the first step in determining the authenticity of this subject.

CT scans produce two-dimensional images of a “slice” of a body or part of the body, which are then collected and overlaid to construct three-dimensional images.

“This technique really redefines archeology because traditionally archeology can be aggressively destructive,” said Lauren September Poeta, Anishinaabe researcher and project associate in Western’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives. “Digital archaeology, including computed tomography, offers a whole new dimension of validity and refreshes the field by making it far less invasive.”

This new approach to digitization is an important first step in authenticating tsantsas as the global community shifts its mindset towards Indigenous-led repatriation of human remains, art and archaeological artefacts currently held in public and private collections around the world.

The tsantsa examined for study was donated to the museum in the 1940s by the Sulman family, having been purchased while visiting the Amazon basin. The original accession record lists the tsantsa as originating from the “Peruvian Indians” of South America and nothing else, which is not unusual.

Tsantsas have already been recognized as a rich representation of information about history, culture, rituals and identity. Now that this tsantsa has been verified, researchers from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador (academic partners of the study) are able to work with representatives of the Shuar and Achuar peoples of Ecuador and northern Peru. to the next steps.

“For this study, authentication was really the focus. We need to better understand the whole process of building the tsantsa, as ethno-historical sources vary widely,” said Andrew Nelson, director of the department of Western anthropology.

Many ethno-historical sources suggest that the tsantsas were created to trap the soul inside the remains as the eyes and mouth were sewn up. By shrinking the head of a fallen enemy, the victor was believed to harness his spirit for servitude and prevent the soul from avenging the death of the enemy.

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

Although Poeta, Nelson and their collaborators obtained conclusive evidence that the tsantsa is a human remains, they were unable to determine whether the purpose of the head reduction was ceremonial or commercial.

Poeta noted that the team knew they were indeed studying human remains when examining eyes and ears using high-resolution micro-CT. For Nelson, it was the hair.

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

The seam used to close the incisions, as well as the eyes and lips, can also only be critically examined using a micro-CT scan.

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

Scholars will not know for certain the details and ultimate purpose of the construction of the shrunken head until other tsantsas – those guaranteed as ceremonial and those expected as forgeries – are examined.

“We always work respectfully and intentionally with our research subjects, and we look forward to working with our Ecuadorian colleagues, including the Shuar and Achuar, to guide any future work,” Poeta said.

Reference: Poeta LS, Ordoñez MP, Fournier E, Nelson AJ. Correlative tomography and authentication features of a shrunken head (tsantsa). PLOS ONE. 2022;17(8):e0270305. do I:10.1371/journal.pone.0270305

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