February 9, 2023

A South American shrunken head has been confirmed as real human remains and not a fake, a new study reveals.

New CT scans show that the shrunken head, which was donated to a museum in Canada in the 1940s, is real and was once the head of a Peruvian Indian woman.

Researchers say hair shafts can pierce the top layer of skin, in exactly the same way that human hair follicles are embedded in the dermis (the innermost layer of the skin).

Shrunken heads or ‘tsantsas’ are cultural artifacts produced by certain indigenous cultures of Ecuador and Peru until about the mid-20th century.

Tsantsas were believed to contain the mind and knowledge of the individual from whom they were spawned, and so they were believed to contain supernatural powers that could be imparted to the owner.

However, some convincing fake shrunken heads made from animal body parts or other alternatives commonly used in commercial reproductions make it difficult to tell the real from the fake.

Commercial tsantsas were often made from animal skins, including pigs, monkeys, and sloths.

South American shrunken heads, some known as tsantsas, are common in many museum collections. However, it is currently difficult to determine whether they are authentic, including whether they are made from human remains. Researchers studied the tsantsa currently kept in the collection of the Chatham-Kent Museum in Chatham, Ontario, Canada (pictured)


Tsantsas (shrunken heads) are cultural artifacts produced by certain indigenous cultures of Ecuador and Peru until about the mid-20th century.

These cultures include the Amazonian Shuar, Achuar, Awajún/Aguaruna, Wampís/Huambisa, and Candoshi-Shampra.

Typically crafted by men in an elaborate, multi-step process, shrunken heads are made from the scalps of enemies killed in combat.

Tsantsas were believed to contain the mind and knowledge of the individual from whom they were produced, and so they were regarded as supernatural powers that could be bestowed upon the owner of the head.

Using clinical computed tomography (CT) and high-resolution micro-CT scans, 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.

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

“This technique really redefines archeology, because traditionally archeology can be aggressively destructive,” says Lauren September Poeta of Western University.

“Digital archaeology, including computed tomography, offers a whole new dimension of validity and refreshes the field by making it much less invasive.”

Tsantsas were usually made by men in an elaborate, multi-step process and were made from the skulls of enemies killed in combat.

The gruesome process involved making an incision at the back of the head, peeling the skin and hair from the skull, and soaking it in hot water and hot sand.

Tsantsas are thought to have been created as early as the 16th century to trap the soul in the remains, while the eyes and mouth were sewn shut, the researchers say.

By shrinking the head of a fallen enemy, the victor was believed to strain their minds for servitude and prevent the soul from avenging the enemy’s death.

Tsantsas were used in ceremonial rituals where the power of a shrunken head could be transferred to a household.

After the ritual, the supernatural power was believed to have left the shrunken head, after which the tsantsas themselves were originally little more than a memento.

However, the influence of European and colonial visitors in the 19th century gave tsantsas a commercial value after the ceremony, with their owners willing to trade them away.

New CT scans show that the shrunken head donated to a museum in Ontario in the 1940s is real and was once the head of a Peruvian Indian woman. Shown, a 3D rendered image of the micro-CT scan of the tsantsa

Demand for the curios quickly outstripped supply, resulting in a market of inauthentic tsantsas, some made from human remains, others from animal heads or synthetic materials, for export to European and North American buyers.

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Measuring only 3.3 inches long, this particular tsantsa was donated to the museum by a local family in the 1940s, after being purchased on a tour of the Amazon Basin.

The original accession record mentions that the tsantsa came from “Peruvian Indians” in South America and nothing else, which is not uncommon, but this was not enough to definitively determine whether it was real or fake.

But the team knew they were looking at human remains when they examined the eyes, ears and hair using high-resolution micro-CT scans.

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

Micro-CT image shows the incision at the back of the skull, windowed and leveled to remove the hair

Also, the stitching used to close the incisions, as well as the eyes and lips, can only be viewed critically with a micro-CT scan.

Although the team had compelling evidence that the tsantsa are human remains, they couldn’t determine whether the purpose of the head crimping was ceremonial or commercial.

Closer examination of the materials used to seal the eyes and lips could reveal more.

“If vine material were used to seal the eyes and lips, the tsantsa would probably be classified as ceremonial, but if a more modern, cheaper thread was used, it was more indicative of commercial interests when it was made.” said Puta.

The researchers won’t know for sure the details and ultimate purpose of the shrunken main structure until more tsantsas — which are guaranteed to be ceremonial and expected to be forgeries — have been examined.

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

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The findings are published today in the journal PLOS One.


Ceremonial shrunken heads were made in an intricate, multi-step process passed down from father to son through generations.

The process began with taking the corpse of a defeated opponent and removing the head as close to the shoulders as possible.

Then the hair on the back of the skull was parted, allowing for an incision to be made from the top of the head to the base of the back of the neck.

The skin at the base of the neck would be gently pulled back and separated from both the skull and muscles and the tissues underlying the skin.

The separated outer layers of skin – the epidermis and dermis – were then turned inside out to allow the stitching of the eyelids, mouth and head-to-neck incision from the inside using plant fibers.

Once this was done, the head would be turned ‘right out’ again and placed in cold water first before being simmered over a fire, which would shrink the head to about a third of its original size.

The hollow flesh would then be dried out by first dropping hot stones into the head through the neck opening and then, as it shrank further, hot sand.

During this process – shrinking the head to a fifth of its original size – the skin was manipulated by hand to ensure that the hot material inside was evenly dispersed to ensure uniform contraction of the tissues.

At the same time, hot flat stones would be used to smooth out the outside of the face, heal the skin while also scorching away the light vellus hairs that cover the face and can be dramatically emphasized by shrinkage.

Ash would also be smeared into the skin to darken the complexion.

The ceremonial tsantsa was completed by being smoked over a fire and having a cord at the top of the head from which to hang it.