Recently identified features that help to distinguish ceremonial tsantsa from commercial shrunken heads

Tobias M. R. Houlton (Lead / Corresponding author), Caroline M. Wilkinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


This is an anthropological investigation into a collection of 65 shrunken human heads, to determine if new characteristics can be identified to facilitate the differentiation between ceremonial tsantsa and commercial shrunken heads. Ceremonial tsantsa refers to shrunken heads mummified as war trophies within the ancient traditions and rituals of the Amazonian Shuar, Achuar, Awajún/Aguaruna, Wampís/Huambisa and Candoshi-Shapra (SAAWC). Commercial shrunken heads are comparatively modern objects constructed specifically for the collector market of the past. Low earning individuals in South and Middle America, outwith the SAAWC culture, who had access to corpses and appropriate medical or taxidermy provisions, produced these for trade purposes. These heads were made in abundance and do not present the same historical value or heritage as ceremonial tsantsa. The relevance of an accurate provenance for heads may directly impact museums, with regard to identifying the authenticity of a specimen and how they should handle any potential requests to return such artefacts to their cultural homes. Complying with current anthropological standards, a total of 6 ceremonial tsantsa and 36 commercial heads were identified. Greater confidence is prescribed to the assignment of commercial heads as their morphological appearance is at odds with the highly standardised presentation of ceremonial tsantsa. Many indicated that the processor had access to modern resources such as gloves and fine suturing equipment, which were not typically available to the SAAWC. Since traders sometimes closely replicating ceremonial tsantsa when shrinking and decorating heads for trade, limited certainty can be prescribed to this category. Minor deviations in ceremonial design resulted in 23 heads being defined as ambiguous in origin. Each head was examined by manual inspection, infrared reflectography (IRR), CT and microscopic hair analysis, with ten new differentiating characteristics identified.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)660-670
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Cultural Heritage
Early online date4 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2016


  • Authenticity
  • CT analysis
  • Hair analysis
  • IR investigation
  • Shrunken heads
  • Tsantsa

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Conservation
  • Chemistry (miscellaneous)
  • Archaeology
  • Materials Science (miscellaneous)
  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance(all)
  • Spectroscopy
  • Computer Science Applications


Dive into the research topics of 'Recently identified features that help to distinguish ceremonial tsantsa from commercial shrunken heads'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this