An anthropological investigation into the facial preservation of ceremonial tsantsa and commercial shrunken heads

  • Tobias Houlton

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This research investigates human shrunken head specimens from a forensic art and anthropological perspective. ‘Ceremonial tsantsa’ refers to shrunken heads mummified as war trophies within the ancient traditions and rituals of the Shuar, Achuar, Awajún, Wampís and Candoshi (SAAWC), within the primitive conditions of the Amazon rainforest. ‘Commercial shrunken heads’ are comparatively modern, with the first known accounts commencing from 1872. Low earning individuals, outwith the SAAWC, who had access to corpses and appropriate medical or taxidermy provisions, produced them for trade. These heads were made in abundance and do not present the same historical value.

    A total of 65 shrunken heads were examined (20 from the Smithsonian Institute, USA, 44 from the Science Museum, UK, and one from the Elgin Museum, UK).

    The aim was to establish whether any aspect of facial appearance could be determined from these shrunken heads that might enable identification of the deceased. The objectives of this research include:

    1) Create a catalogue of heads.
    2) Distinguish ceremonial from commercial heads and ascertain other potential qualities that may differentiate them.
    3) Examine the quality of preserved tissues and facial structures using: manual inspection, microscopic hair analysis, visible spectrum light photography, ultraviolet fluorescence (UVF), infrared reflectography
    (IRR), morphometrics and MDCT scans.
    4) Generate average shrinkage patterns in relation to the preservation of facial features to produce an example demonstrating the changes observed from living facial appearance to a shrunken head.
    5) Produce multiple facial depictions from the shrunken heads to illustrate the likely living appearance of the victim and/or to highlight key features that could be used for identification.

    A total of 6 ceremonial tsantsa and 36 commercial heads were identified.

    Greater confidence is prescribed to the assigned commercial heads because their morphological appearance distinctly opposes the highly standardised condition of ceremonial tsantsa. Many indicated that the processor had access to modern resources such as gloves and fine suturing equipment, which was not typically available to the SAAWC. Due to traders sometimes closely replicating ceremonial tsantsa when shrinking and decorating heads for trade, this limits the certainty when prescribing heads to this category. Minor deviations in ceremonial design resulted in 23 heads being defined ambiguous. New ceremonial/commercial differentiating characteristics, identified directly from this research, include:

    • Ceremonial tsantsa present consistent epidermal degeneration; use of over and over sutures to repair skull removal incisions; distinct pointing of the nostril shape from manual manipulation; a smooth, even neck base, from slicing away the supportive neck ring post-desiccation; frequent application of strong compressions at the temples and lateral margins of the posterior head; stresses from the heavy remodelling of tissues demonstrated a tendency for symptoms recognised in the leather industry as ‘double hiding’ and ‘drawn grain’.

    • Commercial heads were identified to retain the epidermis in 64% of cases; 72% favoured ‘baseball’ stitches for suturing incisions; nostril shape was less distorted with 43% presenting only minor pointing; 64% did not refine the neck base post-desiccation, thus leaving a ragged, sometimes concertinaed edge; 53% had facial down trimmed or shaved, not singed.

    According to microscopic hair analysis, the majority of heads were adult (95%) and Mongoloid (75%). Juvenile heads and other ancestry groups were identified only in the commercial category. Sex estimation was limited to superficial male attributes. Evident facial hair growth identified 25% of heads as most likely male, predominantly in the commercial heads. Tertiary facial hair follicles, identified using UVF and IRR, gauged 15% as possibly male, predominantly in ceremonial tsantsa due to an improved visibility of the dermis texture. The condition and pathologies presenting in hair may indicate the environment in which heads existed, or the type of handling incurred. Evident sun bleaching, fungal infections or fractures can however occur either ante-mortem or post-mortem.

    The most reliable features identified in ceremonial and commercial specimens, to aid facial recognition, are skin pathologies, facial creases, hairlines and earlobe form. Hair pathologies that can only accumulate on living scalps may also be retained (e.g. nits and hair casts). The cartilages of the ear and nose, also retain some relevant morphological information, but are prone to alteration. Commercial heads are less distorted than ceremonial tsantsa and more suited to post-mortem depiction (PMD), often offering additional information, including eyebrow shape, vermillion border/lip shape, lip thickness (if mouth open), philtrum form, and possibly the palpebral slit angle. Unreliable features, as a result of skull removal, include loss of outer face shape and cheekbone structure, angle of projection for the ears and nose and degree of evident prognathism. Natural skin complexion is lost due to the depletion of melanin, epidermal degeneration and any applied stains. Hair appears longer (unless cut) and more profuse following shrinkage.
    Date of Award2015
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorCaroline Wilkinson (Supervisor) & Sue Black (Supervisor)


    • Tsantsa
    • Shrunken heads
    • Anthropology

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