Monday, November 12, 2012

Tsantsa specifics

After blogging about a shrunken head in mid-September (see Testing a tsantsa), I sent the link to my friend James Castner, author of Shrunken Heads: Tsantsa Trophies and Human Exotica. He replied very quickly, but it has taken until now for me to post his response:
"Thanks for sending the link to your blog about the shrunken head that had served for DNA testing. I personally would not evaluate the head pictured as a tsantsa, although I'm sure that makes for a better story. Part of the shrinking preparations called for pegs to be put through the lips in order to keep the mouth closed. This was for the physical purpose of keeping the hot sand and pebbles poured into the head from falling out the mouth. Culturally it was to keep the avenging spirit or muisak from exiting the head through the mouth and seeking vengeance. I saw no evidence of holes left by such pegs in the upper lip of the pictured shrunken head. Also, part of the process of creating a tsantsa required that the skin of the head be rubbed with powdered charcoal so as to make it dark. This had the purpose of making it impossible for the muisak to see out. This head does not appear dark. My definition of a tsantsa is a shrunken human head made by one of the four Jivaroan tribes and used in a tsantsa ceremony. I have no doubt that this head is human, and the possibility exists that it was made by one of these tribes. [But] looking as it does, it would not have been used in a tsantsa ceremony. The one pictured might have been a head made by an Indian for exchange for a gun, but it is more likely that it was one of those mortuary heads that was sold to collectors. It just doesn't have the look or gestalt of an Indian-made shrunken head."
Topping the list with the 2 the characteristics mentioned by Dr. Castner, an article in Forensic Science International offers a total of 14 original morphological criteria for determining whether a shrunken head is indeed an authentic tsantsa used for ceremonial purposes:


  • Dark or black or brown skin color due to impregnation with charcoal dust during shrinking


  • Wooden pegs or vegetal fibers retained in the lips (if absent or removed post-production, sets of vertically aligned corresponding holes are present just behind both the upper and lower lips)


  • Loop of wooden vine or fiber sewn into the neck (if absent or removed post-production, traces of suturing and/or sawing are present)


  • Important thickness and leathery texture of the edge of the neck opening


  • Oval shape of the neck in cross-section and/or lateral compression of the head


  • From behind, neck and head tissues sewn together with fiber stitches


  • Conserved anatomical details of the ear (with possibility of a earlobe hole, filled or not by a wooden tube or peg)


  • Both eyes tightly closed (with possibility of sewing shut from the inside), skin in the surrounding cheek area being smooth with no facial down present


  • Profusion of hairs in the nostrils


  • Long dark hairs (or hairs which have been cut years after the shrinking process)


  • Long suspension cord overhanging from the top of the head (or related hole)


  • No facial painting or artistic/ethnic scar


  • No remaining skull fragment


  • Complete filling of internal head cavities by sand and/or charcoals

The shrunken head in the photo supplied to the journal by authors P. Charlier, I. Huynh-Charlier, L. Brun, C. Hervé, and G. Lorin de la Grandmaison (2nd image) fulfills all of the criteria.
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Heads, shrunken and otherwise:

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