According to a recent study, the authenticity of a South American shrunken heads has been proven and it is not counterfeit.

The 3.3-inch, shrunken head that was donated to Canada’s museum in the 1940s is now confirmed by CT scans. It had once been the head of an Indian woman from Peru. 

According to researchers, hair shafts may be seen to penetrate the skin’s upper layer in exactly the same manner as hair follicles embedded in the skin’s dermis.

Shrunken heads or ‘tsantsas’ are cultural artefacts that were produced by certain indigenous cultures of Ecuador and Peru until around the middle of the 20th century.

Tsantsas were believed to contain the knowledge and spirit of the person from whom they were created, so it was thought that these tsantsas could have supernatural powers that can be granted to their owners. 

Some convincing fake shrunken heads made of animal parts, or alternative materials, can make it difficult to tell the difference between the genuine and the counterfeit. 

Many commercial tsantsas were made of animal skins such as pigs and monkeys.  

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

Many museum collections contain South American shrunken head, also known as “tsantsas”, It’s difficult for anyone to know if these authentic shrunken heads are made of human remains. The tsantsa, currently in Chatham-Kent Museum, Chatham, Ontario Canada, was studied by researchers (pictured).


Tsantsas (shrunken heads) are cultural artefacts that were produced by certain indigenous cultures of Ecuador and Peru until around the middle of the 20th century.

These cultures included 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 made from the cranial skin of enemies slain in combat.

The belief was that tsantsas contained the knowledge and spirit of their creators and could confer supernatural power to their owners.

The researchers used clinical computedtomography (CT), and high-resolution micro-CT scanners to prove that the Chatham-Kent Museum in Chatham in Ontario holds the tsantsa. 

CT scans create two-dimensional images from a “slice” of a body, or part of it. These images are collected and then layered to make three-dimensional images. 

Lauren September Poeta, Western University, said, “This technique truly redefines archaeology since archaeology historically can be aggressively destructive.”

Digital archaeology includes computed tomography provides an entirely new dimension of legitimacy and refreshes it by making the field far more invasive.

Typically crafted by men in an elaborate, multi-step process, tsantsas were made from the cranial skin of enemies slain in combat.

It involved making a small incision on the back side of the head, removing the skin and hair from the skull and then soaking it in hot water with hot sand.

Researchers believe that tsantsas may have been created in the 1500s to hold the soul within the remains. The eyes and mouth are closed, so researchers think tsantsas could be as old as 1550s. 

The victor is believed to have the ability to shrink the head of an enemy and allow them to serve their souls. 

Tsantsas could be used to transfer the power of shrunken heads to households in rituals.

The ritual was completed when the supernatural power was believed to have left the shrunken skull. At that point, the tsantsas became a memento. 

The influence of European colonial and European visitors to the nineteenth century made post-ceremony Tsantsas a commodity, their owners being willing to sell them.

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

The new CT scans confirm that the shrunken head given to an Ontario museum in the 1940s by a Peruvian Indian woman is authentic and the original head. The 3D rendered image from the micro-CT scan showing the tsantsa can be seen in this picture

There was a glut of curios and the demand soon exceeded supply. 

The museum received this particular tsantsa in 1940s from a local family. It was acquired on a tour through the Amazon basin. 

Although the original accession record listed the tsantsa from Peruvians Indians in South America, it did not include any other information. However, this wasn’t enough to determine if it was authentic or fake. 

However, the team realized they were dealing with human remains as they examined the hair, eyes and ears using micro-CT scans that are high-resolution. 

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

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

Micro-CT images show the incision made at the back of the skull. The hair was then levelled to remove it.

A micro-CT scan can only critically examine the stitching used for closing incisions as well as eyes and lips.

The team was able to establish that the tsantsa were human remains. However, it wasn’t possible to tell if the shrinking of the heads was for ceremonial or commercial purposes.

Further study of the materials used to seal the eyes and the lips could reveal more. 

Poeta said that vines could be used to seal the eyes. But if it were, the identification of the tsantsa would most likely be ceremonial. If a modern and cheaper thread was used, it might indicate commercial interests at the time it was produced.

The researchers won’t know for certain the details and ultimate purpose of the shrunken head construction until more tsantsas – those that are guaranteed as ceremonial and those expected as fakes – are examined.

Poeta stated that she works with subjects in research with respect and intention. She also said that they look forward to working together with their Ecuadorian counterparts, the Shuar and Achuar to help guide future projects. 

 The findings were published today in the journal PLOS One.


Intricate, multi-step processes were used to create ceremonial shrunken head. This process was then passed on from fathers to sons.

The process started by taking the corpse of a bested adversary and removing the head as close to the shoulders as possible. 

Next, you will need to separate the hairs on the back side of your skull.

You would carefully pull the skin back at the neck and separate it from the skull, muscle and tissues.

To allow the inner layers, the epidermis (and dermis) to be separated from each other and to sew the incisions at the head and neck with plant-based fibers, the eyeslids, mouth, and eyelids were turned inside-out. 

Once the head was turned right-side out, it would then be placed in cool water. Next, it would be simmered on a fire to shrink the head by around one-third.

This would allow the flesh to become dry by first dropping some hot stones through the neck opening. Then, it could be dried with hot sand as the flesh shrinks further.

This saw the head shrink to one-fifth of its original dimensions. The skin was then manipulated manually to make sure that all the heat inside was distributed evenly to allow for uniform contraction.

At the same time, hot flat stones would be used to iron out the outside of the face, curing the skin while also singeing away the light vellus hairs that cover the face and can be dramatically emphasised by shrinkage.

To darken the complexion, ashes could also be smudged onto the skin. 

The ceremonial tsantsa was completed by being smoked over a fire and having a cord attached to the top of the head from which it could be hung.