No bigger than a fist, the shrunken head had nonetheless become a major headache.
The head, a mummified Amazonian war trophy called a tsantsa, had been in the possession of Mercer University in Macon, Ga., for decades. Over that time, it was puzzled over by professors, used as a prop in a John Huston comedy and displayed in a university museum. And in 2019, it was returned to Ecuadorean officials — but only after it was authenticated with a 33-item checklist, according to an article published this week by Mercer researchers.
Before the head could be repatriated, the researchers also had to meet a separate list of standards provided by Ecuador’s National Cultural Heritage Institute. In the article, published on Tuesday in the journal Heritage Science, they described how they had traced the history of the head to at least 1942 using memoirs and local newspapers.
The head was turned over to the Ecuadorean Consulate General in Atlanta in June 2019, and according to Adam M. Kiefer, one of the article’s lead authors, the researchers don’t know what has become of it since.
“It’s not our decision to make, where this cultural artifact ends up,” Professor Kiefer said on Tuesday. “Our job was to make sure that it was reunited with people who know more about the culture and the context, to make the appropriate decision on how to display this.”
The Mercer researchers, who had no previous experience with shrunken heads, completed a CT scan to examine the tsantsa in minute detail and created 3-D renderings that allowed them to take in the shape of the head, its features and the stitching along the scalp.
“One of the things we had to recognize is that this is human remains,” Professor Kiefer said. “This was a person at one point. We needed to make sure that it was treated not as a curio, but as human remains. It’s not like you can walk into a building carrying a human head. We were building the plane as we were learning to fly it.”
Tsantsas played a part in ancient ceremonial traditions and rituals throughout the Amazon, according to the anthropologist Tobias M.R. Houlton. A decapitated human head was typically reduced to the size of a large orange by removing the skull, muscles, fat and internal organs and then molding the skin as it shrank, keeping the person’s scalp hair intact.
In 1942, James Harrison, then serving in the Army Air Forces, got his hands on the tsantsa while he was in Ecuador.
In memoirs, he described an interaction he had with men who spoke a language in the Chicham linguistic family in which he traded coins, a pocketknife and military insignia for the tsantsa. The head was filled with Ecuadorean newspapers and was brought to the United States from the Ecuadorean Amazon.
“Anyway, they had two shrunken human heads,” Mr. Harrison, who would go on to become a biology professor at Mercer University, wrote in his memoir, recalling how he had traded with the men for the tsantsa. “I badly wanted one of those heads and by motions and gestures got the idea across.”
The tsantsa was displayed in the Willet Science Center at Mercer University before it was placed in the university’s small cultural museum.
The head was used in the 1979 John Huston comedy “Wise Blood,” which was filmed near the university. It was then returned to the museum, where it was displayed. It was later put into storage.
Ceremonial head shrinking was prevalent in eastern Ecuador and northern Peru, Dr. Houlton said on Wednesday.
“They were, in part, a means of appeasing the victor’s ancestral spirits, following a long tradition of feuding and blood revenge,” Dr. Houlton said, adding that the tsantsas were also used to trap the enemy’s sprit. They fastened the mouth using three pins that were bound tightly into place using string.
The shrinking process converted the head into a charm for the victor’s community until its potency was thought to have diminished, usually within about two years, Dr. Houlton said.
After the head was emptied out, the eyelids were sutured shut. The skin was then placed in a clay pot filled with river water and put over a fire. This shrank the collagen fibers of the skin.
A fire-heated pebble was then placed through the neck and was used to sear the internal skin until the pebble became too small. After that, hot sand was used until the head was dried out.
Beginning in 1850, there was a growing trade in ceremonial tsantsas inspired by Europeans’ fascination, Dr. Houlton said. Shrunken heads were then produced by people in the Amazon and by outsiders merely for trading purposes, with the earliest known account of an outsider making a tsantsa in 1872.
Many of the outsiders who made the heads were mortuary technicians, taxidermists and medical doctors.
Those commercial heads quickly monopolized the market, with production predominantly occurring in Ecuador, Colombia and Panama.
The authentication criteria the researchers developed, including the one provided by Ecuador, stemmed from problems with the prevalent European trading.
Professor Kiefer and Craig D. Byron, the other lead author of the article, said this was one of the most meaningful projects they had ever worked on by using science and technology to restore a cultural artifact to Ecuadoreans.
“It felt like we were a part of something,” Professor Byron said on Tuesday. “Nobody wants to read about my research on monkeys and cranial sutures. But everyone wants me to tell them about the shrunken head.”