The Truth About The Shrunken Human Head Used In A Movie

An authentic Amazonian shrunken head has been on display in Georgia for decades, and now it is going back home to Ecuador. Per NBC News, the head is from an enemy slain by an Amazon warrior and has been on display at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, since 1942, when biologist Jim Harrison acquired it during a trip to Ecuador while serving during World War II.

It took Mercer researchers years to authenticate the human head using CT scans to reconstruct a 3D model. Before it could be authenticated, it was used as a prop in John Huston's 1979 black comedy "Wise Blood," an adaption of Flannery O'Connor's first novel.

The shrunken head, or tsantsa in Amazonian, is specially prepared for trade, trophy, and ritualistic purposes and is used in the northwestern region of the Amazon forest by the Jivaroan tribes of Ecuador and Peru tribes which include Haumbisa, Aguaruna, Shuar, Achuar, peoples.

'This is somebody's culture, and it's not ours'

The process includes removing the skull and flesh, then stitching the mouth and eyes shut, boiling it, and filling the head with stones and hot sand.

Mercer University repatriated the head to the Ecuadorian consulate in Atlanta in 2019, hoping to properly preserve it and ultimately make it part of a collection. Mercer University chemist Adam Kiefer, who is co-author of a study published in the Journal of Heritage Science, said, "This is not an oddity — this is somebody's body, this is somebody's culture, and it's not ours. So from our perspective, repatriation was essential, and we were very lucky that our university supported this endeavor."

In the 19th century, shrunken heads were popular knickknacks and fakes were plentiful. In order to meet the demand, some went as far as to create them from bodies taken from morgues and cemeteries (via The Collector). The genuine artifacts, however, deserve to be treated with respect, not as souvenirs.