Frame from the film Wise Blood (1979) where the reduced head appears
In 1979, the famous film director John Huston released “Wise blood” a peculiar mixture of black humor and thriller that ended up becoming one of the strangest films of his entire career. Among the quirky props and stage objects for the recording was a small human head that appeared in different scenes. During the golden decades of Series B, cheap horror and suspense movies became very popular, with increasingly outlandish scripts. The themes of witchcraft, Santeria or satanic rituals were mixed with adventures between zombies, vampires or, as in this case, with cannibal tribes that reduced the heads of their enemies. Along with this type of horror cinema, a curious industry specialized in providing a great variety of unique objects, such as amputated limbs, vampire fangs or monster heads, which were manufactured in imitation of real ones, also developed.
However, this week a study has been published in the journal “Heritage Science” in which it is confirmed that the human head that appears in Huston’s film is a ceremonial tsantsa, an authentic museum piece that will be repatriated to Ecuador, his country of origin. From time to time, the scientific news also gives us surreal and bizarre stories worthy of any fictional plot, the origin and the adventures of this little head could well be one of them.
Some of the features and elements analyzed for their authentication | Byron, Craig D., et al.
In the Amazon rainforest, between Peru and Ecuador, inhabit the indigenous “Shuar” people, also known as Jíbaros. Among its historical peculiarities is a ceremonial rite with which they managed to mummify and preserve the heads of their enemies as a talisman and a war trophy. These “shrunken heads” are known as tsantsas and are now regarded as unique and valuable antiques. In the 19th century, when Europeans first encountered these ancient rites, these jivaro heads became a very popular subject, told in scary and adventure stories, and even the tsantsas themselves became a coveted object for any cabinet of curiosities of that century.
Their popularity grew until, at the beginning of the 20th century, they ended up being a very valuable monetarily object. The high demand and shortage of original tsantsas sent prices skyrocketing, resulting in countless forgeries so compelling that for a long time there was great confusion about the authenticity of these relics in both private collections and those on display in museums. .
The bizarre story of the tsantsa from the film Wise Blood begins in 1942 when an American biologist named James Harrison, a professor at Mercer University, was in the Amazon jungle where he allegedly acquired it in exchange for a pocketknife and military insignia. The head arrived at the University and there it was exhibited for some time, although it was finally put away, stored for decades, until almost forgotten. Almost forty years passed without anyone noticing her existence until, in 1979, she was temporarily loaned to Huston for his film. Then it returned to the University, where it was kept again for as many decades.
Three-dimensional model created for study | Byron, Craig D., et al.
In 2016, Professor Harrison passed away and Mercer University remembered that shrunken head he had brought from his trip to Ecuador. As time went by and given the abundance of forgeries and imitations, when attention turned to tsantsa doubts also arose about its authenticity. This is where the scientific story begins and the main challenge was that, being a historical relic, the researchers could not tear off any piece of the tsantsa to analyze its composition. The authentication had to be done with non-intrusive methods that could damage the piece, which had already been badly treated during the filming of the film.
The team in charge of this task used different techniques, including computerized tomography, from which they were able to reproduce three-dimensional models of the head and its hair to allow a better analysis of certain characteristics. They also analyzed up to thirty characteristic elements, such as size, head structure, facial features or hair, comparing them with genuine tsantsas until they concluded that the one from Mercer University is true and not an imitation.
Scientific references and more information:
Byron, Craig D., et al. “The authentication and repatriation of a ceremonial tsantsa to its country of origin (Ecuador)”. Heritage Science, May 2021, p. 50. BioMed Central, DOI: 10.1186 / s40494-021-00518-z.