National Geographic : 2012 Jan
PHOTO: ROBERT CLARK. ART: STEFAN FICHTEL. GRAPHICS: JASON LEE How to Shrink a Head During a raid a victor would decapitate his fallen enemy. He then made one cut and peeled the skin from the skull, producing a pliable mask of face and hair. 2 Face Work Hot sand followed the stones, shrinking the head as it dried. The face was smeared with charcoal and ironed smooth with more hot stones. 3 War Trophy Now the size of a large fist, the head was smoked for preservation. A cord attached at the crown allowed it to be worn as a necklace. 1 Heat Treatment After the skin soaked in hot water, residual fat was scraped off. The cut was sewn to restore the head's shape, and hot stones were dropped into the neck hole. IN THIS TROPHY HEAD (left) arrived at what is now the McManus Museum in Dundee, Scotland. Was it a man or a monkey? Was it authentic? And most intriguing, what did the original face look like? The artifact was thought to come from the western Amazon, home to the Shuar people. Also called Jivaro in early descriptions, they believed a slain enemy harbored an avenging spirit that could be overcome only by shrinking the dead person's head and holding related ceremonies. As more Euro- peans entered the region in the late s, such heads, or tsantsas, became popular souvenirs. Fakes soon appeared, some made from animals. To solve the mysteries, University of Dundee forensic art student Tobias Houlton launched a modern investiga- tion. Examining the hair and scalp revealed that the head was human. Details such as the distended lips and the dark, polished skin convinced him that this was a true Shuar creation. He then experimented on pigs, whose skin consistency resembles that of humans, to test the physical effects of head shrinking. Following the steps (right) documented by a collector who had lived with the Shuar, he found that cartilage resists shrinkage, resulting in the snub-nosed profile typical of tsantsas. With the assumption that the head belonged to a young warrior, Houlton reconstructed his features (above) using the latest forensic computer tools, as if working on a police case. No other tsantsa has been brought back to life like this, so the man---whoever he was---has now become the face of a lost tradition. ---A. R. Williams For the rst time, a portrait emerges from a South American shrunken head.