History

Shrunken Head DNA Proves Horrific Folklore True

shrunken head DNA proves horrific folklore true. Learn more about the shrunken head DNA that proved the horrific folklore to be true in this article.

THE GIST

- The genetic make-up of a shrunken head has been obtained for the first time.

- The DNA analysis reveals that the head is authentic and belonged to an Afro-Ecuadorian man.

- The genetic evidence suggests many myths about head-hunting were true.

A remarkably well-preserved shrunken head has just been authenticated by DNA analysis, which provides strong evidence that anecdotal accounts of violent head-hunting in South America were true.

The study, published in the latest issue of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, marks the first successful effort to unveil the genetic make-up of a shrunken head.

"The shrunken heads were made from enemies' heads cut on the battlefield," co-author Gila Kahila Bar-Gal told Discovery News. "Then, during spiritual ceremonies, enemies' heads were carefully reduced through boiling and heating, in the attempt to lock the enemy's spirit and protect the killers from spiritual revenge."

Kahila Bar-Gal is a senior lecturer in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Koret School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also a faculty member within the university's department of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

NEWS: First Cannibals Ate Each Other for Nutrition

For the study, she and her colleagues used DNA testing and other techniques to examine the authenticity and possible cultural provenance of a shrunken head displayed at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. The head remains in an incredible state of preservation, with the deceased man's hair, facial features and other physical characteristics intact.

Many shrunken heads are forgeries, with some 80 percent suspected to be fakes. The late 19th through the 20th centuries saw a rise in manufacture of such fakes for profit.

The shrunken head at the Israeli museum, however, turns out to be legit.

"The shrunken head we studied was made from a real human skin," Kahila Bar-Gal said. "The people who made it knew exactly how to peel the skin from the skull, including the hair," she added, mentioning that it was also salted and boiled.

The researchers determined that the skin belonged to a man who lived and died in South America "probably in the Afro-Ecuadorian population." The genes reveal the victim's ancestors were from West Africa, but his DNA profile matches that of modern populations from Ecuador with African admixture.

According to the scientists, he was probably a member of a group that fought the Jivaro-Shuar tribes of Ecuador. These tribes also lived in Peru during the post-Columbian period, and were thought to make ritual shrunken heads out of their enemies.

Although Kahila Bar-Gal said the DNA could not pinpoint the exact age of the shrunken head, the scientists estimate the individual was killed between 1600-1898 A.D. The early date marks the entry of Africans into the region, while the latter date was when the last major nomadic populations of hunters and gatherers in Ecuador were thought to have existed.

Accounts of what happened to shrunken heads after the post-battle spiritual ceremonies vary. There are accounts that the Jivaro-Shuar warriors kept the shrunken heads as "keepsakes or personal adornments," even wearing them at certain times. Leonard Clark, who traveled to the region in 1948, however, said that he saw a shrunken head, called a "tsantsa," used in a ceremony and then stuffed in an old earthenware pot that was placed in the thatched ceiling of the house.

NEWS: Clues to Child Sacrifices Found in Inca Building

"Robbed of its soul, the savagely beautiful trophy no longer had any spiritual value," Clark wrote in a 1953 account.

Chuck Greenblatt, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Hebrew University's Hadassah Medical School, told Discovery News that "the ancient DNA techniques employed by the authors are appropriate and I have no doubt as to the authenticity of their results."

Kahila Bar-Gal hopes other museums will consider having certain objects genetically tested, as the method can reveal authenticity and uncover important historical information that may not otherwise be available.

DNA analysis from this shrunken head proves anecdotal accounts of head-hunting in South America.

Back in the Beginning

To put a human face on our ancestors, scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute used sophisticated methods to form 27 model heads based on tiny bone fragments, teeth and skulls collected from across the globe. The heads are on display for the first time together at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. This model is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, also nicknamed "Toumai," who lived 6.8 million years ago. Parts of its jaw bone and teeth were found nine years ago in the Djurab desert in Chad. It's one of the oldest hominid specimens ever found.

Australopithecus afarensis

With each new discovery, paleoanthropologists have to rewrite the origins of man's ancestors, adding on new branches and tracking when species split. This model was fashioned from pieces of a skull and jaw found among the remains of 17 pre-humans (nine adults, three adolescents and five children) which were discovered in the Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1975. The ape-man species, Australopithecus afarensis, is believed to have lived 3.2 million years ago. Several more bones from this species have been found in Ethiopia, including the famed "Lucy," a nearly complete A. afarensis skeleton found in Hadar.

Australopithecus africanus

Meet "Mrs. Ples," the popular nickname for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus, unearthed in Sterkfontein, South Africa in 1947. It is believed she lived 2.5 million years ago (although the sex of the fossil is not entirely certain). Crystals found on her skull suggest that she died after falling into a chalk pit, which was later filled with sediment. A. africanus has long puzzled scientists because of its massive jaws and teeth, but they now believe the species' skull design was optimal for cracking nuts and seeds.

Paranthropus aethiopicus

The skull of this male adult was found on the western shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1985. The shape of the mouth indicates that he had a strong bite and could chew plants. He is believed to have lived in 2.5 million years ago and is classified as Paranthropus aethiopicus. Much is still unknown about this species because so few reamins of P. aethiopicus have been found.

Paranthropus boisei

Researchers shaped this skull of "Zinj," found in 1959. The adult male lived 1.8 million years ago in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania. His scientific name is Paranthropus boisei, though he was originally called Zinjanthropus boisei -- hence the nickname. First discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey, the well-preserved cranium has a small brain cavity. He would have eaten seeds, plants and roots which he probably dug with sticks or bones.

Homo rudolfensis

This model of a sub-human species -- Homo rudolfensis -- was made from bone fragments found in Koobi Fora, Kenya, in 1972. The adult male is believed to have lived about 1.8 million years ago. He used stone tools and ate meat and plants. H. Rudolfensis' distinctive features include a flatter, broader face and broader postcanine teeth, with more complex crowns and roots. He is also recognized as having a larger cranium than his contemporaries.

Homo ergaster

The almost perfectly preserved skeleton of the "Turkana Boy" is one of the most spectacular discoveries in paleoanthropology. Judging from his anatomy, scientists believe this Homo ergaster was a tall youth about 13 to 15 years old. According to research, the boy died beside a shallow river delta, where he was covered by alluvial sediments. Comparing the shape of the skull and teeth, H. ergaster had a similiar head structure to the Asian Homo erectus.

Homo heidelbergensis

This adult male, Homo heidelbergensis, was discovered in in Sima de los Huesos, Spain in 1993. Judging by the skull and cranium, scientists believe he probably died from a massive infection that caused a facial deformation. The model, shown here, does not include the deformity. This species is believed to be an ancestor of Neanderthals, as seen in the shape of his face. "Miquelon," the nickname of "Atapuerca 5", lived about 500,000 to 350,000 years ago and fossils of this species have been found in Italy, France and Greece.

Homo neanderthalensis

The "Old Man of La Chapelle" was recreated from the skull and jaw of a Homo neanderthalensis male found near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France in 1908. He lived 56,000 years ago. His relatively old age, thought to be between 40 to 50 years old, indicates he was well looked after by a clan. The old man's skeleton indicates he suffered from a number of afflictions, including arthritis, and had numerous broken bones. Scientists at first did not realize the age and afflicted state of this specimen when he was first discovered. This led them to incorrectly theorize that male Neanderthals were hunched over when they walked.

Homo floresiensis

The skull and jaw of this female "hobbit" was found in Liang Bua, Flores, Indonesia, in 2003. She was about 1 meter tall (about 3'3") and lived about 18,000 years ago. The discovery of her species, Homo floresiensis, brought into question the belief that Homo sapiens was the only form of mankind for the past 30,000 years. Scientists are still debating whether Homo floresiensis was its own species, or merely a group of diseased modern humans. Evidence is mounting that these small beings were, in fact, a distinct human species.

Homo sapiens

Bones can only tell us so much. Experts often assume or make educated guesses to fill in the gaps in mankind's family tree, and to develop a sense what our ancestors may have looked like. Judging from skull and mandible fragments found in a cave in Israel in 1969, this young female Homo sapien lived between 100,000 and 90,000 years ago. Her bones indicate she was about 20 years old. Her shattered skull was found among the remains of 20 others in a shallow grave.