Shrunken Head DNA Proves Horrific Folklore True
2012-12-14 0:00

By Jennifer Viegas | AssociatedPress

Genetic analysis of a shrunken head verifies anecdotal accounts of violent head-hunting in South America.

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

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

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 manís 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.


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