After Nearly 100 Years, Vatican Returns Shrunken Head

The 'tsantsa' was brought to the Vatican from Ecuador by a missionary in 1925
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 16, 2017 4:09 PM CST
Vatican Gives Ecuador Its Shrunken Head Back
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno, center, and his wife Rocio Gonzalez Navas during a private audience at the Vatican, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017.   (Andreas Solaro/Pool Photo via AP)

For nearly a century, the Vatican has been in possession of a shrunken head the size of a fist that once belonged to the Shuar, an indigenous people of Ecuador. In an unlikely move Saturday, the Vatican returned it, AFP reports. It's "very rare" for the Vatican museums to return artifacts, and it wasn't easy for Ecuador to get the head back, requiring months of negotiations. It was finally returned during Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno's visit with Pope Francis this weekend.

During the meeting, the two discussed "themes of mutual interest such as respect for indigenous populations and their culture, and the protection of the environment,” Vatican Radio quotes the Vatican press office as saying. The shrunken head, or "tsantsa," is believed to have belonged to an Amazon warrior killed by the Shuar. The AFP describes the grisly process of creating it, which involved removing the skull, boiling the skin, and sewing its orifices shut. It was brought to the Vatican by a missionary in 1925 and now heads to the Pumapungo ethnographic museum in Cuenca. (Speaking of artifacts, an uproar has led to a probe of "Indiana Joan.")

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