A shrunken head used as a prop in a 1970s movie was made of real human skin, researchers have discovered. The head, known as a "tsantsa," was attached to a fake shrunken body in John Huston's dark 1979 comedy Wise Blood, People reports. Tsantas, talismans made of skin from the heads of slain enemies by indigenous peoples in Ecuador and Peru, were sold to Westerners as keepsakes last century and fake ones abound, researchers write in Heritage Science, which has photos of the artifact. They say CT scans and numerous other tests confirmed that the one used in Wise Blood was an "authentic tsantsa composed of human tissue." It has now been returned to the Ecuadorian government.
The Wise Blood tsantsa had been kept at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. In 1942, it was "procured by a now-deceased Mercer faculty member during travels in Ecuador while serving in the United States military." The university loaned the head to Wise Blood, which was filmed in and around Macon. "It’s a relief to have the specimen out of our possession," Mercer biology professor Craig D. Byron, one of the study's authors, tells the Art Newspaper. He says the item "was illegal to trade or sell; it was the skin from a person’s head; we had no business holding on to this item." (A tsantsa brought back to the Vatican by a missionary in 1925 has also been returned.)