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Tsantsas are shrunken human heads originally made for ceremonial purposes by Amazonian indigenous groups of the Shuar and Achuar family, previously called Jivaroan tribes. A significant demand of these objects during the first half of the 20th century led to the manufacture of counterfeit shrunken heads for commercial purposes. For museums where these collections are held, as well as for the indigenous groups who claim their ownership, it is important to identify the origin and authenticity of these tsantsas. We hypothesized that a collection of 14 tsantsas from 3 different museum collections in Ecuador are human and aimed to characterize their sex and potential origin. We amplified the amelogenin gene and performed a high resolution melting analysis to determine their human origin and characterize their sex. We also analyzed a fragment (16209–16402) from the HVR-1 region to identify the mtDNA haplogroups present in the tsantsa collection. Our exploratory results show that all the tsantsas are human and that the collection is comprised of 13 males and 1 female. A total of seven mtDNA haplogroups were found among the tsantsa collection using the mtDNA EMPOP database. These results show a predominance of the Amerindian mtDNA haplogroups B, C and D. Additional principal component analysis, genetic distance tree and haplotype network analyses suggest a relationship between the tsantsa specimens and Native American groups.

Original publication




Journal article


Forensic Science International

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