The Movie Prop That Turned Out to Be a Real Amazonian Warrior
When John Huston began shooting for his comedy film Wise Blood in 1979, he did not know that the thing he would use as a prop for his movie based on Flannery O’Connor’s novel in Macon would turn out to be an actual Amazonian warrior.
There have been times in history when looters, travelers, and tourists have visited distant lands and returned home with artifacts they might have thought had no value or were just antiques. Later when the world would come to know about the actual value of the historical object brought back, the owners would be stunned. This is exactly what happened when James Harrison, an Army Air Force officer visited the country of Ecuador in 1942. He met a few locals in the country and chanced upon a decapitated trophy head.
Who found the Head?
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Almost 100 years ago, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, a warrior laid down his life in battle for his tribe. The enemy, rejoicing in victory decided to take the head as a trophy, a practice that was common among Amazonian tribes. The head of the enemy was cut, boiled, and then shrunk into a small trophy that the tribal chief could show off to his tribe as a souvenir of this victory in battle. It was sometime after that when James Harrison landed in Ecuador and came across the head. He immediately decided that this was the souvenir he had to take back home to Georgia with him. He offered the locals some coins, a pocket knife, and a military insignia in exchange for the head. The locals readily agreed and Harrison flew back to Georgia with the head. Since there were no regulations at that time, like the ones that stop the trafficking of cultural artifacts and human remains today, Harrison easily brought the head back home. Harrison kept the head with him for some time and then later when he became a biology professor in Mercer University, Macon he gave the head to the University as a souvenir.
How did it End up In the Movie?
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John Huston was making a movie based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor and the book was based in Macon in Georgia. He decided that’s exactly where he would shoot the film. He came down to Macon and began looking for locations and props he could use. That’s when the Mercer University loaned out the shrunken head to the director for it to be used as a movie prop. Later when the movie was over, the head was taken back and placed into storage at the university.
How did they know it’s real?
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Craig Byron was the man working with Adam Keifer at the University when he first found the head in the storage and took it out for inspection. They initially thought it’s a replica or a fake but when they ran tests on it they realized that this head belonged to a defeated Amazonian warrior. A 33-point checklist was created on which the head was tested, which included measuring the parts of the head, studying the skin, and matching the stitches.
Also known as Tsantsa, these shrunken heads were created from several heads of defeated enemies. The victor used to remove the skull, brain, and facial muscles before sewing the eyes and lips shut. The victor then molded the skin as the head shrunk due to boiling. The result was a trophy-like head of a vanquished foe that could be used to show off as a sign of their strength. This specific Tsantsa at Mercer was made by fusing two heads.
The University decided that they need expert advice on this specimen and so dialed the number of the Ecuadorian Embassy getting in touch with the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the National Cultural Heritage Institute in Ecuador. In collaboration with the Ecuadorian officials, they decided to authenticate the artifact.
During the 1850s, Europeans had developed a fascination for these trophy heads of Tsantsas and so the Amazonian locals used to mass-produce these heads without any ceremonial value. Hence it was important to check whether this head was a mass-produced one or an authentic tsantsa.
Studying the Head
With the help of the Ecuadorian officials, Kiefer and Byron developed a 33 point checklist to check for the authenticity of the head. The list included the skin attributes, the color of the skin, density, and texture. The structure of the face was the next on the list along with the traditional fabrication like traces of charcoal in the head cavity and a hole on the top of the head for attaching a cord. After weeks of careful analysis, they determined that the tsantsa was indeed authentic.
Sending it back to Ecuador
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After studying the head and documenting all that the people at Mercer needed, the University decided that the head had to be sent back to where it belonged. They contacted the Ecuadorian officials once again and asked them to take the head back to their country. The Ecuadorians agreed and the head was taken back to Quito and delivered at the National Cultural Heritage Institute in 2019. The people at Mercer don’t know what happened to the head after that but they believe that it’s up to the country it belonged to. Even today, a lot of artifacts from colonized lands and third-world countries adorn the offices, government buildings, and museums of the colonial powers. British museums are filled with artifacts from India, China, the Middle East, South East Asia, Africa, etc. The artifacts that the Louvre has have all been taken without permission from lands that did not belong to the French. But what Mercer did by returning the lost artifact to Ecuador is something that all countries should learn from and do the same by returning the heritage to their respective lands.