The genetic signature of a shrunken head

  • Dalia Hermon
  • Ron Gafny
  • Ashira Zamir
  • Lia Hadas
  • Marina Faerman
  • Gila Kahila Bar-GalEmail author
Original Paper


The making of ritual shrunken heads, or tsantsas, was a common practice among the Jivaro-Shuar tribes of Ecuador and Peru during the post-Columbian period. The raising interest in the tsantsas in the late nineteenth through the twentieth century caused an increase in manufacturing of forged shrunken heads for profit. In the current study, we examined the authenticity and possible cultural provenance of the shrunken head displayed at the “Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv” using macro- and microscopic criteria together with DNA analyses. DNA analyses have revealed that the shrunken head represents a human male individual with a genetic profile compatible with an African ancestry and resembling that of modern South American populations.


Shrunken Head Authenticity evaluation Ancient DNA Short tandem repeats Mitochondrial DNA Sex identification 



Mitochondrial DNA


Hypervariable region 1


Nuclear DNA


Polymerase chain reaction


Short tandem repeat



We would like to thank Ms. Hagit Shorek from the “Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv” for giving us an opportunity to study the shrunken head museum item and Dr. I. Aizenberg from The Koret School of Veterinary Medicine, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for providing the sloth hair samples.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dalia Hermon
    • 1
  • Ron Gafny
    • 1
  • Ashira Zamir
    • 2
  • Lia Hadas
    • 3
  • Marina Faerman
    • 4
  • Gila Kahila Bar-Gal
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.DNA and Forensic Biology Laboratory, Division of Identification and Forensic Science (DIFS)Israel Police, National H.Q.JerusalemIsrael
  2. 2.DNA Database Laboratory, Division of Identification and Forensic Science (DIFS)Israel Police, National H.Q.JerusalemIsrael
  3. 3.The Koret School of Veterinary Medicine, The Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and EnvironmentThe Hebrew University of JerusalemRehovotIsrael
  4. 4.Laboratory of Biological Anthropology and Ancient DNA, Faculty of Dental MedicineThe Hebrew University of JerusalemJerusalemIsrael

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