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Still life of other shrunken heads displayed inside a glass globe, surrounded by four other shrunken heads, their lips sewn together with twine.
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  • Researchers at a Georgia University have authenticated a "shrunken head" that has been on display for decades.
  • The tsantsa, as it's known in Amazonian languages, was also featured in the 1979 film "Wise Blood."
  • Researchers spent years trying to authenticate the artifact so it can be sent back to Ecuador.
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A shrunken head artifact that has been on display for decades at a Georgia university and was featured as a prop in the 1979 John Huston film "Wise Blood," has been authenticated as a real human head and will be returned to Ecuador, the country from where it originates.

Mercer University in Macon acquired the head, known as a "tsantsa" in Amazonian languages, after a former faculty member came into possession of the artifact while serving in the US military, according to a new research paper on the ceremonial antique published this week.

Researchers at the university have spent years performing tests to authenticate the tsantsa to determine if the object can be returned to Ecuador's government, including reconstructing a three-dimensional model and performing CT scans on the artifact, according to NBC News.

"It's a relief to have the specimen out of our possession," Craig D. Byron, one of the paper's authors, told The Art Newspaper. "It had 'underground' value; it was illegal to trade or sell; it was the skin from a person's head."

The university's tests proved the tsantsa was genuine, meaning its creators removed the skull and flesh on the head and stitched the eyes and mouth shut before boiling it and filling it with hot stones, NBC reported.

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Shrunken heads became popular keepsakes in some parts of the world during the 19th century, leading researchers to worry that the tsantsa at Mercer may have been one of the many fakes made to meet demand long ago.

But according to the research paper, the scientist's tests found the head in question met 30 of the 33 authentication factors, including the hairstyle unique to the Ecuadorian Amazon region from where it came.

Tsantsas were cultural artifacts made using human remains of male members of the Amazonian peoples native to Ecuador and Peru until the mid-20th century, according to the research paper.

In addition to being a display item, the tsantsa was also featured in "Wise Blood," the film version of a novel by author Flannery O'Connor, who resided near Macon. For the John Huston film, the head was glued to a tiny body prop and worshipped by one of the film's characters. Researchers said they were able to recognize damage to the artifact caused by the glue.

Mercer University repatriated the shrunken head in 2019 to the Ecuadorian Consulate in Atlanta, NBC reported, though it was unclear if it had been returned to the country yet.

"We wanted it to be viewed by people who could appreciate it in an appropriate context," Adam Kiefer, a co-author of a study told the outlet.

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