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Sci, May 2003, Vol. 48, No.

J Forell~l'c
Paper ID JFS2002307-483
Available online at: www.astm.org


John W. eran no, ' Ph.D.

Mummified Trophy Heads from Peru: Diagnostic

Features and Medicolegal Significance*
Authorized Reprint fmrn Jouma of Forensic Sciences, May 2003 QMpyright 2003
ASTM INTERNATIONAL. 100 Barr Harbor Drive, PO Box C700, West Conshohocken,PA 19428-2959

ABSTRACT: Several forms of mummified human trophy heads were produced by prehistoric and historic native groups in South America. This
namrdescribesthe diaenostic features of troohv heads deed bv the Nascaculture of ancient Peru. A emwine interest in these m d e d heads
%n - collectors
. . of~ &-columbian
~~~~~ ~ ~ an~
~ ~~~~~~ andkriiauities'has
~ ~ ~
~& ~ ~~~ led toiheir illeeal exwnntion
~~ ~ ~~ ~ ~, from Pe~
~~~~ ~~ ru. in\iolati&
~ ~ - .--
~ ~ . of national and
~~~~ ~ ~ -international
~~~ ~ -
~~~~ ~~an-~~~ ~

ciities laus Requests from the Peruvh govemnlent to protM its cull~~i~pafnrnony led the United Slntes in 1997 to declare these headsas ialo\
,ubject to U.S. impon resuiction. alonp with six nhcr ~:~~cgories of h u m re&. Despite such resuictions. Nsscatrophy bed, continue to reach
private coUectors outside of Peru aod thus may be encountered by local, state, or federal law enforcement officials unfamiliar with their character-
istic features and origin. The objective of this paper is to describe the feamres that allow Naxa trophy heads tobe identified and distinguished born
other archaeological&d forensic specimens that may be submitted to a forensic anthropologist f& i-hentification.

KEYWORDS: forensic science. fo~ensicanthropology, h u m identification,trophy h U s , shrunken heads, culcllral propmy, Peru

Trophy skulls brought home by U.S. soldiers following World by archaeologists and by grave robbers (15.16)-and in some
War I1 and the Vietnam conflict have occasionallv been encoun- cases have been exported from Pem for sale to antiquities collec-
tered by law enforcement personnel and submitted to forensic an- tors despite Peruvian laws that pmhibit the unlicensed export of
thropologists for identification (1-3). The principal issues in these antiquities.
cases are the medicolegal significance of the remains and the cir- This article first considers the medicolegal significance of Nasca
cumstances under which they were discovered. Historically, the trophy heads, outlining recent intemational agreements and import
practice of collecting skulls or other human remains from victims restrictions that attempt to control the illegal trafficking of these
of armed conflict is widespread across time and space and not lim- andother ancient human remains. It then describes the diagnostic
ited to recent wars (4-5). Human trophies of diverse cultural and features of Nasca trophy heads that allow them to be specifically
geographic origins can be found in museums as well as private col- identified. Finally, Nasca trophy heads are situated within the
lections worldwide. Some of the best-known examples of trophies larger context of recent trends in the collection and sale of human
collected by New World cultures are human scalps and shrunken remains.
heads (7-10). Less widelv known are mummified trouhv. heads
produced by two Soulh American p u p , the historic Mundumcu
~ d ~~ ~ i l o f@
~ ~a s e a~~~~h~
~~ l"~dS~ ~
ot'tropical B w l l and the prehiaoric Nascn of southern coastal Peru
(1 1). unlike livaro shrunken heads, these are full-size mummified On June 9, 1997, the United States and the Republic of Pem
human heads with desiccated skin and hair overlying the skull. signed a Memorandum of Undemmding that imposes impon re-
Mundurucd trophy heads are extremely rare, and only a few exam- strictions on specific categories of Pre-Columbian archaeological
ples have been described and published (12). Nasca trophy heads materials and Colonial ethnological material, pursuant to the pro-
are more numerous and are well known to specialists in South visions of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation
American prehistory and physical anthropology (13.14). More im- Act (Public Law 97-446.19 U.S. C. 2601 et seq.) (17). TheMem-
portantly, Nasca trophy heads continue to be discovered-both orandum of Understanding includes a designated list of arc-
logical and ethnological material that may not be imported into the
united States unless accompanied by a i export ceiificate issued
' Depamnent of Anthropology. T u h e University. 1021 Audubon Sueet, by the Government of Peru. Although previous agreements, most
New Orleans, LA.
* Sources of support: Fulbright LecNmhip fmm the Council for the Inter- notably the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibit-
d o n a 1 Exchange of kholus, and travel fundi- from the Office of Quincen- ing and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Own-
tenary Progmms at t k Smithsonian Institution A preliminaq version of this ership of Cultural Property (18). have been adopted by various
p a p , "Mummified Trophy Heads from Peru: Coming to a Medimlegal Con- countries to control international antiquities trade, the 1997 Mem-
text near you?" was presented at the 53rd Annual Meeting of the American
Academy of Fonnsic Sciences, February 2001, Seattle, Washington. orandum of Understanding between the United States and Peru
h i v e d 2 Sept. 20(n, and in revised form 7 Dec. 2002: accepted 7 Dee. goes further in listing specific categories of human remains as sub-
2002; published 12Mar.2003. ject to import restriction. The categories of remains listed under

Copyright O uX)3 by ASTM International, 100 B m H a h r Drive, PO Box 0,

West Conshohocken,PA 19428-2959.

Section VI of the Designated List include: "Mummified Human Diagnostic Features of Nasca Trophy Heada
Remains," "Deformed Human Skulls," "Skulls Displaying Trepa-
nation," "Re-Columbian Trophy Heads," "Shrunken Trophy Nasca trophy heads can be recognized by the presence of two
Heads from the Amamn," "Tattoos," and "False Shrunken Heads." principal features: ( I ) damage to the base of the skull, which can
The list, along with photographs of repmentatwe specimens, can vnry from slight enlargement of the foramen magnum to the com-
be found on the U.S. State Department International Cultural Prop- plete removal of the base and posterior portion of the skull. and (2)
erty Protecrion Web Site (18). The category "'F'mColumbian Tro- a perforation through the frontal bone at or near the midline (Fig.
phy Heads" refers specifically to Nasea mummified trophy heads, 1). These two feanms are imponant because they are recognizable
which are described as follows on the web ate: even in fragmentary or poorly preserved specimens.
In Nasca trophy heads with preserved skin and hair, other fea-
Tmphy heads can be identified by the hole made in the fore- tures such as cactus spines through the lips and a canying wrd
head to accommodate a carrying cord. When the skin is in- emerging from the perforation in the frontal bone are typically
tact, the eyes and the mouth are held shut with cactus thorns. found. These heads were intentionally mummified in order to pre-
Finally, the occiput is missing since that is how the brain was serve the skin, scalp. and hair, and well-preserved examples are
removed when the trophy head was prepared (18). quite life-like in appearance (Fig. 2). The s-1~ means by which
the heads were prepared is unknown, since the ancient Nasca (c.
The 1997 Memorandum of Understanding grew out of an in- 200 KC.-A.D. 600) left no written recad, but the general steps in-
creasing concern among Peruvian museum and customs officials volved can be reconstructed based on a physical examination of nu-
over the illegal exportation of ancient human remains from archae- merous specimens. The head was fmt separated from the body by
ological sites in Peru, despite the fact that as cultural property their severing it at the neck, and the remaining cenical vertebrae, as well
export was prohibited by the 1970 UNESCO Convention. A wl- as soft tissue structures of upper neck and the base of the skull
lection of Nasca trophy heads bound for the international an mar- (muscles, throat structures, the tongue), were removed The base of
ket was intercepted and confiscated by customs officials at Lima's the skull was broken open and the brain and suppolting membranes
Jorge Chavez International Airport in the 1980s (19). Other Nasca extracted through the opening. A hole was then punched or cut
trophy heads are known to be in private collections in the United through the frontal bone in the approximate center of the forehead
States and elsewhere, as indicated by collectors' inquiries to muse- for the attachment of a suspensory cord. Typically the lips were
ums describing specimens and requesting information on them. It pinned shut with two cactus spines, and occasionally the eyelids
is likely, given the continuing problem of the illegal exportation of were pinned shut as well. The temporalis and maseter muscles fre-
cultural pahimony from countries like Peru, that U.S. customs of- quently were dissected away and the lower jaw disarticulated by
ficers and other law enforcement permnuel may encounter Nasca cutting through the temporomandibular joint capsule. The jaw was
trophy heads and have the need to properly identify them. Diag- then &culated and tied to the zygomatic arches with cloth strips
nostic featlrres described below should make such identification to retain it in proper a~ticulationwith the mouth closed (11,16).
relatively straightforward. Wads of textile orraw cotton were commonly stuffed in the cheeks

FIG.I-SkrlrronizcdNa~ru rrophy head (fmral and bur111w e w ) showit2~ rhe dlagnasricfeatures of a perfomtion through thefmml Md damage ro
rhe base of the skull. from Crrm Campo. Polpa, Rio Gmndr de .Vosco.

materials, including twined vegetable fiber, cotton textile, or hair

cut from the victim's head. The cord may he very simple, or it may
have tassels or other objects attached to it. h~two cases I have ex-
amined, a desiccated tongue (presumably that of the victim) was
tied to the suspensory cord (Fig. 4).
While the extremely arid environment of southern coastal Peru
tends to preserve organic remains, not all Nasca trophy heads ate
equally well preserved due to local variations in groundwater and
soil characteristics. Many show some deterioration of soft tissue,
and in some cases heads are skeletonized with only traces of desic-
cated tissue remaining (Fig. 1). Poorly preserved trophy heads are
still identifiable, however, by the frontal perforation and damaged
base. These skulls also reveal some additional details of the prepa-
ration process nonnally obscured in weu-prese~edspecimens by
overlying soft tissue. Details of the frontal perforation are more
easily examined and reveal that most were produced by repeated
percussion with a pointed object, probably a chipped stone. Some
frontal perforations show enlargement of the margins by grooving
or cutting, and wear polish from contact with the suspensory cord
is present in some specimens (16). The frontal perforations of
Nasca trophy heads supefl~ciallyresemble gunshot exit wounds
FIG.2-Well-pms head v ?sewation of skin, due to their externally beveled margins, but careful examination of
hair, andsuspensoryc 11de Ar . ?gia,Arqueologia, these margins reveals multiple percussion pits or cut marks that
y Historia, i0.m~ rule out such an interpretation (Fig. 5). Damage to the base of the
skull might also he mistaken for gunshot injury, but a similar pat-
tern of multiple percussion scars is found here as well. The Nasca
had neither tireams nor metal m l s , hence bullet wipe or other
metal residue should not be o b s e ~ e din radiographs of trophy
Nasca trophy heads commonly show numerous cut marks on ex-
posed bone surfaces. These tend to be concentrated around the at-
tachment sites of the major neck and chewing muscles (Fig. 6).but
are also found on other areas of the vault and facial skeleton. They

used ro,... ., .,. ,
to cm,....,,.
F and tenile
I,V-llJ l-ightzygo-

mric arch). Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Arqueologh, y Historia,


and eye sockets, presumably to maintain a full and life-like a p

pearanoe of the face (Fig. 3).
A study by the author of 85 Nasca trophy heads housed in vari-
ous museums in the United States and Peru ( I 1) nnd a review of
other published descriptions of tmphy heads'(l6,20,21) has con-
firmed this general pattern as well as revealing some minor varia-
tions. For example, the degreeof damageto the base of the skull is
variable, ranging from minor enlargement of the foramen magnum
to removal of most of the skull base and posterior pottion of the FIG.4--Tmphy hcad with dcsiccaed tongue o'ed to suspmso'y cord
skull vault. The suspensorycord can be constructed of a vari&y of Musw Nrrcional de A~uropobgh,Aqueologia, y K i o M

FIG. 5-Detailed views of two examples offronnfnlpetfomtions,showing their superficial resemblance to gunskor injury. From Cerm Carapo, Palpa,
Rio Gvande de Nasca

FIG. 6--Skeletonized trophy head showing nuznemur cut mark on rhe cmniurn and ntandi6le. From Cerro Campo, Polpo, Rio Grande de Nmcu

appear to have been made during preparation of the fleshed head uncomolled domestic and intemational commerce in human re-
prior to drying it and suggest that the skin of the face and scalp was mains. Although not specifically mentioned in the 1970UNESCO
retracted to facilitate dissection of muscles and insertion of cloth in
theeye sockets and cheek areas (11.16).
Convention. Nasca trouhv heads and other human remains from ar-
chaeological sites fall under the category of national cultural prop
Additional features may be useful for evaluating the authenticity erty, and any such material imported into the United States after
of a suspeaed Nasca mphy head. Nasca @ophyheads should be 1970 is subject to seizureand repatriation to its country of origin.
prehistoric in date and be of individuals of indigenous southern Pe- The 1997 Memorandum of Understanding between the United
ruvian ancestry. A majority, but not all, Nasca trophy heads show States and Peru goes further in specifically identifyhg human re-
aaificial cranial deformation of an anterior-posterior form that was mains as material subject to import restriction. Given the evidence
produced during infancy using cloth bands and cotton pads (16). A of increasing commerce in human remains of undocumented origin
skull showing aanial deformation would therefore be consistent (23). forensic anthropologists can anticipate more frequent re-
w i k a l t h o u g h not strictly diagnostic of-Nasca origin. If authen- quests from customs and law enforcement officials to identify such
tication of antiquity is necessary, radiocarbon dating of a small material. Familiarity with the diagnostic features of Nasca trophy
e dried tissue or bone can be oerformed bv the accelerator
s a m ~ l of
mass spemornehy (AMS) method with minimal damage to the
heads is essential for their nrooer identification and for distin-
guishing them from other archaeological and forensic specimens.
specimen. Nasca trophy heads should date between approximately
U H ) B.C. and A.D. 600 (13); a snbstantially more recent date would
suggest that the specimen is not authentic. While I am not aware of
This research was made possible by a Fulbright Lectmship in
any falsified Nasca trophy heads being sold to antiquities collec-
Pern from the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars
tors, the sale of falsified attifacts on the international axt market is
and by travel funding from the Office of Quincemenary Programs
a common practice (22). and it would not he difficult for an enter-
at the Smithsonian institution. 1 am gmefnl to the following m u s s
prising individual to modify a head from a mummy in an attempt to
create a more marketable "trophy head." The production and mar-
urns ior permission to study and photograph their coUections: in
Peru, t h e ~ u s e o
Nacional de Ant&Polo~a,~Arqueolo~a ist to ria
keting of false Jivam shrunken heads a as a well-known practice in
and the Mu\eo Arqueolngico de 13 Universidad Nacional Msyorde
Ecuador and Panama in tlle late 19th and early 20th centuries, and
San Marcos. and. in the United Svaes. the Field Museum of Natu-
crude falsifications continue to be made up to the present day
ral History, Chicago, and the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emay
(9,lO). Curiously, the 1997 US.-Peru memorandum designates as
University, Atlanta. I also thank archaeologistsHelaine Silverman
restricted items not only genuine Amazonian shtunken heads but
and David Browne for the invitation to study the C m o Carapo tm-
also "false" sbnmken heads. Presumably this blanket restriction is
phy heads in Pern. All photographs are by the author.
not intended to claim fakes as Pernvian national patlimony, but in-
stead to assist customs officials uncertain about the authenticity of
a questioned item by placing the burden of proof on the individual
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