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Courtesy of the Field Museum

A Nasca trophy head from a tomb at the site of Cahuachi. Courtesy of the Field Museum.

New research changes story on South American skulls at Field

by Melissa Suran
Jan 13, 2009


Melissa Suran/MEDILL

Obama’s cosmic joke: Heads and tales

Trophy heads continue to be a part of the Field Museum collection, but they are not on exhibit.

While many Peruvians do not consider the display of human remains as wrong, some American cultures believe displaying burial items is disrespectful to the dead. Many of those same cultures have also requested that the museum return the remains of their ancestors to them.

“We have repatriated Native North American burial [items] at the request of those groups,” Field Museum curator Ryan Williams said. “It’s an ancient American exhibit; it’s not just about Peru, so we respect the most restrictive norms.”

Many Chicago residents may also remember the museum’s collection of shrunken heads, which went back into storage about 15 years ago. President-elect Barack Obama mentioned seeing them at the museum in his book, “Dreams from My Father”:

“At the Field Museum, I saw two shrunken heads that were kept on display. They were wrinkled but well preserved, each the size of my palm, their eyes and mouths sewn shut, just as I would have expected. They appeared to be of European extraction: The man had a small goatee, like a conquistador; the female had flowing red hair. I stared at them for a long time (until my mother pulled me away), feeling – with the morbid glee of a young boy – as if I had stumbled upon some sort of cosmic joke.”

Those interested in Nasca culture can still visit the museum’s Ancient Americas exhibit where they can view remnants of Nasca pottery, many depicting images of trophy heads.

But as to the shrunken heads? Forget about it. They're kept in storage far from prying eyes.

The mysterious human skulls found in Peruvian tombs gave scientists a headache for almost a century. Now, researchers have uncovered the source of the skulls, held by Chicago’s Field Museum.

In a new study, which will appear later this year in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, researchers from Chicago, Indianapolis and Tempe, Ariz., disproved the old theory that the heads came from enemies. By taking a closer look at diet and DNA, the research team concluded that these heads, which date back to over 1,000 years ago, came from the same community in Nasca, Peru as the corpses with which they were buried.

“It wasn’t inter-regional warfare behind the trophy cult, but members of their own society whose heads were being trophied,” said researcher Ryan Williams, the Field Museum's associate curator of archaeological science for South America.

The skulls, known as trophy heads, have holes punctured through the foreheads with cord strung through them, allowing people to wear the heads around their necks or carry them.

Williams, who is also a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, said it made sense to research trophy heads found in the museum’s collection.

“Museums are a bank of human history,” he said. “Bringing human history to the public [is important]…and we need to be able to research [artifacts and remains] to understand the secrets that are locked in these precious objects.”

Williams said he and his research team of four others sampled 16 trophy heads out of the museum’s collection of 18, comparing their isotopic levels of strontium, oxygen and carbon to see if they matched.

“We used a biogeochemical approach to assess whether the people ate the same food or drank the same water,” he said.

The researchers scraped off a small section of each head’s tooth enamel and turned it into powder to test the isotopic levels in the bone. If the levels of all three elements in the skulls were similar to the levels of other human remains found in the area, then the research team identified the skulls as ancient local residents.

While the damage to each skull was minimal, the data collected was immense. The results from the experiments, which took two years to compile and analyze, showed that all but two of the skulls shared similar levels of all three elements.

The lead author of the team’s trophy head report, Kelly Knudson, a professor at Arizona State University, said she and her colleague, Kathleen Forgey, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago at the time of the study, they were on to something after coming up with the same data through different means. Knudson performed the isotopic analysis while Forgey analyzed the DNA.

“We used the same individuals but didn’t share the results at first,” Knudson said. “It was nice to get different lines of the evidence that point to the same conclusions.”

Although Knudson acknowledged that the concept of carrying around trophy heads might be hard to swallow for many in western society, she said people need to step outside the box and understand that trophy heads were sacred in Nasca culture.

“It’s easy for people to focus on this being based on warfare,” Knudson said. “It’s important for people to see this as something ritual.”

Donna Nash, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that although the study suggests that the trophy heads belonged to Nasca locals, there is still the possibility that the deaths of the previous owners somehow tied into warfare.

“Some heads do show evidence of violent trauma, so we should not immediately rule out warfare,” said Nash, who is married to Williams.

Even though research has confirmed the origin of the trophy heads, why they were ritualistic in Nasca society remains a mystery.

Although there is no definitive answer to the question, Williams said Nasca art could provide clues about the significance of trophy heads in Nasca society.

“Mythical beings portrayed on the iconography of [Nasca] pots show [them holding] trophy heads,” Williams said. “They were probably used on some special occasions, probably not associated with daily use.”

Based on Nasca pottery collections, many believe trophy heads were probably associated with agricultural fertility. They also may have been objects belonging to powerful individuals such as village shamans.

“Archaeologists who study the icons on Nasca ceramic vessels and other media have found links between trophy head images and sprouting seeds,” Nash said. “In some cases, plants are shown growing out of trophy heads.”

She said this discovery supports the theory that the Nasca used trophy heads for fertility rituals.

There may also be a connection between the Nasca and a culture roughly contemporary with them – the Moche.

“The Moche sacrificed nobles, following ritual battles between pairs of armed warriors,” Nash said. “The Moche case is similar, however, because recent biological distance studies have found that Moche sacrifice victims were genetically related to elites buried in wealthy tombs at the same site.”

Although the ages and sex of the trophy heads vary, most were young adult males. The theories vary from the original owner being a sacrificial victim to being a beloved family member or ancestor. Since there is very little evidence pointing in one direction or another, it is still unknown who these people were.

Because the trophy heads were most likely the skulls of Nasca residents, however, they might provide more information pertaining to the formation of government. The Nasca civilization was more like a small state or a kingdom rather than an empire. It wasn’t until the rise of the Wari, who succeeded the Nasca and ruled over them from hundreds of miles away, that southern Peru saw an imperial government.

“[The Wari] incorporated some of the Nasca ways of life during the emergence of regional political groups,” Williams said. “If we understand the meaning of the heads to the Nasca people, it will allow us to understand the cultural context of how the empire emerged and later flourished.”

Whether a person became a trophy head because of family feuds, capital punishment or other reasons remains unknown. Both Williams and Knudson believe that with numerous other scientists investigating, however, eventually someone will solve this mystery.

To view the journal article of the study online, visit