Black Bag

In the February 27, 1967 edition of the Associated Press this curious news appeared:

A mysterious student has been attending a class at Oregon State University for the past two months enveloped in a big black bag. Only his bare feet show. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11:00 A.M. the Black Bag sits on a small table near the back of the classroom. The class is Speech 113 – basic persuasion… Charles Goetzinger, professor of the class, knows the identity of the person inside. None of 20 students in the class do. Goetzinger said the students’ attitude changes from hostility toward the Black Bag to curiosity and finally to friendship.

Ph.: Robert W. Kelly/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

The masked student never spoke. The fact that only Goetzinger knew who was hiding under the sack, and that he had sworn to keep the secret, made many suspect that the professor himself was the author of the gimmick: was it perhaps a kind of psychological experiment? Was it just a prank, or some kind of political statement?

No one ever knew, and this could ultimately remain a quaint local story. And yet, in a short time, this event changed the world. The mysterious student nicknamed “Black Bag” is the reason why you see the huge arched M of McDonald’s soar in any city; it is the reason why all the beaches are plagued with the notes of summer hits; it is the reason why you will continue to see banner ads on every web page (except this one!) even if no one ever clicks on it.

Robert Zajonc

Robert Zajonc, one of the greatest pioneers of social psychology, learned of the news about Black Bag and saw in watermark the proof of the hypothesis he was working on, and which would occupy a good part of his career.
The following year, 1968, he published his landmark study entitled “Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure” (PDF) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In it, Zajonc took his cue from the case of Black Bag to explain the mere-expsoure effect, or the familiarity principle: when a new and unknown stimulus is presented to us, our first reaction is one of fear or distrust; but the more we are exposed to the same stimulus, the more we develop a positive attitude towards it.

This was exactly what had happened with Black Bag’s classmates: their attitude had changed due to the simple exposure to the presence of the mysterious student, and after the initial aggressive behavior shown towards him, they had gradually come to accept him, becoming friendly and even protective towards him.

Zajonc, for his part, had conducted various kinds of experiments in this regard. In some cases he had shown the participants different faces, words, ideograms; subsequently the subjects were asked to rate their liking of a series of images. And he found that participants were more likely to feel positive about the images they had already seen during the exposure phase.

The fact that mere exposure can create familiarity should obviously not be taken as an absolute rule, because several factors can come into play; Zajonc himself noticed that the effect tended to lessen if the exposure was too prolonged, and subsequent studies have confirmed his results but also shown that things are more complex.
The fact is that marketing, which until then had always focused on the “reasoned” account of product qualities, strengthened by Zajonc’s results, focused more on so-called brand awareness, that is, on making the brand as familiar and recognizable as possible. Less explanation, more repetition: a 2007 study showed that some students exposed to a banner ad while reading an article rated that brand more favorably than its competitors, even if they didn’t remember seeing the ad at all.

The idea that the human being privileges what is familiar was certainly not new even in 1968, but Zajonc had the merit of bringing together an impressive amount of experimental data, collected in multiple contexts and conditions, to support this thesis. In his experiments he showed that often human evaluations are not based so much on reasoning, but rather on emotional reactions — such as the positive response to familiarity. In other words: most of the time we choose what we like, and only in retrospect do we rationalize our choice, looking for logical reasons for a decision that we actually made on an emotional basis. And what we like is what we already know.

This peculiarity of our behavior, which in all probability has an evolutionary basis (choosing something well-known means limiting the unexpected), can easily become a cognitive fallacy, on which big brands make millions. We always choose the same type of pasta, or the path we have traveled a thousand times, and in doing so we lose opportunities and new discoveries.

Ph.: Gm/AP/Shutterstock

And yet … Going back to the mysterious Black Bag, are we sure that “mere exposure” can exhaust the topic? Was that all there was at stake?
One element, it seems to me, has never been taken into serious consideration in all the investigations on the episode, namely its intrinsic surrealism.

Think about it: you’re in class, and a guy dressed in a black sack walks in. This is the irruption of the fantastic into everyday life. It is the unpredictable, the weird that enters the austere and bare classroom of a university.
At first you feel staggered, perhaps a little scared but above all annoyed because that silent presence prevents you from concentrating on the words of your teacher. But then the simple fact that this “disturbing” element is breaking the monotonous routine begins to please you. Suddenly, the lesson becomes memorable.

Black Bag shows up again, and again. Will he come again on Friday? You can’t wait to know, you have to be there, who cares about the class, you need to check! And slowly you realize that there is nothing to fear in that black figure: indeed, it is making you think about many things that you had not considered before. In a formative place, where students are formed as in molds, Black Bag flaunts an irreducible individuality. A paradoxical individuality, given that his dress makes him anonymous and invisible. Invisible, yes, but heavy as a boulder: everyone knows that he’s right there, behind them. What does he think? Is he judging us? Is he snickering? And what would happen if we all went around in a bag? Maybe we would start judging people for who they really are?

In short, the essence of Black Bag’s appearance is intrinsically poetic. The fact that the students learned to love him means only one thing for me: that the bizarre opens the door to enchantment, and it is impossible, after a first, understandable reticence, not to be fascinated by it.

The mystery of the severed heads of Pisa

The University of Pisa was historically one of the first to have an anatomical school; consequently the Museum of Human Anatomy, established at the beginning of the nineteenth century, is very rich in both dry and wet preparations.

It also houses some archaeological collections, including Egyptian and pre-Columbian mummies, and a whole series of artifacts coming in particular from South America.

When I visited it last year, among the many amazing preparations, a cabinet display in particular caught my eye.
It contains eight perfectly mummified heads, which immediately seemed different to me from the rest of the collection. And in fact I was not wrong: even today a mystery surrounds them.

To understand a little bit of the history of these heads we must start from the date of their arrival in Pisa, that is 1869, a period of particular ferment.

Five years earlier, Darwin’s Origin of Species had been translated into Italian, causing quite a stir. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the theory of the evolution fueled the curiosity of researchers and laymen.
In an academic speech delivered in 1874, prof. Pietro Duranti said:

Everyone discusses it, people of all ages, of all sexes, of all conditions; and the desire to descend from the Orangutan or the Gorilla has become a fever. Aside from the exaggeration and the ridicule, the matter is serious; scholarly and distinguished men support it here and there; and Ethnology hopes to solve it.(1)P. Duranti, Discorso pronunziato dal Cav. Prof. Pietro Duranti nel giorno 17 novembre 1874. Tipografia Nistri, Pisa (1875)

To “solve” the question, that is, to understand how evolution works, it was necessary, however, to “gather the appropriate materials“.

Carlo Regnoli, a young Pisan physician and paleontologist, decided to make his contribution, traveling twice to South America (in 1869 and 1872) in search of mummies and pre-Columbian finds. As Duranti said in that same speech:

[Regnoli] crosses the ocean twice; he directs and extends his research to a large part of South America, from the tombs of Argentina to those of the beaches of the Strait of Magellan and of the anthropophagous Patagonia; from the burial grounds of Araucania, of Chile, to those of the very high mountains of Bolivia, to the hypogea of the great Titicaca lake, to the caves of Peru. And everywhere, rummaging and searching, he collects both the remains of the Spaniards, who brought Columbus there, and the remains of the very ancient and unknown aborigines; and he sends everything back to Europe, to his beloved Pisa.

Regnoli sent several crates to Pisa with the antiquities “which he earned at the price of money, inconvenience and dangers“, although not all of them reached their destination because some were lost during shipwrecks: “as soon as they were unearthed from the ground, they were buried again in the deep whirlpools of the ocean“.

However, the amount of material that survived, and which today is part of the Museum of Anatomy in Pisa, was truly remarkable. Among other things, there are various examples of pottery, funeral and votive objects, skulls, fardos — “cocoons” of cloth containing the remains of the deceased — as well as two natural Peruvian mummies, curled up in the classic fetal positioning.(2)G. Natale, A. Paparelli, F. Garbari, Una lettera di Giovanni Arcangeli su alcuni reperti botanici precolombiani della Collezione Regnoli (Museo di anatomia umana dell’Università di Pisa), in Atti della Società toscana di scienze naturali, Mem., Serie B, vol. 113 (2006)

Unfortunately, Carlo Regnoli died shortly after his return to Italy, at the age of 35 in 1873; consequently very little information accompanies the pre-Columbian finds, regarding the dates and places of their discovery.

In the inventory, the eight mummified heads are vaguely cataloged as “Chilean heads”. But who were these individuals, when and how did they die?

The first analyzes, conducted by a multidisciplinary study group(3)P. Barile, M. Longhena, R. Melli, S. Zampetti, P. Lenzi, G. Natale, D. Caramella, El estraño caso de las cabezas decapitadas, Revista DM MD – Ciencia y Cultura Médica, N. 26 (Giugno 2015), have already begun to shed some light on this enigma, even if many questions remain unsolved.

Five heads are male, one female, and two belong to children. The study of the teeth and sutures on the skulls of the two babies indicates that they were less than 16 months old.

The truly macabre detail, however, comes from the examination of the neck: all the heads show clean cuts at the level of the second and third cervical vertebrae; these eight individuals were executed by beheading.

Before being killed, the woman received a blow to the face so violent as to break her nose and swell one eye: there are in fact signs of a ptosis (lowering of the eyelid) of traumatic origin, and the nasal septum is deviated in the same direction where the right eyelid is folded.

Radiocarbon dating made it possible to establish with a high probability that these finds date back to an era between 1440 and 1690.

Right in the middle of this period of time, around 1546, began the longest conflict in history, the Arauco war, fought in Chile between the Mapuche of the Araucania region and the Spanish colonists. The bloody execution of these eight individuals could therefore be linked in some way to the war massacres, but in the absence of further information this remains speculation.

As for the identity of the eight individuals, there is a further element of interest. The anthropological characteristics of the heads of adult males (scalp, hair and beard, shape of the incisors, etc.) seem to suggest that they were Europeans of Caucasian ethnicity; the female, on the other hand, wears two long braids which have similarities with some pre-Columbian cultures and the shape of her teeth would also confirm her indigenous origin. For this reason, a plausible hypothesis is that this was a mixed family, made up of male settlers married to native women.

Was this family massacred in the course of some reprisal or pillage?

DNA analysis will be able to confirm or deny any degree of kinship, but anyways it seems difficult that we can ever trace the true, complete story of these tragically killed people; nor the exact circumstances in which Regnoli came into possession of the heads.

On this subject, it is worth making a final, brief clarification.

To modern eyes, the attitude of a European academic buying human remains or funeral objects belonging to different cultures may seem utterly colonial. And, let’s face it, it is.

Certainly at the time the scruples on the methods of archaeological “collection” were almost non-existent, especially for a discipline such as ethnology which was taking its first steps; but if today these methods seem questionable, it is interesting to remember that the intentions and implications of these studies were often, paradoxically, anti-colonial and anti-racist.

We have already mentioned, at the beginning of this article, the fuss raised by Darwin. From that debate two currents emerged, in many ways opposite to each other: on the one hand, social Spencerism, which was eager to use the evolution of the species and the survival of the fittest to motivate racism and class differences (an idea strongly opposed by Darwin himself); and on the other hand the ethno-anthropological evolutionism, which instead denied the existence of races, claiming that all societies proceeded on the same line of progress. For evolutionists, studying “savage” populations — who were not seen as inferior to the white man but merely situated at a more immature stage of progress — could provide clues as to how the ancestors of Europeans also lived.

Today even this kind of nineteenth-century anthropological evolutionism is outdated (following the decline of the positivist idea of a linear “progress” which, coincidentally, always saw Western societies as the most advanced ones); but it had the merit of countering the scientific claim of racist and colonial theories.

It seems a contradiction, but it’s one of those apparent incongruities history is full of: with the anthropological study of “primitive societies”, carried out by looting tombs and acquiring ethically questionable finds, the historical foundations were laid for the confutation of the existence of races, now proven also at the genetic level.

The eight heads remain silent on the shelf of the Museum, united by a tragic destiny: they are a complex symbol of the violence, oppression and cruelty of which the human being is capable. Their identity, the life they spent, the carnage in which they found their end and even their post-mortem history remain hidden secrets in the folds of time.

Here is the official site of the “Filippo Civinini” Museum of Human Anatomy in Pisa; it is also possible to make a 360 ° virtual visit.


1 P. Duranti, Discorso pronunziato dal Cav. Prof. Pietro Duranti nel giorno 17 novembre 1874. Tipografia Nistri, Pisa (1875)
2 G. Natale, A. Paparelli, F. Garbari, Una lettera di Giovanni Arcangeli su alcuni reperti botanici precolombiani della Collezione Regnoli (Museo di anatomia umana dell’Università di Pisa), in Atti della Società toscana di scienze naturali, Mem., Serie B, vol. 113 (2006)
3 P. Barile, M. Longhena, R. Melli, S. Zampetti, P. Lenzi, G. Natale, D. Caramella, El estraño caso de las cabezas decapitadas, Revista DM MD – Ciencia y Cultura Médica, N. 26 (Giugno 2015)