An accelerator propels charged particles, such as protons or electrons, at high speeds, close to the speed of light. They are then smashed either onto a target or against other particles circulating in the opposite direction. By studying these collisions, physicists are able to probe the world of the infinitely small. When the particles are sufficiently energetic, a phenomenon that defies the imagination happens: the energy of the collision is transformed into matter in the form of new particles, the most massive of which existed in the early Universe. This phenomenon is described by Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, according to which matter is a concentrated form of energy, and the two are interchangeable.
As for the second question, from a quick search it turns out that I’m not the only fool asking it: on the internet, as soon as one claims to be working on an accelerator, he or she is overwhelmed by the requests of those who can’t wait to get hit by a bundle of protons in the hope of acquiring superpowers.
Even some physicists at CERN have tried to answer the age-old question of the hand-in-the-accelerator, in the first 4 minutes of this video.
And yet, either because they might know everything about physics but they’re not doctors, or because it is too childish and frivolous a question, these luminaries seem rather clueless and their attempts to answer can be summed up in a quite embarrassed “we don’t know”. (How come they didn’t prepare a better answer? Has no one ever asked them stupid questions before?)
Well, no harm done, because on this delicate issue the only scientist whose answer I would blindly trust is not at CERN, but in Russia.
His name is Anatoli Bugorski, and he didn’t put his hand in a particle accelerator… he stuck his whole head in one.
Inspecting such a monster is not quite like opening the hood of your car anche and checking the engine – although, for this writer, these two activities are equally esoteric. To perform maintenance that morning, Burgoski had to actually slip into the accelerator circuit. Therefore, before heading downstairs, he told the control center to turn off the beam in the next five minutes.
He arrived at the experimental room a minute or two in advance, but did not pay it too much attention because he found the door was open; furthermore, the safety signal was off, meaning that the machinery was no longer in operation. “How efficient, my good old pals, up at the station! – he must have thought – Knowing I was coming down here, they’ve already turned everything off.”
The boys in the control room.
All being nice and quiet, he decided to open the accelerator.
What he didn’t know was that the door had been left ajar by mistake; and that the light bulb inside the warning sign had just burned out.
As soon as he peeked inside the corridor, his head was instantly pierced by a beam of protons of 2×3 millimeters in size, shot at a dizzying speed. Burgoski saw a flash “brighter than a thousand suns”, as the beam entered the back of the skull and, in a fraction of a second, burned a straight line through his brain, coming out near his left nostril.
The whole thing was too fast for Burgoski to feel any pain; but not fast enough (at least, this is what I like to imagine) to prevent him from mentally cursing the security staff.
Burgoski was taken to the infirmary, and within a short time the left half of his face was swelling. The beam had pierced his middle ear, and the wound continued to slowly burn the nerves in his face. But the real problem was radiation.
In that thousandth of a second, Bugorski had been exposed to a radiation of 200,000 / 300,000 röntgen, which is 300 times greater than the lethal amount.
To the scientists, this unfortunate graduate student had suddenly become an interesting case study.
Burgoski’s days were numbered, so he was rushed to a clinic in Moscow to be placed under observation during what were presumably the last couple of weeks of his life. Scholars came from all over just to watch him die, because no one before him had ever been the victim of such a concentrated beam of radiation, as this article in The Atlantic reminds us:
unique to Bugorski’s case, radiation was concentrated along a narrow beam through the head, rather than being broadly distributed from nuclear fallout, as was the case for many victims of the Chernobyl disaster or the bombing of Hiroshima. For Bugorski, particularly vulnerable tissues, such as bone marrow and the gastrointestinal track, might have been largely spared. But where the beam shot through Bugorski’s head, it deposited an obscene amount of radiation energy, hundreds of times greater than a lethal dose.
Yet, in spite of any prediction, Burgoski did not die.
Following the accident he completely lost hearing from his left ear (replaced by a tinnitus), suffered epileptic seizures and facial hemiparesis for the rest of his life. But apart from this damage, which was permanent but not lethal, he recovered his health completely: within 18 months he was back to work, he completed his doctorate and continued his career as a scientist and experimental coordinator.
He was forbidden from talking about his accident until the end of the 1980s, due to Russia’s secrecy policy surrounding anything even remotely connected with nuclear power. Burgoski is still alive and well at the age of 77.
Maybe his story does not exactly answer our childish question about what would happen if we stuck our hand inside an accelerator, but it can give us a rough idea.
As summarized by Professor Michael Merrifield in the aforementioned video:
Two dissected heads. Color plate by Gautier D’Agoty (1746).
Starting from the end of the Middle Ages, the bodies of those condemned to death were commonly used for anatomical dissections. It was a sort of additional penalty, because autopsy was still perceived as a sort of desecration; perhaps because this “cruelty” aroused a certain sense of guilt, it was common for the dissected bodies to be granted a burial in consecrated ground, something that would normally have been precluded to criminals.
But during the nineteenth century dissecting the bodies of criminals began to have a more specific reason, namely to understand how the anatomy of a criminal differed from the norm. A practice that continued until almost mid-twentieth century.
The following picture shows the head of Peter Kürten (1883-1931), the infamous Vampire of Düsseldorf whose deeds inspired Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931). Today it is exhibited at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not by Winsconsin Dells.
Cesare Lombroso, who in spite of his controversial theories was one of the pioneers and founders of modern criminology, was convinced that the criminal carried in his anatomy the anomalous signs of a genetic atavism.
The Museum dedicated to him, in Turin, retraces his reasoning, his convictions influenced by theories in vogue at the time, and gives an account of the impressive collection of heads he studied and preserved. Lombroso himself wanted to become part of his museum, where today the criminologist’s entire skeleton is on display; his preserved, boneless head is not visible to the public.
Head of Cesare Lombroso.
Similar autopsies on the skull and brain of the murderers almost invariably led to the same conclusion: no appreciable anatomical difference compared to the common man.
A deterministic criminology — the idea, that is, that criminal behavior derives from some anatomical, biological, genetic anomaly — has a comforting appeal for those who believe they are normal.
This is the classic process of creation/labeling of the different, what Foucault called “the machinery that makes qualifications and disqualifications“: if the criminal is different, if his nature is deviant (etymologically, he strays from the right path on which we place ourselves), then we will sleep soundly.
Numerous research suggests that in reality anyone is susceptible to adopt socially deplorable behavior, given certain premises, and even betray their ethical principles as soon as some specific psychological mechanisms are activated (see P. Bocchiaro, Psicologia del male, 2009). Yet the idea that the “abnormal” individual contains in himself some kind of predestination to deviance continues to be popular even today: in the best case this is a cognitive bias, in the worst case it’s plain deceit. A striking example of mala fides is provided by those scientific studies financed by tobacco or gambling multinationals, aimed at showing that addiction is the product of biological predisposition in some individuals (thus relieving the funders of such reasearch from all responsibility).
But let’s go back to the obsession of nineteenth-century scientists for the heads of criminals. What is interesting in our eyes is that often, in these anatomical specimens, what was preserved was not even the internal structure, but rather the criminal’s features.
In the picture below you can see the skin of the face of Martin Dumollard (1810-1862), who killed more than 6 women. Today it is kept at the Musée Testut-Latarjet in Lyon.
It was tanned while his skull was being studied in search of anomalies. It was the skull, not the skin, the focus of the research. Why then take the trouble to prepare also his face, detached from the skull?
Dumollard is certainly not the only example. Also at the Testut-Latarjet lies the facial skin of Jules-Joseph Seringer, guilty of killing his mother, stepfather and step-sister. The museum also exhibits a plaster cast of the murderer, which offers a more realistic account of the killer’s features, compared to this hideous mask.
For the purposes of physiognomic and phrenological studies of the time, this plaster bust would have been a much better support than a skinned face. Why not then stick to the cast?
The impression is that preserving the face or the head of a criminal was, beyond any scientific interest, a way to ensure that the memory of guilt could never vanish. A condemnation to perpetual memory, the symbolic equivalent of those good old heads on spikes, placed at the gates of the city — as a deterrent, certainly, but also and above all as a spectacle of the pervasiveness of order, a proof of the inevitability of punishment.
This sort of upside-down damnatio memoriæ, meant to immortalize the offending individual instead of erasing him from collective memory, can be found in etchings, in the practice of the death masks and, in more recent times, in the photographs of guillotined criminals.
Death masks of hanged Victorian criminals (source).
Guillotined: Juan Vidal (1910), Auguste DeGroote (1893), Joseph Vacher (1898), Canute Vromant (1909), Lénard, Oillic, Thépaut and Carbucci (1866), Jean-Baptiste Picard (1862), Abel Pollet (1909), Charles Swartewagher (1905), Louis Lefevre (1915), Edmond Claeys (1893), Albert Fournier (1920), Théophile Deroo (1909), Jean Van de Bogaert (1905), Auguste Pollet (1909).
All these heads chopped off by the executioner, whilst referring to an ideal of justice, actually celebrate the triumph of power.
But there are four peculiar heads, which impose themselves as a subversive and ironic contrappasso. Four more heads of criminals, which were used to mock the prison regime.
These are the effigies that, placed on the cushions to deceive the guards, allowed Frank Morris, together with John and Clarence Anglin, to famously escape from Alcatraz (the fourth accomplice, Allen West, remained behind).Sculpted with soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and cement powder, and decorated with hair collected at the prison’s barbershop, these fake heads are the only remaining memory of the three inmates who managed to escape from the maximum security prison — along with their mug shots.
Although unwittingly, Morris and his associates had made a real détournement of a narrative which had been established for thousands of years: an iconography that aimed to turn the head and face of the condemned man into a mere simulacrum, in order to dehumanize him.
The Templo Mayor, built between 1337 and 1487, was the political and religious heart of Tenochtitlán, the city-state in Valley of Mexico that became the capital of the Aztec empire starting from the 15th Century.
Since its remains were accidentally discovered in 1978, during the excavations for Mexico City’s subway, archeologists have unearthed close to 80 ceremonial buildings and an extraordinary number of manufacts from the Aztec (Mexica) civilization.
Among the most peculiar findings, there are some masks created from human skulls.
These masks are quite elaborate: the back of the skull was removed, probably in order to wear them or apply them to a headgear; the masks were colored with dye; flint blades and other decorations were inserted into the eye sockets and nostrils.
In 2016 a team of anthropologists from the University of Montana conducted an experimental research on eight of these masks, comparing them with twenty non-modified skulls found on the same site, in order to learn their sex, age at death, possible diseases and life styles. The results showed that the skull masks belonged to male individuals, 30 to 45-years old, with particularly good teeth, indicating above-average health. From the denture’s shape the anthropologists even inferred that these men came from faraway locations: Toluca Valley, Western Mexico, the Gulf coast and other Aztec towns in the Valley of Mexico. Therefore the skulls very likely belonged to prisoners of noble origins, excellently nourished and lacking any pathologies.
Human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor, for which the Aztecs are sadly known, were a spectacle that could entail different procedures: sometimes the victims were executed by beheading, sometimes through the extraction of the heart, or burned, or challenged to deathly combats.
The masks were produced from the bodies of sacrified warriors; wearing them must have had a highly symbolic value.
If these items survived the ravages of time, it’s because they’re made of bones. But there existed other, more unsettling disguises that have been inevitably lost: the masks made from the flayed skin of a sacrified enemy’s face.
The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described these skin masks as tanned to look “like glove leather” and said that they were worn during celebrations of military victories. Other masks, made of human skin, were displayed as offerings on temple altars, just as a number of the skull masks, reanimated by shell and stone eyeballs, noses, and tongues, were buried in offerings at the Templo Mayor. Because a defeated enemy’s former powers were believed to be embedded in his skin and bones, masks made of his relics not only transferred his powers to the new owner but could serve as worthy offerings to the god as well.
(Cecelia F. Klein, Aztec Masks, in Mexicolore, September 2012)
During a month-long ceremony called Tlacaxiphualiztli, “the Flaying of Men”, the skin of sacrified prisoners was peeled off and worn for twenty days to celebrate the war god Xipe Totec. The iconography portrays this god clothed in human skin.
Such masks, wether made of bone or of skin, have a much deeper meaning than the ritual itself. They play an important role in establishing identity:
In Aztec society a warrior who killed his first captive was said to ‘assume another face.’ Regardless of whether this expression referred literally to a trophy mask or was simply a figure of speech, it implies that the youth’s new “face” represented a new social identity or status. Aztec masks therefore must be understood as revelations, or signs, of a person’s special status rather than as disguises […]. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, the word for face, xayacatl, is the same word used to refer to something that covers the face.
(Cecelia F. Klein, Ibid.)
Here is the interesting point: there’s not a single culture in the whole world which hasn’t elaborated its own masks, and they very rarely are simple disguises.
Their purpose is “the development of personality […], or more accurately, the development of the person [which] is a question of magical prestige“: the masks “are actually used among primitives in in totem ceremonies, for instance, as a means of enhancing or changing the personality” (Carl Gustav Jung, The Ego and the Uncoscious, 1928, p. 155).
Much in the same way, the decorated skulls of Templo Mayor are not so “exotic” as we might like to imagine. These manufacts are but a different declination of ideas we are quite familiar with — ideas that are at the very core of our own society.
The relationship between the face (our identity and individuality) and the mask we wear, is a very ancient paradox. Just like for the Aztecs the term xayacatl could indicate both the mask and the face, for us too they are often indistinguishable.
The very word person comes from the Latin “per-sonare”, “to resound through”: it’s the voice of the actor behind his mask.
Greek tragedy was born between the 7th and 5th century BCE, a representation that essentialy a substitute for human sacrifices, as Réné Girard affirmed. One of the most recognized etimologies tells us that tragedy is actually the song of the scapgoat: an imitation of the ritual killing of the “internal stranger” on the altar, of the bloody spectacle with which society cleansed itself, and washed away its most impure, primiteve urges. Tragedy plays – which Athenians were obligated to attend by law, during Dionysus celebrations – substituted the ancestral violence of the sacrifice with its representation, and the scapegoat with the tragic hero.
Thus the theater, in the beginning, was conflict and catharsis. A duel between the Barbarian, who knows no language and acts through natural instinct, and the Citizen, the son of order and logos.
Theater, just like human sacrifice, created cultural identity; the Mask creates the person needed for the mise-en-scene of this identity, forming and regulating social interactions.
The human sacrifices of the ancient Greeks and of the Aztec both met the same need: cultural identity is born (or at least reinforced) by contrast with the adversary, offered and killed on the altar.
Reducing the enemy to a skull — as the Aztecs did with the tzompantli, the terrible racks used to exhibit dozens, maybe hundreds of sacrifice victims skulls — is a way of depriving him of his mask/face, of annihilating his identity. Here are the enemies, all alike, just bleached bones under the sun, with no individual quality whatsoever.
But turning these skulls into masks, or wearing the enemy’s skin, implies a tough work, and therefore means performing an even more conscious magical act: it serves the purpose of acquiring his strength and power, but also of reasserting that the person (and, by extension, society) only exists because of the Stranger it was able to defeat.
7 centimeters-long, carved from the bone of an unidentified bird, this perfect needle (complete with an eye to insert a thread) was produced more than 50.000 years ago – not by proper Homo sapiens, but by the mysterious Denisova hominin: settled on mount Altaj in Siberia, these human predecessors are partly still an enigma for paleontologists. But this needle, found in 2016 from their cave, is a proof of their technological advancement.
Needles Under The Skin The inexplicable delay of Western medicine
The effects of the bites of venomous snakes and insects pointed clearly to the possibility of the introduction of drugs through punctures in the skin. In primitive societies, the application for therapeutic purposes of plant and animal products through cutaneous incisions is practiced […], and the use of poisoned arrows may be regarded as a crude precursor of hypodermic and intramuscular medication.
We could trace another “crude precursor” of intramuscular injections back to Sir Robert Christison‘s 1831 proposal, suggesting that whalers fix a vial of prussic acid to their harpoons in order to kill whales more quickly.
And yet, despite of all these clues, the first proper hypodermic injection for strict medical purposes did not take place before mid-Nineteenth Century. Until then, syringes (which had been around for centuries) were mainly used for suction, for instance to draw the fluids which accumulated in abscesses. Enemas and nasal irrigation were used since Roman times, but nobody had thought to inject medications under the skin.
Physicians had tried, with varying results, to scar the epydermis with irritants and to deposit the drug directly on the resultin ulcer, or they sliced the skin with a lancet, as in bloodletting, and inserted salts (for example morphine) through the cut. In 1847, G. V. Lafargue was the first to have the intuition of combining inoculation with acupuncture, and to build a long and thick hollow needle filled with morphine paste. But other methods were being tested, such as sawing a silk thread, imbued in drugs, directly into the patient’s skin.
The first true hypodermic syringe was invented in 1853 by Scottish doctor Alexander Wood, as reported in his New Method of Treating Neuralgia by Subcutaneous Injection (1855). Almost at the same time, the French physician Charles Pravaz had devised his own version. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, hypodermic injections had become a widespread procedure in the medical field.
Needles In The Flesh The bizarre clinical case of the “needle woman”
Published in 1829 by Giuseppe Ferrario, Chief Surgeon at the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan, La donna dagli aghi reports a strange case that began in June 1828.
A young 19-year-old woman, Maria Magni, “peasant, of scrofulous appearance, but with a passionate temper” was admitted to the hospital because of severe pain.
One April morning, the year before, she had found a light blue piece of paper on the ground which contained 70/80 steel sewing needles. In order not to lose them, she had pinned them on her blouse cuff. But Maria suffered from epileptic fits, and a few hours later, as she was working in the vineyard, “she fell victim of the usual spasms, and convulsive bouts. Under these abnormal and violent muscular movements […] she believes that she unwillingly pushed the needles she had pinned to her shirt through her right arm – which was naked, as is the case among our peasants – as well as through her breast”. The needles didn’t cause her any trouble until three months later, when the pain had become unbearable; she then decided to go to the hospital.
The doctor on duty hesitated to admit her, for fear she had syphilis: Magni had tried alternative treatments, and had applied “many varied remedies, catplasms, ointments, blistering drugs and other ulcerating substances, etc, with the intention of exciting the needles out of her skin”, but this only resulted in her body being covered by sores.
Enter Doctor Ferrario, who during the first 35 days of treatment submitted her to bloodletting for 16 times, applied more than 160 leeches to her temples, administered vesicants, frictions, decoctions, salts and various tinctures. But the daily epileptic fits were terrible, and nothing seemed to work: “all the physicians, stunned by the woman’s horrible condition, predicted an approaching and inevitable death”.
Upon hearing the story of the needles, though, Ferrario began to wonder if some of them were still sticking inside the young woman’s body. He examined her wounds and actually started feeling something thin and hard within the flesh; but touching those spots triggered some epileptic fits of unheard violence. Ferrario described these bouts with typical 19th-Century literary flourishes, in the manner of Gothic novels, a language which today sounds oddly inappropriate in a medical context:
the poor wretched girl, pointing her nape and feet, pushed her head between her shoulders while jumping high above the bed, and arched her bust and arms on the account of the spasmodic contraction of dorsal muscles […] she was shaking and screaming, and angrily wrapped her body in her arms at the risk of suffocating […]. There was involuntary loss of urine and feces […]. Her gasping, suffocated breath, her flaccid and wrinkled breast which appeared beneath her hirst, torn to pieces; the violence with which she turned her head on her neck, and with which she banged it against the walls and threw it back, hanging from the side of the bed; her red and bulging eyes, sometimes dazed, sometimes wide open, almost coming out of their socket, glassy and restless; the obscene clenching of her teeth, the foamy, bloody matter that she squirted and vomited from her dirty mouth, her swollen and horribly distorted face, her black hair, soaked in drool, which she flapped around her cranium […] all this inspired the utmost disgust and terror, as it was the sorrowful image of an infernal fury.
Ferrario then began extracting the needles out of the woman’s body, performing small incisions, and his record went on and on much in the same way: “this morning I discovered a needle in the internal superior region of the right breast […] After lunch, having cut the upper part of the arm as usual, I extracted the needle n. 14, very rusty, with its point still intact but missing the eye […] from the top of the mons pubis I extracted the needle n. 24, rusty, without point nor eye, of the length of eight lines.”
The pins were hard to track down, they moved across the muscles from one day to the other, so much so that the physician even tried using big horseshoe magnets to locate the needles.
The days went by, and as the number of extracted needles grew, so did the suspect that the woman might be cheating on the doctors; Maria Magni just kept expelling needles over and over again. Ferrario began to wonder whether the woman was secretly inserting the needles in her own body.
But before accusing her, he needed proof. He had them searched, kept under strict surveillance, and he even tried to leave some “bait” needles lying around the patient’s bed, to see if they disappear. Nothing.
In the meantime, starting from extraction number 124, Miss Magni began throwing up needles.
The physician had to ask himself: did these needles arrive into the digestive tract through the diaphragm? Or did Magni swallow them on purpose? One thing is sure: vomiting needles caused the woman such distress that “having being so unwell, I doubt she ever swallowed any more after that, but she might have resorted to another less uncomfortable and less dangerous opening, to continue her malicious introduction of needles in the body”.
The “less uncomfortable opening” was her vagina, from which many a new needle was removed.
As if all this was not enough, rumors had spread that the “needle woman” was actually a witch, and hospital patients began to panic.
An old countrywoman, recovering in the bed next to Magni’s, became convinced that the woman had been victim of a spell, and then turned into a witch on the account of the magic needles. Being on the bed next to her, the old lady believed that she herself might fall under the spell. She didn’t want to be touched by the young woman, nor by me, for she believed I could be a sorcerer too, because I was able to extract the needles so easily. This old lady fell for this nonsense so that she started screaming all day long like a lunatic, and really became frenzied and delirious, and many leeches had to be applied to her head to calm her down.
Eventually one day it was discovered where Magni had been hiding the needles that she stuck in her body:
Two whole needles inside a ball of yarn; four whole needles wrapped in paper between the mattress and the straw, all very shiny; a seventh needle, partly rusted, pinned under a bed plank. Several inmates declared that Maria Magni had borrowed four needles from them, not returning them with the excuse that they had broken. The ill-advised young woman, seeing she was surrounded and exposed […] faked violent convulsions and started acting like a demon, trashing the bed and hurting the assistants. She ended by simulating furious ecstasy, during which she talked about purely fictional beings, called upon the saints and the devils, then began swearing, then horribly blasphemed angels, saints, demons, physicians, surgeons and nurses alike.
After a couple of days of these performance, Magni confessed. She had implanted the needles herself under her skin, placed them inside her vagina and swallowed them, taking care of hiding the pierced areas until the “tiny red hole” had cicatrized and disappeared.
In total, 315 needles were retrieved from Maria Magni’s body.
In the epilogue of his essay, Ferrario points out that this was not even the first recorded case: in 1821, 363 needles were extracted from the body of young Rachel Hertz; another account is about a girl who survived for more than 24 years to the ingestion of 1.500 needles. Another woman, Genueffa Pule, was born in 1763 and died at the age of 37, and an autopsy was carried out on her body: “upon dissecting the cadaver, in the upper, inner part of each thigh, precisely inside the triceps, masses of pins and needles were found under the teguments, and all the muscles teemed with pins and needles”.
Ferrario ascribes the motivations of these actions to pica, or superstition. Maria claimed that she had been encouraged by other women of the village to swallow the needles in order to emulate the martyr saints, as a sort of apotropaic ritual. More plausibly, this was just a lie the woman told when she saw herself being cornered.
In the end, the physician admits his inability to understand:
It is undoubtedly a strange thing for a sane person to imagine how pain – a sensation shunned even by the most ignorant people, and abhorred by human nature – could be sometimes sought out and self-inflicted by a reasonable individual.
As I was going through pathology archives, in search of studies that could have some similarities with the Magni story, I came upon one, then two, then several other reports regarding an even more unbelievable occurrence: sewing needles found in the encephalon of adult patients, often during routine X-rays.
The answer is quite awful. These are all cases of failed infanticide.
The possibility of infanticide by inserting pins through the fontanelle is mentioned in the Enciclopedia legale ovvero Lessico ragionato by F. Foramiti (1839), where the author includes a (chilling) list of all the methods with which a mother can kill her own child, among which appears the “puncturing the fontanelle and the brain with a thin sharp dagger or a long and strong needle”.
But the practice, properly documented in medical literature only by 1914, already appeared in Persian novels and texts: perhaps the fact that the method was well-known in the ancient Middle East, is the reason why most of the forty recorded cases were documented in Turkey and Iran, with a minority coming from Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. In Italy there were two known cases, one in 1987 and the 2010 case mentioned above.
Most of these patients didn’t show any particular neurological symptom: the sewing needles, having been embedded in the brain for so many years, are not even removed; a surgical procedure, at this point, would be more dangerous than leaving them in situ.
This was the case for the only known occurrence reported in Africa, a 4-year-old child carrying a 4,5 cm needle through his brain. At the time the report was filed, in 2014, the needle was still there: “no complications were noted, the child had normal physical and mental development with excellent performance at school”.
Of course, discovering at the age of forty that someone – your parents, or maybe your grandparents – tried to kill you when you were just months old must be a shock.
It happened to Luo Cuifen, a chinese lady who was born in 1976, and who showed up at the hospital because of blood in her urine in 2007, and who discovered she had 26 sewing needles in her body, piercing vital organs such as lungs, liver, kidneys and brain. Her story is related to the discriminations towards female newborn children in rural China, where a son is more welcome than a daughter because he can carry on the family name, perform funeral rituals for ancestors, and so on. In Luo’s case, it was most likely her grandparents who attempted the infanticide when she was but months old (even if this theory cannot be proven, as her grandparents already passed away).
In more recent cases, recorded in Tunisia, China and Brazil, it was discovered that the children had respectively three, twelve and even fifty needles stuck in their bodies.
The cases of people surviving for decades with a needle in their brain are obviously an exception – as one of the studies put it, this is the “tip of the iceberg”.
A needle wound can be almost invisible. What is really disquieting is the thought of all those infanticides who are carried out “successfully”, without being discovered.
Sometimes the smallest objects can turn out to be the most useful. And the most lethal.
My gratitude goes to Mariano Tomatis, who recommended La donna dagli aghi, which he discovered during his studies on 19th-century magnetism, and which started this research.
As the old saying goes, “Never read Bizzarro Bazar while preparing dinner”.
A virtual version of the Library of Babel imagined by Borges has been online for some time now. Wandering around the hexagones and going through random books is a dizzying experience — there are volumes which contain your name, but also everything you’ve done today or you will do tomorrow; but to fully grasp the immense scope of the project, this analysis by Virio Guido Stipa is absolutely excellent [Italian language only].
F.A.Q.: what is one of the most disgusting things that could happen during decomposition? If you have to ask, you probably don’t know adipocere. Keep up with this Atlas Obscura article.
Did we need H. R. Giger to design the Alien egg? No, it would have been enough to look at this nice little mushroom called Clathrus archeri.
Remember my Museum of Failure? Here’s a recent addition: Caproni’s Transaereo. Featuring eight engines and three sets of triple wings, for a total of nine wings, it was designed to transport up to 100 passengers over the Atlantic ocean. It flew only two times, on February 12 and March 4 1921, taking off from Lake Maggiore. It plummeted into the water at the end of the second flight, suffering serious damages and thus ending the ambitious tests.
Italian newspaper Repubblica published a nice video on the Neapolitan tradition of femminielli — an incredible popular strategy to elaborate and accept diversity by making it “theatrical”. But then again, as Orson Welles put it, “Italy is the home of 50 million actors, and the only bad ones are on the stage“.
In 1671, Dutch writer Arnoldus Montanus wrote a book entitled “The New and Unknown World: or Description of America and the Southland, Containing the Origin of the Americans and South-landers, remarkable voyages thither, Quality of the Shores, Islands, Cities, Fortresses, Towns, Temples, Mountains, Sources, Rivers, Houses, the nature of Beasts, Trees, Plants and foreign Crops, Religion and Manners, Miraculous Occurrences, Old and New Wars: Adorned with Illustrations drawn from the life in America, and described by Arnoldus Montanus”.
The printed title was so long that, clearly, no space was left for a small caveat: the fact that good old Arnoldus had never actually left Europe his entire life. And, to be fair, the illustrations kind of gave it away:
In Varanasi the smoke of cremations never ceases; tourists take pictures, enraptured by this deep spiritual experience. But someone has a different view on things: Gagan Chaudhary, one of the “untouchables” who are in charge of the funeral pires. Alcohol and ganja, to which he’s been addicted since he was thirteen, allow him not to faint from the smell; his legs are devastated with wounds and scars; his life was spent amidst abuse, violence and horrible visions. He recounts his experience in a touching article on LiveMint: “I’ve seen bodies where the skin has been ripped apart; I’ve seen bodies with tongues hanging out and blood flowing from orifices. […] I’ve seen bodies cut up and stitched back to a whole. I’ve seen headless corpses; I’ve seen bodies covered with scars. And I’ve burnt them all.“
Balthus is back in the news, on the account of an online petition to remove (or at least contextualize, as it was subsequently declared, to adjust the tone) one of his works exhibited at New York MET. Once again the shadow of pedophilia haunts his paintings: an occasion to reflect on the role of art (is it pure signifier, or should we evaluate it from an ethical perspective?); and to reread the article I devoted to this thorny issue a couple of years ago.
WoodSwimmer is an incredible stop-motion video. Brett Foxwell produced it by cutting logs and pieces of wood in thin slices, and progressively scanning these sections. In his words, “a straightforward technique but one which is brutally tedious to complete“.
The tool in the following picture is a head clamp. In Victorian times it was used to secure the back of the neck of a subject in photographic sessions, during long exposure times.
You already figured out where we’re going: in post mortem pictures this was used to fix bodies into natural poses, as if they were still alive, right?
Well, not quite. Time for a bit of debunking on post mortem photography.
This image comes from an article entitled The Truth About Post Mortem Photography. Never write anything beginning with “The Truth About”.
During the last 59 years, Jim “Antlerman” Phillips has been scouring the hills of Montana looking for elk, deer or antelope antlers. He now has a collection of more than 16.000 pieces. (Thanks, Riccardo!)
Here we are for a new edition of LC&MW, the perfect column to dawdle and amaze yourself at the beach!
(It is also perfect for me to relax a bit while writing the new book for the BB Collection.) (Speaking of which, until Septembre 15 you can get 20% discountif you buy all 4 books in one bundle — just insert the coupon BUNDLE4 at check out. Comes with a free Bizzarro Bazar Shopper.) (Oh, I almost forgot, the above chameleon is a hand, painted by great Guido Daniele, whose job is to… well, paint hands.)
Alright, let’s begin!
In Mexico City, at the Templo Mayor, archeologists finally found one of the legendary Aztech “towers of skulls” that once terrorized the Spanish conquistadores. These racks (called tzompantli) were used to exhibit the remains of warriors who valliantly died in battle, or enemies and war prisoners: they were descibed in many codices and travel diearies. The newly-discovered “tower” could well be the famed Huey Tzompantli, the biggest of them all, an impressing rack that could hold up to 60.000 heads, according to calculations (just imagine the nightmarish view).
On this new site 650 skulls have been found, but the number is bound to increase as the excavation proceeds. But there’s a mystery: the experts expected to find the remains, as we’ve said, of oung warriors. Until now, they have encountered an unexplicable high rate of women and children — something that left everyone a bit confused. Maybe we have yet to fully understand the true function of the tzompantli?
During the night on August 21, 1986, in a valley in the north-west province of Cameroon, more than 1700 people and 3500 cattle animals suddenly died in their sleep. What happened?
Nearby lake Nyos, which the locals believed was haunted by spirits, was responsible for the disaster.
On the bottom of lake Nyos, active volcanic magma naturally forms a layer of water with a very high CO2 concentration. Recent rainfalls had facilitated the so-called “lake overturn” (or limnic eruption): the lower layer had abruptly shifted to the surface, freeing an immense, invisible carbon dioxide cloud, as big as 80 million cubic meters, which in a few minutes suffocated almost all living beings in the valley. [Discovered via Oddly Historical]
If you find yourself nearby, don’t be afraid to breathe. Today siphons bring water from the bottom to the surface of the lake, so as to free the CO2 gradually and constantly.
Ok — what the heck is a swimsuit ad (by Italian firm Tezenis) doing on Bizzarro Bazar?
Look again. That neck, folks.
Photoshopping going wrong? Maybe, but I like to think that this pretty girl is actually the successor of great Martin Joe Laurello, star of the freakshow with Ringlin Bros, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Barnum & Bailey and other travelling shows.
Here you can see him in action, together with fellow performer Bendyman.
Meanwhile in Kenya there’s a lawyer who (for the second time!) is trying to sue Israel and us Italians for killing Jesus Christ. That should teach us a lesson. You can murder, plunder and destroy undisturbed for centuries, but never mess with somebody who has connections at the top.
P.S. An advise for Greek friends: you may be next, start hiding all traces of hemlock.
On this website (click on the first picture) you can take a 360° tour through the crytpt of Saint Casimir, Krakow, among open caskets and exposed mummies.
The above pic shows one of the casts of Pompeii victims, and it has recently gone viral after a user speculated ironically that the man might have died in the midst of an act of onanism. You can figure out the rest: users making trivial jokes, others deploring the lack of respect for the dead… Now, now, children.
From July 21 to 24 I will be at the University of Winchester for the conference organised by Death & The Maiden, a beautiful blog exploring the relationship between women and death, to which I had the pleasure of contributing once or twice. The event looks awesome: panels aside, there will be seminars and workshops (from shroud embroidery to Victorian hairwork techniques), guided tours to local cemeteries, concerts, art performances and film screenings.
I am bringing my talk Saints, Mothers & Aphrodites, which I hope I will be able to take on tour throughout Italy in autumn.
Back with Bizzarro Bazar’s mix of exotic and quirky trouvailles, quite handy when it comes to entertaining your friends and acting like the one who’s always telling funny stories. Please grin knowingly when they ask you where in the world you find all this stuff.
We already talked about killer rabbits in the margins of medieval books. Now a funny video unveils the mystery of another great classic of illustrated manuscripts: snail-fighting knights. SPOILER: it’s those vicious Lumbards again.
As an expert on alternative sexualities, Ayzad has developed a certain aplomb when discussing the most extreme and absurd erotic practices — in Hunter Thompson’s words, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro“. Yet even a shrewd guy like him was baffled by the most deranged story in recent times: the Nazi furry scandal.
In 1973, Playboy asked Salvador Dali to collaborate with photographer Pompeo Posar for an exclusive nude photoshoot. The painter was given complete freedom and control over the project, so much so that he was on set directing the shooting. Dali then manipulated the shots produced during that session through collage. The result is a strange and highly enjoyable example of surrealism, eggs, masks, snakes and nude bunnies. The Master, in a letter to the magazine, calimed to be satisfied with the experience: “The meaning of my work is the motivation that is of the purest – money. What I did for Playboy is very good, and your payment is equal to the task.” (Grazie, Silvia!)
Speaking of photography, Robert Shults dedicated his series The Washing Away of Wrongs to the biggest center for the study of decomposition in the world, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. Shot in stark, high-contrast black and white as they were shot in the near-infrared spectrum, these pictures are really powerful and exhibit an almost dream-like quality. They document the hard but necessary work of students and researchers, who set out to understand the modifications in human remains under the most disparate conditions: the ever more precise data they gather will become invaluable in the forensic field. You can find some more photos in this article, and here’s Robert Shults website.
One last photographic entry. Swedish photographer Erik Simander produced a series of portraits of his grandfather, after he just became a widower. The loneliness of a man who just found himself without his life’s companion is described through little details (the empty sink, with a single toothbrush) that suddenly become definitive, devastating symbols of loss; small, poetic and lacerating touches, delicate and painful at the same time. After all, grief is a different feeling for evry person, and Simander shows a commendable discretion in observing the limit, the threshold beyond which emotions become too personal to be shared. A sublime piece of work, heart-breaking and humane, and which has the merit of tackling an issue (the loss of a partner among the elderly) still pretty much taboo. This theme had already been brought to the big screen in 2012 by the ruthless and emotionally demanding Amour, directed by Michael Haneke.
The inimitable Lindsey Fitzharris published on her Chirurgeon’s Apprenticea cute little post about surgical removal of bladder stones before the invention of anesthesia. Perfect read to squirm deliciously in your seat.
I ignore how or why things re-surface at a certain time on the Net. And yet, for the last few days (at least in my whacky internet bubble) the story of Portuguese serial killer Diogo Alves has been popping out again and again. Not all of Diogo Alves, actually — just his head, which is kept in a jar at the Faculty of Medicine in Lisbon. But what really made me chuckle was discovering one of the “related images” suggested by Google algorythms:
Remember the Tsavo Man-Eaters? There’s a very good Italian article on the whole story — or you can read the English Wiki entry. (Thanks, Bruno!)
And finally we get to the most succulent news: my old native town, Vicenza, proved to still have some surprises in store for me.
On the hills near the city, in the Arcugnano district, a pre-Roman amphitheatre has just been discovered. It layed buried for thousands of years… it could accomodate up to 4300 spectators and 300 actors, musicians, dancers… and the original stage is still there, underwater beneath the small lake… and there’s even a cave which acted as a megaphone for the actors’ voices, amplifying sounds from 8 Hz to 432 Hz… and there’s even a nearby temple devoted to Janus… and that temple was the real birthplace of Juliet, of Shakespearean fame… and there are even traces of ancient canine Gods… and of the passage of Julius Cesar and Cleopatra…. and… and…
And, pardon my rudeness, wouldn’t all this happen to be a hoax?
No, it’s not a mere hoax, it is an extraordinary hoax. A stunt that would deserve a slow, admired clap, if it wasn’t a plain fraud.
The creative spirit behind the amphitheatre is the property owner, Franco Malosso von Rosenfranz (the name says it all). Instead of settling for the traditional Italian-style unauthorized development — the classic two or three small houses secretely and illegally built — he had the idea of faking an archeological find just to scam tourists. Taking advantage of a license to build a passageway between two parts of his property, so that the constant flow of trucks and bulldozers wouldn’t raise suspicions, Malosso von Rosenfranz allegedly excavated his “ancient” theatre, with the intention of opening it to the public at the price of 40 € per visitor, and to put it up for hire for big events.
Together with the initial enthusiasm and popularity on social networks, unfortunately came legal trouble. The evidence against Malosso was so blatant from the start, that he immediately ended up on trial without any preliminary hearing. He is charged with unauthorized building, unauthorized manufacturing and forgery.
Therefore, this wonderful example of Italian ingenuity will be dismanteled and torn down; but the amphitheatre website is fortunately still online, a funny fanta-history jumble devised to back up the real site. A messy mixtre of references to local figures, famous characters from the Roman Era, supermarket mythology and (needless to say) the omnipresent Templars.
The ultimate irony is that there are people in Arcugnano still supporting him because, well, “at least now we have a theatre“. After all, as the Wiki page on unauthorized building explains, “the perception of this phenomenon as illegal […] is so thin that such a crime does not entail social reprimand for a large percentage of the population. In Italy, this malpractice has damaged and keeps damaging the economy, the landscape and the culture of law and respect for regulations“.
And here resides the brilliance of old fox Malosso von Rosenfranz’s plan: to cash in on these times of post-truth, creating an unauthorized building which does not really degrade the territory, but rather increase — albeit falsely — its heritage.
Well, you might have got it by now. I am amused, in a sense. My secret chimeric desire is that it all turns out to be an incredible, unprecedented art installations. Andthat Malosso one day might confess that yes, it was all a huge experiment to show how little we care abot our environment and landscape, how we leave our authenticarcheological wonders fall apart, and yet we are ready to stand up for the fake ones. (Thanks, Silvietta!)
New miscellanea of interesting links and bizarre facts.
There’s a group of Italian families who decided, several years ago, to try and live on top of the trees. In 2010 journalist Antonio Gregolin visited these mysterious “hermits” — actually not as reclusive as you might think —, penning a wonderful reportage on their arboreal village (text in Italian, but lots of amazing pics).
An interesting long read on disgust, on the cognitive biases it entails, and on how it could have played an essential role in the rise of morals, politics and laws — basically, in shaping human societies.
Are you ready for a travel in music, space and time? On this website you get to choose a country and a decade from 1900 to this day, and discover what were the biggest hits back in the time. Plan your trip/playlist on a virtual taxi picking unconceivably distant stops: you might start off from the first recordings of traditional chants in Tanzania, jump to Korean disco music from the Eighties, and reach some sweet Norwegian psychedelic pop from the Sixties. Warning, may cause addiction.
Speaking of time, it’s a real mystery why this crowdfunding campaign for the ultimate minimalist watch didn’t succeed. It would have made a perfect accessory for philosophers, and latecomers.
The last issue of Illustrati has an evocative title and theme, “Circles of light”. In my contribution, I tell the esoteric underground of Northern Italy in which I grew up: The Only Chakra.
During the terrible flooding that recently hit Louisiana, some coffins were seen floating down the streets. A surreal sight, but not totally surprising: here is my old post about Holt Cemetery in New Orleans, where from time to time human remains emerge from the ground.
In the Pelican State, you can always rely on traditional charms and gris-gris to avoid bad luck — even if by now they have become a tourist attraction: here are the five best shops to buy your voodoo paraphernalia in NOLA.
Those who follow my work have probably heard me talking about “dark wonder“, the idea that we need to give back to wonder its original dominance on darkness. A beautiful article on the philosophy of awe (Italian only) reiterates the concept: “the original astonishment, the thauma, is not always just a moment of grace, a positive feeling: it possesses a dimension of horror and anguish, felt by anyone who approaches an unknown reality, so different as to provoke turmoil and fear“.
Which are the oldest mummies in the world? The pharaohs of Egypt?
Wrong. Chinchorro mummies, found in the Atacama desert between Chile and Peru, are more ancient than the Egyptian ones. And not by a century or two: they are two thousand years older.
Some days ago Wu Ming 1 pointed me to an article appeared on The Atlantic about an imminent head transplant: actually, this is not recent news, as neurosurgeon from Turin Sergio Canavero has been a controversial figure for some years now. On Bizzarro Bazar I discussed the history of head transplants in an old article, and if I never talked about Canavero it’s because the whole story is really a bit suspect.
Let’s recap the situation: in 2013 Canavero caused some fuss in the scientific world by declaring that by 2017 he might be able to perform a human head transplant (or, better, a body transplant). His project, named HEAVEN/Gemini (Head Anastomosis Venture with Cord Fusion), aims to overcome the difficulties in reconnecting the spinal chord by using some fusogenic “glues” such as polyethylene glycol (PEG) or chitosan to induce merging between the donor’s and the receiver’s cells. This means we would be able to provide a new, healthier body to people who are dying of any kind of illness (with the obvious exception of cerebral pathologies).
As he was not taken seriously, Canavero gave it another try at the beginning of 2015, announcing shortly thereafter that he found a volunteer for his complex surgical procedure, thirty-year-old Russian Valery Spiridonov who is suffering from an incurable genetic disease. The scientific community, once again, labeled his theories as baseless, dangerousscience fiction: it’s true that transplant technology dramatically improved during the last few years, but according to the experts we are still far from being able to attempt such an endeavour on a human being — not to mention, of course, the ethical issues.
At the beginning of this year, Canavero announced he has made some progress: he claimed he successfully tested his procedure on mice and even on a monkey, with the support of a Chinese team, and leaked a video and some controversial photos.
As can be easily understood, the story is far from limpid. Canavero is progressively distancing himself from the scientific community, and seems to be especially bothered by the peer-review system not allowing him (shoot!) to publish his research without it first being evaluated and examined; even the announcement of his experiments on mice and monkeys was not backed up by any published paper. Basically, Canavero has proved to be very skillful in creating a media hype (popularizing his advanced techinque on TV, in the papers and even a couple of TEDx talks with the aid of… some picturesque and oh-so-very-Italian spaghetti), and in time he was able to build for himself the character of an eccentric and slightly crazy genius, a visionary Frankenstein who might really have found a cure-all remedy — if only his dull collegues would listen to him. At the same time he appears to be uncomfortable with scientific professional ethics, and prefers to keep calling out for “private philantropists” of the world, looking for some patron who is willing to provide the 12.5 millions needed to give his cutting-edge experiment a try.
In conclusion, looking at all this, it is hard not to think of some similar, well-known incidents. But never say never: we will wait for the next episode, and in the meantime…
…why not (re)watch The Thing With Two Heads (1972), directed by exploitation genius Lee Frost?
This trashy little gem feature the tragicomic adventures of a rich and racist surgeon — played by Ray Milland, at this point already going through a low phase in his career — who is terminally ill and therefore elaborates a complex scheme to have his head transplanted on a healthy body; but he ends waking up attached to the shoulder of an African American man from death row, determined to prove his own innocence. Car chases, cheesy gags and nonsense situations make for one of the weirdest flicks ever.
Almost every post appearing on these pages is the result of several days of specific study, finding sources, visiting the National Library, etc. It often happens that this continuous research makes me stumble upon little wonders which perhaps do not deserve a full in-depth analysis, but I nonetheless feel sorry to lose along the way.
I have therefore decided to occasionally allow myself a mini-post like this one, where I can point out the best bizarre news I’ve come across in recent times, passed on by followers, mentioned on Twitter (where I am more active than on other social media) or retrieved from my archive.
The idea — and I candidly admit it, since we’re all friends here — is also kind of useful since this is a time of great excitement for Bizzarro Bazar.
In addition to completing the draft for the new book in the BB Collection, of which I cannot reveal any details yet, I am working on a demanding but thrilling project, a sort of offline, real-world materialization of Bizzarro Bazar… in all probability, I will be able to give you more precise news about it next month.
There, enough said, here’s some interesting stuff. (Sorry, some of my own old posts linked here and there are in Italian only).
The vicissitudes of Haydn’s head: Wiki page, and 1954 Life Magazine issue with pictures of the skull’s burial ceremony. This story is reminiscent of Descartes’s skull, of which I’ve written here. (Thanks, Daniele!)
In case you missed it, here’s my article (in English) for Illustrati Magazine, about midget pornstar Bridget Powers.
Continuing my exploration of human failure, here is a curious film clip of a “triphibian” vehicle, which was supposed to take over land, water and the skies. Spoiler: it didn’t go very far.
In the Sixties, the western coast of Lake Victoria in Tanzania fell prey to a laughter epidemics.
Found what could be the first autopsy ever recorded on film (warning, strong images). Our friend pathologist says: “This film clip is a real gem, really beautiful, and the famous Dr. Erdheim’s dissecting skills are remarkable: he does everything with a single knife, including cutting the breastbone (very elegant! I use some kind of poultry shears instead); he proceeds to a nice full evisceration, at least of thoracic organs (you can’t see the abdomen) from tongue to diaphragm, which is the best technique to maintain the connection between viscera, and… he doesn’t get splattered at all! He also has the table at the right height: I don’t know why but in our autopsy rooms they keep on using very high tables, and therefore you have to step on a platform at the risk of falling down in you lean back too much. It is also interesting to see all the activity behind and around the pathologist, they were evidently working on more than one table at the same time. I think the pathologist was getting his hands dirty for educational reasons only, otherwise there would have been qualified dissectors or students preparing the bodies for him. It’s quite a sight to see him push his nose almost right into the cadaver’s head, without wearing any PPE…”
Enclosed in their display cases, unperturbed behind the glass, the heads attract yet another group of visitors.
They are watched, scrutinized, inspected in every smallest detail by a multitude of wide-open eyes. The children are in the front row, as usual, their noses pressed against the glass, their small faces suspended between a grimace of disgust and an excited, amazed look.
As for the adults, their wonder is somehow tarnished by judgment or, better, prejudice. “You have to understad that for these indigenous people it was a sacred practice”, sentences a nice gentleman, eager to prove his broad cultural views. “Still, it’s a horrible thing”, replies his wife, a little disgusted.
The scene repeats itself each and every day, for the heads sitting under the glass.
And few of the visitors understand they’re not actually looking at real objects from an ancient, distant culture. They are admiring a fantasy, the idea of that culture that Westerners have created and built.
The two basic kinds of heads presented in anthropological sections of museums all around the world are tsantsas and mokomokai.
The most famous tsantsas are the ones hailing from South America and created by the Jivaro peoples; among these tribes, the most prolific in fabricating such trophies were undoubtedly the Shuar and the Achuar, who lived between Ecuador and Peru.
The Shuar technique for shrinking heads was complex: an incision was made from the nape to the top of the head; once completely skinned, after paying specific attention as to keep all the hair intact, the skull was discarded. The facial skin was then boiled. Any trace of soft tissue had to be eliminated by rolling red-hot pebbles inside the skin, which was then further scraped with hot sand, roasted on flat stones, and so on. It was a delicate and meticulous procedure, until eventually the head was reduced to one fourth of the original size.
What was the purpose of such dedication?
The tsantsas were part of solemn celebrations which lasted several years, and were meant to capture the extraordinary power of the victim’s soul. They were not actually war trophies, in spite of what you can sometimes read, because the Shuar and Achuar usually lived quite peacefully: the occasional raids organized by the various tribes to hunt for tsantsas were a form of socially accepted violence, as there was no purpose in it other than obtaining these very powerful objects.
Great feasts welcomed the return of the headhunters, and these celebrations were the most important in the whole year. The intrinsic power the tsantsas was transferred to the women, assuring wealth and plenty of food to the families. After seven years of rituals, the shrunken heads lost their force. For the Shuar, at this point, the tsantsas had no pratical value: some kept the heads as a keepsake, but others got rid of them without giving it a second thought. The focus was not the material object in itself, but its spiritual power.
That was not at all the case with Western merchants. To them, a shrunken head perfectly summarized the idea of a “savage culture”. These indigenous people, in the collective imaginary of the Nineteenth Century, were still depicted as brutal and animal-like: there was a will to think them as “stuck in time”, as if they had been lingering in a prehistoric underdeveloped stage, without ever undergoing evolutions or social transformations.
Therefore, what object could be a clearer symbol of these tribes’ barbarity than a macabre and grotesque souvenir like tsantsas?
If at the beginning of European settlements, in the Andes region and the Amazon River basin, the colonists had traded various tipes of goods with the indigenous people, as time went by they became ever more autonomous. As they did not need the pig or deer meat any more, which until then the Shuar had bartered with clothes, knives and guns, the settlers began to request only two things in exchange for the precious firearms: the indios’ labor force, and their infamous shrunken heads.
Soon enough, the only way a Shuar could get hold of a rifle was to sell a head.
That’s when the situation got worse, along with the exponential growth of Western fascination with tsantsas. The shrunken heads became a must-have curiosity for collectors and museums alike. The need for arms pushed the Shuar people to hunt heads for purposes which were not ritual any more, but rather exclusively commercial, in an attempt to satisfy the European request. A tsantsa for a gun, was the usual bargain: that gun would then be used to hunt more heads, exchanged for new arms… the vicious cycle ended up in a massacre, carried out to comply with foreigners’ tastes in exoticism.
As Frances Larson writes, “when visitors come to see the shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum, what they are really seeing is a story of the white man’s gun“.
The tsantsas lost their spiritual value, which had always been connected with the circulation of power inside the tribe, and became a tool for accumulating riches. Ironically, the settlers contributed to the creation of those cruel and unscrupulous headhunters they always expected to find.
The Shuar by then were killing indiscriminately, and without any ritual support, just to obtain new heads. They began making fake tsantsas, using the remains of women, children, even Westerners – confident that someone would surely fall for the scam.
In the second half of the ‘800, the commerce of tsantsas flourished so much that even peoples who had nothing to do with Jivaros and their traditions, began fabricating their own shrunken heads: in Colombia and Panama unclaimed bodies were stolen from the morgue, their heads given to helpful taxidermists. In other cases the heads of monkeys or sloths, and other animal skins, were used to produce convincing fakes.
Today nearly 80% of the tsantsas held in museums worldwide is estimated to be fake.
The history of New Zealand’s mokomokai followed an almost identical script.
Unlike tsantsas, for the Maori people these heads were actually war trophies, captured during inter-tribal battles. The heads were not shrunk, but preserved with their skull still inside. Brain, eyes and tongue were gouged, nostrils and orifices sealed with fibers and gum; then the heads were buried in hot stones, in order to steam-cook them and dry them out. The mokomokai were meant to be exposed around the chief’s house.
In the second half of ‘700, naturalist Joseph Banks, sailing with James Cook, was the first European to acquire a similar head, after convincing an elderly man at a village to part from it – thanks to his eloquence, and to a musket pointed at the old man’s face. In all the following trips, Cook’s company spotted only a pair of mokomokai, a clue suggesting that these objects were in fact pretty uncommon.
Yet, after just fifty years, the commerce of heads in New Zealand had reached such intensity that many believed the Maori would be totally annihilated. Here too, the heads were traded for guns, in a spiral of violence that seriously threatened the indigenous population, particularly during the so-called Musket Wars.
Collectors were mainly attracted by the intricate tā moko(carved tattoos) which adorned the chiefs’ faces with elegant and sinuous spirals. So, Maori chiefs began tattooing their slaves just before beheading them – in some cases giving the Western buyer the option to choose a favorite head, while the unlucky owner was still alive; they tattoed heads that had already been cut, just to raise their price. The tā moko, a decorative art form of ancient origin, ended up been emptied of all meaning related to courage, honor or social status. In New Zealand, even Europeans began to get killed, to have their heads tattoed and sold to their unsuspecting fellow countrymen: a fraud not devoid of a certain amount of black humor.
Trading mokomokai was outlawed in 1831; the import of tsantas from South America was only banned from 1940.
So, in displays of ethnic artifacts in museums around the globe, in those darkened exotic heads, one is able to contemplate not only an ancient ritual object, packed with symbols and meanings: it is almost possible to glimpse at the very moment in which those meanings and symbols vanished forever.
Tsantsas and mokomokai are difficult, controversial, problematic objects.
Among the visitors, it is easy to find someone who feels outraged by an indigenous practice which by today’s standards seems cruel; after reading this article, maybe some reader will be disgusted by the hypocrisy of Westerners, who were condemning the savage headhunters while coveting the heads, and looking forward to put them on display in their homes.
Either way, one feels indignant: as if this peculiar fascination did not really affect us… as if our entire western culture did not come from a very long tradition of heads cut off and exposed on poles, on city walls and in public places.
But the beheadings never stopped existing, just as the human head never ceased to be a very powerful and magnetic symbol, both shocking and irresistibly hypnotizing.
Most of the information in this article, as well as the inspiration for it, comes from the brilliant Severed by Frances Larson, a book on the cultural and antrhopological significance of severed heads.