Tsantsa (shrunken heads) expert’s new role at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification

Published on 23 June 2021

A forensic artist and facial anthropologist who is best known for his work on the tsantsa or shrunken heads, Dr Tobias Houlton has begun a new role at the University of Dundee,

Dr Tobias Houlton is the new programme lead for the MSc Forensic Art and Facial Imaging.

He initially trained at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID), University of Dundee between 2010 and 2015, where his interest in shrunken heads began.

“I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures. Nobody had ever attempted a facial reconstruction of a shrunken head. It became obvious to me to try,” explains Tobias.

Tobias smiling with his hands in his pockets
“Tsantsas played a part in ancient ceremonial traditions and rituals within the Amazonian regions of eastern Ecuador and northern Peru. A decapitated human head was typically reduced to the size of a large orange by removing the skull, muscles, fat and internal organs. The skin was “cooked” in simmering water and then desiccated using hot pebbles and sands. The skin is carefully moulded as it shrank, keeping the person’s scalp hair intact.”

Dr Tobias Houlton

The project formed part of his Master’s project where he used laser scanning to develop 3D models of the heads, a technique he continued to develop during his PhD study.

He has since published papers within high impact academic journals, such as Forensic Science International and the Journal of Forensic Sciences, on topics spanning craniofacial identification, forensic anthropology, history of physical anthropology and cultural heritage.

His work has been recognised by National Geographic Magazine, Science Magazine, BBC Radio 4, the Smithsonian Channel and Channel 5 documentaries.

In 2019, Tobias was awarded the Selwyn Award by the Royal Photographic Society, where he was granted an honorary fellowship for his science-based research connected with imaging.

On completion of his MSc and PhD training in Dundee, Tobias entered a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa.

During this time, he established a craniofacial identification lab with a predominant research and casework focus. Tobias has closely collaborated with the South African Police Service, delivering certified workshops on forensic facial/image comparison, and 3D demonstrations in facial reconstruction and craniofacial superimposition.

the evolution of a model head showing the development from the skull to shape and full colour and facial features

He assisted with the Mass Identification Unit, established by the Department of Forensic Medicine and Pathology (Wits), in collaboration with the Johannesburg Forensic Pathology Service (FPS) and International Committee of the Red Cross.

This unit is committed to compiling essential biological, visual and descriptive reports on unidentified persons within the FPS facility, to aid their identification. Tobias does freelance work and has experience in offering illustration and video editing services for medical and anatomical teaching and research publications for institutions located in South Africa and America.

“In my new role as programme lead for the MSc Forensic Art and Facial Imaging, I want to encourage and embrace student enthusiasm for a field I have enjoyed for over 10 years,” said Tobias.

“The position here at CAHID also offers me an opportunity to preserve and expand upon my research with a growing national and international community.”

“Tobias’ extensive knowledge and experience in facial anthropology along with his background as an alumnus of the University of Dundee make him the ideal appointment to lead the MSc Forensic Art and Facial Imaging. I welcome Tobias to the team and look forward to seeing the value he will undoubtedly bring to CAHID”

Professor Tracey Wilkinson, Director of CAHID

Story category Appointments