Billy Jamieson’s Shrunken Body DNA Analysis

Lights, camera, ACTION! Just over eight years ago, TheDNALAB, a division of Maxxam Analytics, had the privilege of sampling a rare shrunken body artefact as a professional videographer captured the scientists inspecting the unique artefact.

Meet Billy Jamieson And His Shrunken Body Discovery

The late William Jamieson, better known as Billy Jamieson, acquired the shrunken body specimen for $10,000 without any evidence that it was real, but he was willing to take the financial risk on the rare chance it was indeed authentic. It is believed that only four real shrunken bodies exist in the world (most shrunken body artefacts are replicas made from either pig skin or paper-mâché). Jamieson acquired this shrunken body artefact from Ecuador and wanted to determine whether a DNA profile could be obtained from it. In other words, he questioned if DNA would be able to give insight as to whether or not the shrunken body artefact is in fact an embalmed human.

The Toronto-based Jamieson was a well-known collector of rare artefacts, tribal art and oddities, however, it was not his profession until he was in his forties. After selling his waterproofing business, Jamieson travelled to South America and became enthralled with shrunken heads. Notably, in 1999, Billy purchased the rundown Niagara Falls Museum and discovered it contained a hidden treasure – the mummy of the missing Egyptian pharaoh Ramses I. The repatriation of this mummy to Egypt helped place Billy Jamieson in the international spotlight as a treasure hunter and subsequently, a treasure dealer.

The shrunken body footage filmed at the TheDNALAB, first aired in 2012 during episode five-part series of Treasure Trader, on History Television. The series featured the Jamieson along with fiancée Jessica Phillips as they travelled around the world collecting rare treasures. As he uncovered several relics, the show captured his quest to determine the authenticity of the artefacts. The television show also highlights Jamieson’s fascination with rare tribal artefacts making it evident that his profession of acquiring rare oddities, especially tribal shrunken heads and bodies, thrilled him. Sadly, Jamieson’s untimely death occurred on July 3, 2011 was while Treasure Trader was still in production of Season One, although during the latter stages of filming. In footage from the GlobalTV interview called The Real Relic Hunter, the same Shrunken Body brought to  TheDNALAB can be seen in the background on display in Jamieson’s home and is the photo below.

Shrunken Body in Jamieson's Home
The same shrunken body specimen (featured on the right side of this photo) was the relic brought into TheDNALAB for testing. The shot is taken from a GlobalTV interview with the late Billy Jamieson.

The Shrunken Body At TheDNALAB

For Jamieson’s shrunken body episode, the camera crew starting filming as Jamieson arrived at the TheDNALAB headquarters, located in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. He was greeted by the supervisor of the lab and escorted to the case receipt login area, all while holding a sturdy green case containing the shrunken body. During the log in and item inventory, which is standard protocol at TheDNALAB headquarters, the camera crew filmed as Jamieson opened the case and carefully unwrapped the artefact. He provided the supervisor with background details about the shrunken body he thought to be human.

The artifact is similar to shrunken heads, known as Tsantsas created by the Jivaro Indians in Ecuador, except it also has a torso, but with no arms or legs. The artefact is doll sized at only approximately twelve inches long. Its skin is dark in colour and with a hard leather appearance. It has long dark hair, tied in two braids, giving the impression the shrunken body specimen is that of a female. The delicate face remains distinguishable and features eyebrows, closed eyelids, a little nose and two intact ears. The mouth is mostly undamaged but appears to have a crack running from the lower lip through the chin and down part of the neck. The stitches along the back of the shrunken body artefact appear neat and almost professionally secured.

The shrunken body artefact was transferred to a TheDNALAB laboratory with a secure item examination rooms where filming resumed. The experienced item examination technician, gowned in a long, white lab coat along with a facemask, carefully examined the shrunken body artefact with gloved hands. Wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) is standard procedure for an item examiner in theDNALab and was not worn by the technician just for television purposes. A bright magnification light was used to aid the technician during the examination of the specimen, specifically to help determine an ideal location for sampling.

The goal here, is to find a sample area that is potentially a rich source of DNA but also not likely to be an area frequently touched by anyone handling the artefact. In addition, the item examiner needed to sample an area that did not jeopardize the integrity of the artefact. Ultimately, a small piece, about the size of the tip of a baby finger, was carefully cut from the right shoulder of the shrunken body and placed in a small, sterile tube for subsequent DNA analysis.

Shrunken Body analysis at TheDNALAB
Cameracrews captured TheDNALAB analyzing the shrunken body specimen.

On a daily basis, TheDNALAB, accredited by the Standards Council of Canada , processes forensic items for DNA analysis that are submitted by policing agencies from across Canada. Such forensic items can include weapons from homicides, clothing from aggravated assaults, underwear and intimate swab samples from sexual assault victims, airbags from motor vehicle accidents and gloves or toques left behind at the scene of robberies, or break and enters. In each case, including the shrunken body artefact case, the reason for the examiner to take these protective measures is twofold—One, to protect the item from any potential DNA contamination from the technician and two, to safeguard the item examination technician from any potentially hazardous substances or bodily fluids on the item.

TheDNALAB And The Shrunken Body Analysis

Although History Television series, Treasure Trader, did not feature much of the DNA analysis procedure as it is a lengthy and sensitive process, it is worth noting the steps involved as a behind-the-scenes look from the analysis team.

The first step in the DNA process is called DNA extraction. This step has two main goals: first, to break open any human cells on the sample and release the DNA. The second step is to isolate and concentrate the DNA. In simplistic terms, a series of chemicals are added to the tube containing the sample, in this case, the small piece of the shrunken body artefact. The chemicals break open the cells thereby releasing all the cellular material, including the DNA, into the solution. Next, the sample undergoes a “clean up” purification process to isolate only the DNA in the sample and remove all unwanted cellular material. Lastly, the concentration of purified DNA is increased by reducing the volume of the liquid in which the DNA is suspended. The typical final volume of liquid of this step is extremely small, at approximately six microliters. To put this amount into perspective, it is equivalent to approximately one tenth of a droplet of water or less than one percent of a teaspoon.

The second step in the DNA process is Quantitation. The goal of this step is to determine how much DNA is present in the sample. Insight into how much DNA is present in the sample is important for the Reporting Forensic Scientist in giving an opinion as to whether or not the shrunken body artefact is of human origin.

Amplification is the third DNA process step. The purpose of amplification is to chemically photocopy small fragments of DNA that, when put together, comprise one’s DNA profile. The cleaned-up DNA sample goes through many cycles of temperature changes that help in the photocopying process. The end product is many DNA copies of each targeted area, which means that the sample is human. If the sample is not human, a DNA profile cannot be generated.

Each targeted area of DNA is of different sequence length. The final step is to separate and organize these DNA fragments according to length. The specialized instrument on which this technique is performed is connected to a computer which collects the DNA information in an electronic format. The information is then given to a forensic scientist who interprets the DNA results.

Results of Jamieson’s Shrunken Body Discovery

Excitingly, the DNA results conclude that lots human DNA was detected on the shrunken body. A partial, degraded DNA profile, indicative of a female source was obtained from the sample of the right shoulder of the shrunken body artefact. The amount of DNA obtained from the small finger-tip sized piece was abundant enough to theoretically repeat the DNA analysis 461 additional times at the optimal quantity of DNA. This aids the reporting forensic scientist’s opinion that the DNA results of the shrunken body artefact are unlikely from simply “touch” DNA and, rather, that of a real human specimen. Given the DNA results, Jamieson told the Treasure Trader viewers that he does not plan on selling the shrunken body. It will likely become part of his collection featured in his 6,000 square foot loft-museum in Toronto, Ontario.

Shrunken Body on Display in Jamieson's home
The shrunken body on display in the GlobalTV interview about relics

Billy Jamieson’s legacy has been carried on by his fiancée Jessica Phillips who shares Jamieson’s passion for tribal artefacts and rarities. Jessica’s eclectic collection varies from vintage hats to weapons, although, her real fascination lies with wooden peg legs.

In 2014, Jessica Phillips co-starred along with three other collectors in CBC’s reality show, Four Rooms. On this show, guests present the collectors with their odd artefacts in hopes of selling their collectibles

Although this was likely the only shrunken body artefact that theDNALAB will process for the foreseeable future, the qualified and specialized team in the Forensic and DNA Services division have a vast amount of experience in sampling unique items. In addition to sampling evidentiary items submitted by policing agencies and performing the DNA analysis, theDNALAB offers body fluid examination and interpretation, specifically for blood, semen and saliva. Together, the team of qualified forensic scientists continue to provide expert witness court testimony in over two hundred cases in the Canadian legal system.


Referenced publications entry/treasure-trader-billy-jamieson-jessica-phillips-interview_n_1632001