Mummy Exodus: The North American Collection of the Pre-Columbian Andean Dead, 1875–1929, and the Peruvian Legal Response

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 12:00 PM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Christopher Heaney, University of Texas at Austin
From 1874 to the mid-1910s, Peru saw an unexpected sector of its population go into exile: the country’s Andean and coastal pre-Columbian dead, gathered up for the storerooms and displays of North American museums. This exodus was only in part scientific: it had as much to do with trends in collecting and public curiosity as it did with the questions that mummies could answer. American collecting reached its height between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and 1913, when the Smithsonian Institution swept the cemeteries north and south of Lima.

North American mummy fever didn’t go unnoticed, however, and my paper examines a central irony of the Peruvian response. As U.S. demand exploded, Peruvian law stumbled on a basic but far-reaching question: did the Peruvian state’s asserted ownership of the artifacts of pre-Columbian graves extend to their occupants? Were the ancient indigenous dead not just human remains but specimens as well—and, as such, did Peru own them? North American collectors argued that Peru didn’t, leading to debates in the 1910s over whether a Peruvian skull was an object of culture, or biology. Did it belong to Peru, or “humanity” and its scientists? My paper closes with 1929, when Peru’s Congress passed a law that further divided the indigenous past from its present: the Peruvian state owned not just pre-Columbian antiquities but bodies as well, and could claim them as it wished. Peru’s leading archaeologist Julio C. Tello—himself indigenous—designed the law, imagining it would be used to reinforce Peruvian museums and halt looting, but he soon saw its dark side. The Ministry of Foreign Relations promptly applied state ownership to his collection of mummies from Paracas and sent a series of them, against his protests, to Spain for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. They never returned.

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