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Why global museums amassed the ancestral dead, starting in Peru

It is a time of worldwide reckoning for museums that display or contain ancestral dead.

Although scrutiny of looted art dates to Britain’s 1816 inquest over the Parthenon marbles, it has taken far longer for museums of anatomy, anthropology, and natural history to address their “specimens” of peoples killed, disinterred, and dissected in colonial contexts. The dam broke in the 1980s, when Native North Americans pressed the U.S. Congress to pass two acts that required museums receiving federal funding to notify descendants of the ancestors in their collections and attempt their “repatriation.” Museums exploited the laws’ loopholes leading descendants and decolonizing nations around the world to press for wider returns. In 2020, the global George Floyd protests extended to the museums and monuments that had their origins in scientific racism, settler colonialism, and the afterlives of slavery. Here in Pennsylvania, where I write, Finding Ceremony is working for the descendant-controlled rehumanization and return of the skulls of black Philadelphians collected by the white supremacist Samuel George Morton, today possessed by the University of Pennsylvania.

Why, though, did museums and scholars systematically amass the dead to begin with? In the early nineteenth century, prominent anatomists like Johannes Friedrich Blumenbach collected skulls but were satisfied with exemplifying their physical differences via the discussion of single types (a “Tungusae” skull to represent the “Mongolian” or “yellow race,” for example). A century later, institutions sought as many crania as they could. To explain that difference, historians and critics of bio-racism observe that the nineteenth century was European colonialism’s high watermark, and that anatomists like Morton used the settler violence and disinterment that it caused to prove the unprovable—that the collection and measurement of more and more crania could establish the existence of separate and unequal races.

But the specific story of the collection of Andean ancestors charts a different origin for this global process, and it asks us to think with more nuance regarding what to do with the museums it created. Using scholarly publications from the sixteenth to twentieth century, and the correspondence and fieldnotes of anatomists and anthropologists in at least 26 museums and archives in Peru, the United States, Spain, and Great Britain, Empires of the Dead offers four new ways of thinking about that story, and why it matters.

1. The European collection and display of the non-European dead began in sixteenth century Peru, inspiring the global invention of “mummies.”

Although Europeans examined the Indigenous dead since Columbus’s second voyage, in 1493, it was Spain’s encounter with Tawantinsuyu, the Inca empire, that led to the invention to “ancient” and racialized human remains as a scientific category. In Tawantinsuyu, Spaniards met the Incas’ own hierarchy of sacred and well-preserved ancestors and in 1559 tried to conquer them by displaying them as objects of anatomical knowledge. Besides illustrating how the collections of other peoples’ ancestors has always been about violence and science, this early museumification of Inca and Andean ancestors had global consequences. By the eighteenth century, European scholars conjectured that the Incas, and not just the ancient Egyptians, made “mummies,” and that the Americas’ racialized past might be studied using Peru’s pre-colonial dead.

2. South American patriots encouraged the Andean dead’s collection and study for their own scientific and nationalist reasons.

This “mummification” of the Andean past mattered to Peru. In 1821, shortly after declaring Peru’s Independence, the South American patriot José de San Martín sent King George IV of England an “Inca mummy,” hoping it would enter the British Museum. Over the next century, thousands of “ancient Peruvian” mummies and skulls followed, in part because republican Peruvian scholars and collectors studied the Andean dead in the belief that they embodied the new nation’s “ancient” sovereignty and science of embalming. Although the Peruvian state tried to halt the export of “antiquities” from 1822, human remains were largely exempt, reflecting a wider disdain for the ancestors of Peru’s living Andean peoples. Only in 1929 did the Peruvian state declare that its ownership and protection of “artifacts” extended to Andean ancestors.

3. The largest single population in America’s museums is the pre-colonial Andean dead, and it facilitated the collection of other groups worldwide.

This is in part why there are more Andean remains in American museums than any other single “racial” group. Taking advantage of Peruvian scholarship and looting, foreign anatomists and early anthropologists moved to amassing large and more statistically useful series. Samuel George Morton was central to this process. For his seminal Crania Americana (1839), he measured more Andean skulls than any other American group; when he died, “ancient Peruvians” were his largest population. To debate Morton, other scholars and museums collected them as well. The largest population today at the Smithsonian are the 4,851 individuals from “Peru,” as I recently wrote in the Washington Post. This process benefitted from European colonialism but transformed it scientifically. American anthropology’s Andean core justified the collection of similarly large groups of other Indigenous peoples.

4. Peruvian scholars and Andean communities have also used the collection of ancestors to contest scientific racism.

Inca and Andean peoples survived colonialism and independence, however, and have long engaged in their own anti­-colonial collection and reinterpretation of the dead. From the seventeenth century to the present, Andean scholars have insisted that the dead represent ancestry, not idolatry, and care, not race. Some communities honor the pre-colonial dead to this day, seeing them as an essential part of society. Still other Andean individuals have tried to steer anthropological collection to anti-racist ends. My book closes with Julio César Tello (1880-1947), considered “America’s First Indigenous Archaeologist,” who proved Andean skill at cranial trepanation—the world’s oldest surgery, it has been suggested—in part by selling his collection of his Andean skulls to Harvard. Tello built Peru’s first three anthropological museums, each centered around the other “scientific ancestors” he excavated.

The result of these four new ways into this history?

The collection of ancestral remains worldwide is indeed a product of European colonialism. But it is also the result of the centuries-old challenge of non-colonial ways of interpreting the dead: as embodiments of history, sovereignty, science, and the sacred that are not so easily deactivated by being placed in a museum.

For that reason, the world’s museums must listen to the descendant peoples seeking their ancestors’ return. But it also explains why Peruvians, for example, have not sought the mass return of “ancient Peruvians” as they did the return of the Machu Picchu collection from Yale, as I detailed in my first book, Cradle of Gold. Since the sixteenth century, “ancient Peruvians” have made the Andes a beachhead onto a more global anthropology and history. Some Peruvians and descendant communities will undoubtedly call for the return of ancestors made to fight that battle and should be supported in those efforts. But others may conceivably call for their retention in the many places Andean peoples have migrated to and worked to call home. In those cases, and possibly others, the restitution of ancestral remains may require something even more basic than repatriation or return, which museums have sometimes used to wash their hands of the colonial past. It may demand revelation and representation of the ways that other peoples’ ancestors continue to move and make us.

Feature image: Machu Picchu in Mist by Pedro Lastra. Public domain via Unsplash.

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