Like Mars Needs Women, Peru Needs Artifacts (and Yale Needs Lawyers)

This relates to one of my earlier posts. The fascination with the Incas continues. However, in this case, it is not the imagery of ancient empires or the mystery of vanished civilizations or the majesty of complex cultures that is provoking heated discussion.

It’s that Peru wants the return of a bunch of crumbled bones that were spirited out of the country a century ago. Apparently, Yale University either miscounted or outright lied about the number of artifacts they have from the ghost city of Machu Picchu, which was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World last year. Now, Peru is pissed, and it wants the items back.

The case brings up the whole unpleasant history of cultural misappropriation and historical theft that afflicted much of Latin America. After pre-Columbian societies disappeared or were conquered, they were often rediscovered centuries later by Americans or Europeans, who then took it for granted that they could do whatever they wanted with the remains. Only now are people acknowledging the rights of host countries to their own histories.

Who do these artifacts belong to? Who gets to decide what gets put in a museum and what’s too sacred to disturb? Are apologies for lifting these artifacts warranted? What is the role of money in all this?

With hope, we’ll get the answers to these questions before a Starbucks opens on Machu Picchu, which you know is just a matter of time.


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