Professor talks colonialist grave-robbing, anthropology ethics

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, Assistant Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University Christopher Heaney gave a talk on his new book “Empires of the Dead: Inca Mummies and the Peruvian Ancestors of American Anthropology.” The event was sponsored by Lewis & Clark’s History, Hispanic Studies, Ethnic Studies, Sociology & Anthropology and Latin American & Latino Studies departments.

Assistant Professor of History Nancy Gallman opened the talk by introducing Christopher Heaney as her friend and colleague.

“I just want to say how grateful I am for all the advice that you gave me and your friendship as I was trying to learn my way around a place that

was very new and unfamiliar to me,” Gallaman said.

Heaney gave an overview of his book, which is a history of how science and colonialism turned Inca and Andean ancestors and kin into specimens displayed all over the world in museums, as well as how these sacred ancestors were made into objects of science and racial collection.

“On the Incan calendar, November was the month for carrying the dead, and I hope to do them and their stories justice today,” Heaney said.

Heaney started by talking about the idea of mummies and asked the question of how we got to a place where Andean ancestors are readily available to the public. He discussed how many of the Inca and Andean skulls were looted from places in South America in the name of anthropology and science. This is an

example of the structural violence that took place by using anatomical specimens of other people’s ancestors.

Heaney described how in the mid-to- late 19th century private collectors and government officials sought to display their scientific achievements by sending any artifacts, specifically the Incan, Andean and Peruvian skulls that were looted from the indigenous peoples, to world fairs, such as the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. This created a broad accessibility to the skulls of these cultures’ ancestors.

One of the most interesting things about these skulls was that there were large holes present in them. This is because of trephination, the practice of cutting into the head to relieve pressure, that the Peruvian people used.

Many European governments used this as proof that the Native Americans were

less advanced than European civilization, but this was far from true. Heaney said there was about a 76% survival rate for Andean people judging from the skulls that were found, versus a 20-40 percent survival rate for Europeans, who actually performed the same procedure.

Gallaman’s Histories of Indigenous Peoples of North America (Turtle Island) class prepared questions to ask Heaney.

“You write about how the boundaries between science and the sacred are blurred. How do you brace these together in your study of history, specifically the history of Indigenous people in North, South and Central America?” Gallaman asked on behalf of a student in her class.

Heaney responded that there is a colonial way of looking at the science that was used in the name of progress, that violated Indigenous people’s powerful

ancestors, treating these human skulls as objects. He added that when studying this history, one has to realize that museums all over the world have these skulls already and understand that the science that brought them there existed as a form of control.

Heaney said that one thing he learned from an indigenous Peruvian doctor, who studied and collected the Peruvian skulls, is that there is an overlap between the sacred and science. There is a place for the sacred to exist within museum spaces.

Heaney’s new book is now available. He has also written “Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones and the Search for Machu Picchu.” His third book will explore the history of the colonial laws regulating grave-robbing in the Anglo-Iberian Atlantic World and their assault upon Indigenous sovereignty.

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