Scientists disturb thousands of Inca deceased

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They call them "mummies," as if the manner of embalming made the original less of a human being. And there are many of them, certainly as many as 2,000 (some estimates are as high as 15,000) individual human beings buried in a huge Inca cemetery. But neither factor should confuse. These are human beings, buried some 500 years ago.

The place is called Tupac Amaru, after one of the great Inca captains who rose up against the Spanish. It is a shantytown now, at a site called Puruchuco-Huaquerones, located at the base of desert foothills on the eastern edge of modern day Lima. The find and first digging of the burial ground, with interments of only five centuries ago, is being hailed as the largest and most comprehensive burial site ever "discovered" in the New World.

No doubt for archaeology, it is a major find. National Geographic has jumped on the bandwagon, funding a recent phase of the digging. The find is expected to yield major "new answers" for science. According to Guillermo Cock, the Peruvian anthropologist who has emerged as the prime mover in the affair, "with this, we will rewrite the history of the Inca culture." Cock announced the excavation of more than 900 Inca funeral bundles, containing between 2,000 and 4,000 "mummies," on April 17. Cock hails the find as one of the "most significant in the history of archeology."

Cock has allegedly put together a private contract with residents of the shantytown, who are concerned about eviction, as the project grows. He is now accused of requesting payment from these poor residents to finance much of the digging. Of course, there are problems with this approach. There is already much controversy about his pronouncements and methods.

Predictably, as time goes on, the pacus, or spiritual leaders of Indian Peru, will hear of the desecration that is taking place. The pacus and other religious leaders among the Quechua, the present-day descendants of the Inca people, have rituals and ceremonies just for this type of occasion, as was evident just six years ago when the human remains of 13 mummies found at the National Museum of the American Indian were returned to their living relatives. Federal law mandates such returns of human remains, "to the community of relatives." In the hundreds of repatriations to Indian tribes by federal museums, the utmost respect and appreciation have characterized the actual events.

In 1996, thousands of Quechua people came out while their medicine people ran vigils for days on end for the remains of the 13 long lost relatives. In powerfully solemn ceremonies, they brought to their final resting place what they considered the disturbed remains of their ancestors. A published report authored by Quechua scholar Ramiro Matos in 1997, quoted this prayer: "Why were they taken so far and why did it take so long to return? Why were the bones separated from their spirits and from their Apu (Great Spirit)? Why did they not let the Indians stay, not even in their tombs?"

The occasion of return of long lost remains in 1996 became the stuff of legend among highland Quechua. In the midst of many pressing problems of daily survival, tradition and proper culture dictates respect, reverence, for ancestors, their physical remains included.

So, to repeat, these bodies being unearthed are not just simply "mummies" ? to be unwrapped like a Christmas present for archaeologists ? they are the remains of once-living human beings, each with his or her own identity, personality and presumably, immortal spirit. They are Inca people, Quechua ancestors; they are to be treated with respect.

Interestingly, during the same week that saw the announcement of the current grave disturbance in Lima, Peru, congressional hearings took up the issue of funeral directors who were dumping bodies in the woods in Kentucky and Georgia. There was a lot of talk about commitments to the eternal and the horrible break of the human spiritual covenant to disrespect the remains of the dead. Five hundred years is but a small fraction of eternity. These are the remains of human beings, buried, never intended to be disturbed. Their relatives, in a right that is completely universal and denied only by ignorant or racist human beings, we can only hope will claim them, and in time affect their proper reburial.

Regretably, the digging has begun and the scientific community is a-go-go with the possibilities. Careers will be made. The pulling and probing and scraping and brushing of human bone, skin, hair and other tissues will be ordered for the disturbed remains of thousands of human beings. They were put to rest not that very long ago, 500 years, no time at all to rest in the eternal, as was the cultural and rightful intention of their people.