After a century of exile in the United States—and decades of wrangling—human remains from the famed citadel of Machu Picchu will be repatriated to Peru, along with thousands of artifacts. On February 11 Yale University signed an agreement with the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco (UNSAAC) to return 5,000 artifacts and the remains to Cusco, the capital of the former Inca Empire, where the two universities will create the International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture.
The artifacts from Machu Picchu, the Andean site “discovered” by Yale graduate Hiram Bingham III in 1911, are central to the culture of the Incas and, therefore, a fundamental part of Peruvian identity and history. Perched at the top of an 8,000-plus-foot mountain on the eastern slopes of the Andes, the extraordinary site contains giant stone walls, terraces, ramps and the remains of hundreds of structures—palaces, baths, temples, storage rooms and some 150 houses carved in the 1400s from the mountain’s gray granite. Some of the building blocks weigh 50 tons or more, yet are so precisely sculpted and fitted together that even a thin knife blade cannot be inserted between the mortarless joints. While Machu Picchu was the spiritual heart of the Inca Empire and a place of ceremony, legends and myths suggest that the site was a place of sacred practice from time immemorial.
The Incas planted crops, including potatoes and maize, at Machu Picchu, using advanced techniques such as terracing and irrigation to reduce erosion and increase the amount of land that could be cultivated on the mountain slope. Researchers say that a smallpox epidemic wiped out 50 percent of Machu Picchu’s population by 1527, so by the time Pizarro, the Inca’s conqueror, arrived in Cusco in 1532, Machu Picchu had already been abandoned.
The agreement between the two universities was reached in November, and provides for the display, conservation and study of the Machu Picchu archaeological collections held by Yale’s Peabody Museum since their excavation by Bingham in 1912. In addition to the human remains, the collections include ceramics, animal bones, and metal and stone artifacts removed from Peru by Bingham. All the objects are being carefully packed in crates and will be shipped to Peru over the next weeks and months. The first set will be delivered by July 24, in time for a special celebration of the 100th anniversary of Bingham’s first arrival at Machu Picchu. Rumors are already circulating that Sting, Paul McCartney or Bono will come to the mountain in July to join Nobel Laureate writer and former presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa for the celebration. All of the artifacts are to be returned by the end of 2012.
Peru President Alan García said Yale has made, “an exceptional decision that recognizes the great value and significance that Peru gives to the recovery of these artifacts.… The Peruvian government welcomes this decision and recognizes that Yale University preserved these artifacts, which otherwise would have ended up scattered in private collections around the world or would have even disappeared.”
UNSAAC Rector Victor Raúl Aguilar said, “[The] ongoing collaboration should make us all optimistic that the next century of discovery regarding Machu Picchu will be as rewarding as the last.” Yale President Richard C. Levin said the agreement, “fulfills one of Yale’s primary missions—the collection and dissemination of knowledge. This agreement ensures the expanded accessibility of these Machu Picchu collections for research and public appreciation in their natural context.… ”
The International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture will be in the Casa Concha, an Inca palace in the center of Cusco, and operated under joint direction by both universities. It will feature a museum exhibit devoted to the archaeological site of Machu Picchu, with a focus on the 1911 and 1912 investigations and the subsequent study of the site and its remains by investigators from Yale and UNSAAC; a storage facility where the archeological artifacts (stone tools, ceramics, etc.) and organic specimens—including human remains and animal bones recovered at Machu Picchu by the 1912 Expedition—will be stored in appropriate environmental conditions; a laboratory and research area to facilitate investigations of the collections by the two institutions and visiting scholars. The center will host visiting students and faculty from Yale for training, research projects and fieldwork. Yale will also host visiting students and faculty from UNSAAC. The exchanges are expected to include fellowships for students and support for visiting faculty members from both institutions.
While both Yale and Peruvian officials focused on the goodwill that brought about this agreement, the deal ended years of wrangling and litigation.
Bingham, the son and grandson of Protestant missionaries, was an 1898 Yale graduate. In 1907, he was appointed a lecturer in South American history at the university, where he first learned about the Incan city of Machu Picchu. After a trip the next year to Santiago, Chile, as a delegate to the First Pan American Scientific Congress, Bingham returned by way of Peru, where he visited the pre-Columbian city of Choquequirao. Intrigued by talk of “lost” Incan cities he heard there, Bingham returned to the Andes with the Yale-Peruvian Expedition of 1911 and “discovered” Machu Picchu, which, he wrote, “fairly took my breath away,” according to a comprehensive series of reports by Yale Daily News, whose staff researched hundreds of pages of legal documents, letters, articles, journal entries and other archival materials. He shipped a massive amount of artifacts to Yale for further study.
The word “discovered” is in quotes because the ancient city was known to the people living in the nearby valley long before Bingham got there. He received fame and fortune for his work at Machu Picchu—and his book Lost City of the Incas became a bestseller when it was published in 1948. He also may have been the model for the movie character Indiana Jones.
Bingham returned to Machu Picchu in October 1912 and again in 1914 with support from Yale, the National Geographic Society and his wife’s family—the founders of Tiffany & Co.—with permission to excavate and export artifacts in an agreement between Yale and the Peruvian government. The contract made an exception to a Peruvian law banning the export of artifacts, but clearly stated that the artifacts belonged to Peru. It also said Bingham could bring the pieces to New Haven, Connecticut, but “The Peruvian Government reserves the right to exact from Yale University and the National Geographic Society of the United States of America the return of the unique specimens and duplicates.”
Peru exercised that right on October 26, 1920, in a letter from Eduardo Higginson, Peruvian General Counsel to the U.S., to the National Geographic Society. “I beg to inform you that I have received this day a cablegram from the Director of Instruction of the Peruvian Government, asking me to request from you the return of the original and duplicate objects taken from Peru.…” Higginson wrote.
Bingham knew the request was legitimate, the Yale Daily News reported. “In a letter to Gilbert Grosvenor, then-president of the National Geographic Society, in November the explorer wrote, ‘I suppose we shall have to raise some more money to ship the material back to Peru. I wish there were some other way out of it.’”
Yale found a way out of it. A university official asked the Peruvian consul for an extension until January 1, 1922. The extension was granted, but Yale never returned the objects. Yale insists that it tried for years to reach an agreement on how to return the artifacts but the Peruvians rebuffed their attempts. One point of contention was how many of the objects belonged to Peru.
Ten years ago, when Alejandro Toledo became president of Peru, Yale professor Richard Burger and Peabody Museum curator Lucy Salazar, the caretakers of the Machu Picchu artifacts, approached him about co-sponsoring an exhibit based on the Bingham collection. “In 2001, we didn’t think that it would be an issue,” Salazar told the Yale Daily News in January. But it was—the request opened up the repatriation fight, and led to a decade of increasingly contentious negotiations, with Peru insisting on the return of all of the collections and Yale resisting until its sudden, and still unexplained, reversal late last year.
Toledo and his wife, Eliane Karp-Toledo, at first seemed interested in the proposed exhibit, the Yale Daily News said. But in August 2002, Eliane Karp-Toledo made it clear that her goal was nothing less than repatriation of the entire collection.
In 2008, Yale allowed Peruvian officials to inspect the collection; then in December 2008, Peru filed a lawsuit. Then head of the Peruvian National Institute of Culture, Cecilia Bákula, did an inventory and claimed that Yale was illegally holding 46,332 pieces. The lawsuit wended its way through courts in Washington, D.C., and Connecticut, with repeated motions to dismiss filed by Yale, and counter-motions filed by Peru.
While the November accord surprised many, it was preceded by three months of behind-the-scenes activity—a frenzy of e-mails, phone calls, negotiations, a visit to Cusco and café diplomacy—all carried on amid a growing call for Yale to yield. Even former Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, who left office in January, chimed in. Dodd, who had traveled to South America last summer, released a statement saying, “The Machu Picchu artifacts do not belong to any government, to any institution, or to any university. They belong to the people of Peru. I plan to work with both parties to resolve this dispute quickly, amicably, and return the artifacts to their rightful owners.”
On November 5, thousands turned out for rallies in Lima and Cusco, chanting, “Devuelvenos el patrimonio!”—Give us back our heritage! In New York, nine Peruvians running the New York Marathon wore shirts that said, "Yale, Return Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru."
A short time later, Yale President Levin called Peru’s Foreign Minister and announced that a Yale delegation led by Ernesto Zedillo, Yale graduate of 1981, the director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and former President of Mexico, would head to Lima. Two weeks later, Yale announced it would return everything.
While the negotiated return of cultural artifacts is uncommon, the criminal investigation and return of stolen and trafficked items is vigorously pursued by UNESCO, with the help of INTERPOL and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the U.S. Pre-Columbian artifacts are a major part of ICE’s repatriation work—in the past 10 years, ICE has returned ancient pottery, tools, burial shrouds and gold jewelry, and more than 8,100 pounds of rare prehistoric fossils, including prehistoric pinecones and dinosaur eggs seized at a gem and mineral show in Tucson, Arizona, according to the ICE.
In the U.S., the National NAGPRA—an office within the National Park Service—is charged with implementing the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The act requires museums that receive federal funding to inventory certain types of Indian artifacts in their collections, including human remains and funerary or sacred objects, and provides a process for returning objects to descendants or culturally affiliated tribes and organizations.
The negotiated return of the human remains and artifacts to Cusco is the second major international repatriation in the last two years, perhaps starting a trend for the return of thousands of articles from American universities and museums to their homelands. In late 2009, the remains of 12 Yaqui warriors killed in a 1902 massacre and stored at New York’s American Museum of Natural History for more than 100 years made the journey home to their Sonoran village in northern Mexico, where they were buried with honors and ceremonies by their descendants. This was a precedent-setting agreement by the U.S., Mexican and Yaqui governments.
The warriors were among 124 men, women and children massacred by Mexican federal troops during that government’s final genocidal campaign against the region’s indigenous people during the early 20th century. But only partial remains of the warriors—their skulls and various limbs—were shipped to New York.
Three weeks after the slaughter, Ales Hrdlicka (pronounced Her-lish-ka), the first curator of physical anthropology at what became a part of the Smithsonian, had arrived armed with letters of permission from the U.S. State Department and the Mexican government. He chopped off the warriors’ heads and some of their hands with a machete, then shipped the skeletal remains to New York City, where they remained in storage for 107 years, along with bloodstained artifacts he removed from the site, including a cradleboard, a blanket, bows and arrows, and sombreros.
The human remains from Machu Picchu will not be given the same religious ceremonies and traditional burials given to the Yaqui warriors. These Inca ancestors will sit in boxes in climate-controlled vaults in the International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture, but they will at least be closer to the towering beauty of their rightful home.