Empires of the Dead: Inca Mummies and the Peruvian Ancestors of American Anthropology 
by Christopher Heaney.
Oxford, 358 pp., £22.99, September, 978 0 19 754255 2
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The Spanish​ garrotted Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor of what is now Peru, in 1533, but their control over their new territory was far from certain. One way they tried to solidify their claim was to promote alliances between those loyal to the Spanish crown and the remaining Inca aristocracy. When the conquistador Pedro Pizarro went to ask one Inca nobleman for permission to arrange a marriage involving a woman in his family, he got a surprise. ‘I thought that I was going to speak to some living Indian,’ he wrote, ‘but they took me to the figure of one of these dead men.’

When they died, Inca royalty had their viscera extracted and their bodies treated with preservatives including antibacterial tree resin. They were bound with cords in a seated position and had calabash rinds inserted under their cheeks, so their skin remained tight and glossy as their flesh dried. After a year, they were reintroduced into Inca society. Dressed and wearing jewellery, they moved back into their palaces, where they were attended by servants who wore golden masks while interpreting the wishes of the dead. Two of these speakers told Pizarro that ‘their lord the dead man agreed’ to his proposal, as Christopher Heaney describes in his chronicle of five hundred years of encounters with the lively Andean dead.

Soon after capturing Atahualpa, the conquistadors looted the palace of his father, Huayna Capac. They took his gold ornaments but left his preserved body behind, which must have mystified the Inca, who secreted Huayna Capac in a more secure place. The former emperor was thought capable of such powerful acts as bringing or stopping rain. Rival imperial aspirants sometimes seized or even burned the bodies of one another’s ancestors in order to cut off such sources of power.

The Chinchorro culture began mummifying their dead in what is now southern Peru and northern Chile around 6000 BCE, making South America’s earliest mummified bodies two thousand years older than those of Egypt. When the Inca conquered much of the Andes in the 15th century, they found that their new subjects practised many ways of preserving the dead. The hot sand near the coast preserved bodies buried there through desiccation, while in the mountains bodies were freeze-dried in caves or special mortuary towers. Communities often continued to care for their preserved ancestors, bringing them out of their resting places to help settle disputes or to assure good rains and harvests.

The Spanish wanted to convert Indigenous Peruvians to Catholicism and so tried to bring an end to this veneration. In 1599, Jesuits staged the Last Judgment in Lima, using mummified bodies to represent the resurrected dead. Early in the next century, clerics presided over what Heaney calls ‘round-ups’ of preserved bodies. Indigenous Peruvians were summoned to watch as hundreds of their mummified ancestors were thrown onto bonfires; those who had hidden the bodies were whipped. Royal bodies were treated with more respect, especially once the Spanish realised the power that resided in being seen to control them. Huayna Capac had an especially active afterlife. Handed over by one of his converted sons for burial, he was stolen from his tomb and spent several decades at large, sometimes hidden alongside other imperial bodies in storage bins for dried maize. In the mid-16th century, Cusco’s royal magistrate, Polo Ondegardo, took Huayna Capac into custody to ensure the obedience of his descendants. Essentially capitulating to the Inca way of death, Ondegardo allowed Huayna Capac to be wrapped in a white sheet and carried in a litter around Cusco to receive veneration. One chronicler recorded that local people ‘knelt in the streets and bowed with tears and groans’. Even the Spaniards took off their caps, as befitted the passage of a king. The chronicler touched Huayna Capac’s finger and reported that it was ‘like that of a wooden statue, it was so hard and strong’. The last reliable record of Huayna Capac came 111 years after his death, when an Augustinian friar reported in 1638 that he was on display in a hospital in Lima.

Empires of the Dead takes us from pre-contact display of emperors and ancestors to the present day, when thousands of Andean bodies are held in museum collections around the world. The Smithsonian Institution currently holds bones from at least 4851 Peruvians. Heaney draws on a rich assortment of chronicles, museum records, journalistic and scientific reports, archives on three continents and an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (featuring a life-sucking ‘Inca Mummy Girl’) to rewrite the history of anthropology in the Americas, showing its origins in colonial attempts to understand and control Indigenous subjects, and discussing the way it was used to support successive claims to power.

Heaney shows the anxieties that underpinned academic disputes about what to call the Inca dead. As soon as they began receiving descriptions of Huayna Capac and other imperial bodies in the 1530s, European scholars started to debate whether they were preserved, embalmed or mummified. Each alternative carried alarming implications for the Europeans, who placed the dead, like the living, in clear hierarchical categories. Had Huayna Capac simply failed to decay, like an incorruptible saint? Was he embalmed, proving that the Inca had technical knowledge and resources equal to the embalmers who served royalty in Europe? Or was he mummified, which would put Peru in competition with the ancient Egyptians? The last category was the least threatening to the existing belief in the superiority of the Old World. But Europeans still felt uneasy about Peruvian bodies, ‘wanting neither Hair on the Head, nor Eye-brows, and even the very Eye-lashes’, being better preserved than Egyptian ones. As Peru moved towards independence in the late 18th century, its inhabitants began to make use of these comparisons, employing the ancient dead to assert their place in the modern world. In a speech celebrating the opening of Lima’s first anatomical theatre in 1792, a Peruvian doctor claimed that the Inca had perpetuated the life of their ancestors ‘while the Egyptians only prolonged the death of their own’.

Peru’s national museum was founded in 1826. Its main gallery – which displayed mummified bodies from the Andean highlands – had once been the hall of judgment of Lima’s Inquisition. Heaney argues that the presence of the ancestors effectively ‘reconsecrated’ the site, turning a ‘terrifying colonial instrument of Christian discipline and bureaucracy’ into a ‘republican temple to national Peruvian science and history’. Most Peruvian scientists and intellectuals – known as the ilustrados – were ‘creoles’, from mixed Spanish and Indigenous families. They often claimed to be the scientific heirs of Inca knowledge, including the skill of preserving the dead. In 1891, one of them performed a public autopsy in Lima’s cathedral on the body of the long-dead Francisco Pizarro. Many ilustrados were responsible for sending ancient bodies to museums and collections outside Peru. Heaney found that there were at least fifteen mummified Peruvians in British museums by 1848, including one body that had been imported accidentally, in a shipment of guano.

The export of ancient bodies became so important to Peru that the laws protecting them were changed. Although in 1822 the newly independent country had declared that all contents of ancient burial sites were national property, the government reversed course in 1839. It decreed that ‘all Peruvians that might desire to work in the discovery of hidden treasure’ in ancient tombs ‘could do so freely’. (In 1929, it changed tack again, declaring that all newly excavated ancient human remains and artefacts belonged to the state.)

Not all Peruvians, however, believed that mummified bodies were the result of ancient skill. Heaney found one scientist who insisted that the bodies were so well preserved because of Peruvian soil’s abundant minerals and nitrates. Not coincidentally, he was trying to attract foreign investors to mine those natural resources. The interweaving of science, economics and politics proved dangerous at the turn of the 20th century, and some leading scientists, who were seen as too closely allied with deposed political leaders, were sent into exile. When archaeologists from Yale were excavating at Machu Picchu in the 1910s, Peru’s president, Augusto Leguía, eager to encourage foreign scholarship, dispatched the national police to force the local population to work as diggers at the site. Some of them, seeing the ancient bodies they had unearthed being packed up, came to believe the excavations were part of a territorial dispute between Peru and Chile. They reported that the Yale archaeologists planned to smuggle the bodies out of the country, reanimate them and deploy them as mummified soldiers fighting for Chile.

Well into the 20th century, North American scholars tried to use Peruvian remains to demonstrate the superiority of white European settlers. In The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Stephen Jay Gould showed not only that such theories were based on the disproved belief that cranial capacity predicts intelligence, but that the artificially shaped skulls of preserved ancient Peruvians had often been taken to prove they were a naturally ‘small-brained’ race.

Heaney adds to this intellectual history by chronicling the personal and intellectual disputes between Peruvian and foreign scholars, most notably between Julio César Tello, celebrated as the Americas’ first Indigenous archaeologist, and Aleš Hrdlička, the founding father of physical anthropology in the United States. Tello, born to a Quechua-speaking family in an Andean village in 1880, succeeded despite the Peruvian elite’s anti-Indigenous prejudices in qualifying as a doctor. In 1909 he went to Harvard to study anthropology, taking with him a thousand ancient skulls. He intended to use them to fund his work and to demonstrate his contribution to the study of his ancestors. They were especially valuable because many showed signs of trepanation, a surgical operation to cut away fractured bone or relieve pressure on the brain after an injury. Observers had long noted that there were holes in many ancient Andean skulls, but had believed them to be the marks of fatal violence or post-mortem modification. That had changed in 1863, when a Peruvian antiquarian and surgeon convincingly showed that an ancient Peruvian skull with a quadrilateral hole had been trepanned. Only around 25 per cent of modern patients survived trepanation until the late 19th century, when the French anthropologist and surgeon Paul Broca, in part inspired by Andean examples, popularised a modernised procedure. By contrast, around 75 per cent of the trepanned Peruvian skulls showed signs of healing. This inverse success rate, Heaney notes, ‘turned global hierarchies of science, civilisation and savagery on their head’.

Tello’s history shows, however, that even when the skill of ancient Peruvians was indisputable, that of modern Peruvians could be discounted. Hrdlička, who had recently returned from an expedition to Peru, tried to buy the skulls from Tello for the Smithsonian, saying they would write a book about them together. But as the sale neared completion, Tello found out that Hrdlička had no intention of keeping his promise, so he sold the skulls to Harvard instead. Heaney has found archival evidence that Hrdlička subsequently took every opportunity to snipe at Tello, writing letters about how difficult he was and advising the Yale academics at Machu Picchu not to work with him. While earlier Peruvian scholars had claimed trepanation was an innovation of the Incas, Tello always argued that it had been used for far longer. His theory eventually became the consensus in the US – but only because North American scholars used his skulls, data and photographs without crediting his intellectual contribution. They didn’t regard him as a fitting speaker for his own dead.

The skulls now at Harvard were far from the only ancient remains that Tello sold from the many tombs he emptied in the course of his career. Heaney, who is attentive to the complex personal and cultural factors shaping intellectual history, suggests that we view Tello’s actions as a new development in ‘Andean mortuary creativity’ rather than as acts of destruction. The ‘constant negotiation’ over changing ‘rituals of knowing, mourning and care’ for the Andean dead need to be taken into account in the debates over the best way to address the ‘non-metaphorical skeletons in museums’ closets’.

Yale, Harvard and the Smithsonian have in recent years been among the many institutions to apologise for collecting human remains, and to consider whether they should continue to display and study these bodies or repatriate them. But even the increasing tendency to stress the humanity of what were once regarded as specimens, by identifying them as ‘mummified bodies’ rather than ‘mummies’, echoes earlier arguments over the terminology of preservation, embalming and mummification. Heaney doesn’t say what should happen to the Peruvian remains. He thinks that coming from him such pronouncements would seem like a Hrdlička-like attempt by an outsider to seize control. But Empires of the Dead should shape current debates, if only by reminding us that today’s museum collections are more accurately understood as ‘re-collections’. Before ending up in a foreign institution, an ancient Peruvian body might have been paraded to bring rain, buried by priests and disinterred by reluctant converts. The museums are merely another temporary resting place, no more permanent than their tombs.

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