Round Earth Media

Who Owns Peru’s Culture?

September 3, 2007
At almost 8 thousand feet, Machu Picchu perches above a lush valley in the Peruvian Andes. | Photo: Michael Beebe

At almost 8 thousand feet, Machu Picchu perches above a lush valley in the Peruvian Andes. | Photo: Michael Beebe

Machu Picchu, one of the world’s great archaeological sites, dazzles tourists from all over the world.

But those tourists who travel to Peru can’t see hundreds of treasures that were found at Machu Picchu. Those treasures are in New Haven, Conn., at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Peruvians are outraged that these antiquities are so far away, and they are demanding that they be returned.

How did the treasures end up at Yale?

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For centuries, the ruins at Machu Picchu were known only to local farmers. But in 1911 a Yale professor and adventurer named Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu.

He took some of what he discovered — pottery, jewelry, musical instruments, tools, silver and even human remains.

Bingham shipped these artifacts to the museum at Yale. The pieces in Yale’s collection range from mere shards of pottery to a crescent-shaped knife pendant made of bronze and a painted ceramic plate with a bird handle.

“Now we should return these objects to their place of origin,” said Marina Sequeiros, the mayor of nearby Cusco. “They’ve been out of the country for a very long time, and we need them here. They are part of our patrimony.”

Yale claims that a 19th-century Peruvian law gives the university title to the artifacts. But even the National Geographic Society said the objects were loaned to Yale and should be returned.

The Society sponsored Bingham’s expedition 90 years ago. The legal issues are complicated, but if you talk to Peruvians, the moral issues are clear.

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Bertha Bermudez works at the national park that contains the Machu Picchu archaeological site. She says Peruvian schoolchildren from the area, most of them descendants of the Incas, visit the site and should be able to see what was found there.

“They are surprised at the heritage they have,” Bermudez said. “We explain that the Indian language they speak is the same as the Incas. We explain that this is where their customs come from and all of their culture and they feel a lot of pride.”

Museum directors are understandably nervous about the dispute over the Machu Picchu treasures.

The Egyptians want the British Museum to return the Rosetta Stone. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recently agreed to return an ancient Greek vase that Italy claimed was stolen.

But the Machu Picchu treasures weren’t stolen. They were originally taken to the United States with Peru’s permission.

Nancy Wilkie is an archaeologist who sits on the cultural property advisory committee of the U.S. State Department. She says the rules have changed over time.

“Well, its certainly possible to bring objects back for study. Countries do allow that,” Wilkie said. “You do have to return them, and usually the loan period is much, much shorter than a year or two or three, after which you return them.”

In 2005, Yale did offer to return some of the objects, but Peru refused because they want title to all of the Inca treasures. This is a matter not only of national pride but also of money — millions in tourist revenues.

“There are many poor people here,” says Machu Picchu Park’s Bertha Bermudez. “And they know there is a monument. Their hope is that in the future, the monument will benefit their children.”

About a year ago, Peru elected a new president who made the return of the Machu Picchu treasures part of his campaign pledge.

According to a Yale spokesperson, the university is making overtures to Peru’s new administration to try to negotiate a settlement.

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