Sunday, November 7, 2010

Who Owns the Bones?

Colonialism is when people from one territory establish and maintain colonies in another territory. Usually it involves peoples of unequal power and, as history has shown, often involves exploitation. Its history goes back as far as the Egyptians, Greeks and Phoenicians. But it's the more recent activities of Western powers that continues to create a stir.

From Wikipedia: Colonialism refers to a period of history from the late 15th to the 20th century when European nation states established colonies on other continents. The justification for colonialism included various factors such as the profits from trade and the expansion of the power of the metropole. In addition, the rationale was based upon underlying religious and political beliefs with regards to culture and technology.

Colonialism and imperialism were ideologically linked with mercantilism.

Essentially, because of the unfair power relationships, colonized states were often exploited. Efforts to right the past wrongs of colonizers can get complicated, and rationales for solution are often as muddle-headed as the protracted problems in the first place, since foodstuffs taken have all been used up as well as the other raw materials of production.

But what about the bones?

Nearly all of us have been in science museums where archaeologists' trophies are assembled and displayed. Dinosaur bones are historical memorabilia that we enjoy but which came from somewhere, many of them taken during those previous eras when we believed everything in the world was ours to take and thus up for grabs. Finders keepers, losers weepers, eh?

Anthropologists, too, bring home all manner of wonders retrieved from primitive cultures, obtained by either looting, subterfuge or exchange, the latter being like buying a vase for two dollars at a garage sale in Cedar Lake, Iowa and selling it at Sotheby's auction house for $100,000 because it was a rare Grecian urn.

And so it is that over 4,000 Peruvians were yesterday protesting because from 1912-16 Hiram Bingham purportedly brought home over 46,000 artifacts and bones from the sacred Inca citadel at Machu Picchu. The items have been in the possession of Yale University against whom Peru has threatened criminal prosecution, which clearly doesn't sit well with the principles of this distinguished Ivy League institution.

But here's an irony. Peru wants the items back to have on hand for the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Bingham in the first place, for having opened up the treasure of Machu Picchu to the world at large. So, is Bingham a hero or a villain?

I dunno. It's all too confusing for me.

Source: Peruvians march to get Machu Picchu items back from Yale, AFP c/o Google News

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