The Pre-Columbian Exchange: The Circulation of the Ancient Peruvian Dead in the Americas and Atlantic World

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  • This dissertation is a history of how pre-colonial Andean skulls and mummies were looted, circulated, studied, and displayed in Peru, the Americas, and Atlantic World, from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-twentieth. Engaging with Andean beliefs in the numinous subjecthood of the seemingly inanimate, it practices a research methodology that treats the dead as both actors and legible texts, whose transits from high-altitude Andean tombs to the bone rooms of museums are lifetimes worthy of study; and whose indigenous and Spanish interlocutors and their knowledge-practices prove central to the development of what became archaeology and physical anthropology in the Americas. By beginning in 1532, it shows how Spanish and Andean grave-opening practices established a hemispheric regime of legalized looting that appropriated indigenous sovereignty, and circulated the image of the wealthy and embalmed Inca corpse in the wider Atlantic world. Believing the Inca dead superior to the mummies of Egypt, the English sought indigenous graves of their own before casting Peru and its embodied history as singular in the Americas. Upon independence, Peru's non-indigenous elites claimed Inca mummies as an emblem of ancient, scientific, and elite sovereignty, building a National Museum around them, and sending one in 1821 to the King of England.
  • From these circulations, the "ancient Peruvian" dead became the single largest population in the Americas' foundational museums, but the discovery in Peru of trepanned crania-subjects of surgery-undercut skull-collecting's Euro-centric assumptions. Indigenous Peruvians proved central to this process, writing back to Euro-American universal history by referring to the dead as texts of medical healing and study and building their own museums around them. The founding document of the Americas' engagement with the indigenous past, and indigenous America's engagement with global history, emerges as a papery, preserved, and imperial mummy from Peru; its codicils the un-measurable crania that both reinforced and destabilized scientific racism.


  • Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology
  • United States National Museum


Smithsonian History Bibliography

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Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Archaeology
  • Mummies
  • Human remains (Archaeology)
  • Skulls
  • Racism
  • Physical anthropology
  • Indians of South America
  • Incas


  • Andes Region
  • Peru

Physical description

Number of pages: 714; Page numbers: 1-696

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