RJ Wolcott and Sarah Lehr, Lansing State Journal
Published 12:30 p.m. ET Oct. 26, 2018 | Updated 12:57 p.m. ET Oct. 26, 2018
EAST LANSING – The remains of a girl who researchers believe died in what is now Bolivia roughly two decades before Christopher Columbus first crossed the Atlantic Ocean are heading back to her homeland.
Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Friday to give up ownership of the 500-year-old remains in order to allow for their return.
The girl is believed to have been a part of the Aymara ethnic group, an indigenous people from the Andes who, at the time of her death, were under the jurisdiction of the Inca Empire. She was roughly 8 years old when she died.
“We’re just thrilled that this is happening,” said Mark Auslander, director of the MSU Museum. “It’s the ethical thing to do, and it’s consistent with the United Nation’s treaty on the rights of indigenous people.”
The mummified remains were donated to the university in 1890 by Fenton McCreery, whose father, William, was then United States consul to Chile. The body was displayed at the museum with accompanying relics until the early 1970s, said William Lovis, curator emeritus of anthropology, who led the efforts to return the mummy.
“She was a very popular exhibit at the time,” he said. The display was even featured on an MSU Museum post card. But, with increasing sensitivities to the display of human remains, the exhibit was dismantled, and the mummy spent the next 40 years being shuffled between secure storage areas at MSU.
No one has done any research on the remains for decades, Lovis said, and his efforts to drum up interest in doing research came to naught.
“About three years ago, I came to the conclusion that, if nobody was going to be doing any work with either the artifacts or the humans remains and if we were not going to display the human remains, it would be better served to return them to Bolivia,” he said.
The girl was buried in a stone tomb known as a “chullpa” accompanied by leather sandals, a sling, a gourd full of small pebbles and a bag of corn, fruit and beans. Corn found in one of her bags was radiocarbon dated to roughly 1470. MSU hasn’t done any destructive analysis of the remains themselves.
Academics in Bolivia plan to study the mummy further, especially with regard to the physical conditions of the body and the objects she was buried with, said David Trigo, head of the National Museum of Archaeology of Bolivia.
“I don’t often encounter an artifact with this much richness,” Trigo said, speaking in Spanish.
But he also said that, “With a patrimonial object like this, it’s important that it’s accessible to the public in some way,” and the archaeology museum is planning a public exhibition of the remains in 2019.
The remains will be taken from East Lansing to the Bolivian embassy in Washington, D.C., en route to the National Museum of Archaeology in La Paz, Bolivia.
“Because it’s such a precious object, we can’t just put it in a car or fly it,” Auslander said. “We have to go with a special company, the kind of people you use to transport the ‘Mona Lisa’ to get it there safely.”
The university is expected to pay the cost of transporting the remains to the Bolivian embassy in Washington, D.C.
“The purpose of a museum isn’t to just grab and hold,” Auslander said. “We want to be more ethical, and, in partnership with friends around the world, we want ancestors to go home where they’re supposed to be.”
Beyond the museum’s designation as MSU Museum Accession 943, the remains aren’t named. That may change once they are returned to the government of Bolivia, Auslander said.
Questions Using Close Reading and Critical Thinking:
- The first section of an article should answer the questions “Who?”, “What?”, “When?”, and “Where?” Identify the four Ws of this article. (Note: The rest of the news article provides details on the why and/or how.)
- Does this article have any bias? Why or why not?
- When and under what empire does the article say the girl lived? Using what you already know, list two or three facts about the girl’s culture.
- Describe the items found buried with the girl. What do you think they meant to the people who buried her—or what might they have meant to the girl?
- Why might there be “sensitivities” in displaying human remains? Is there a difference between “remains” and an “artifact”? If the remains are very old, do our perceptions change? Do you think these perceptions also pertain to events in the distant past?
- Why did Michigan State University vote unanimously to return the girl’s remains to Bolivia? What motivated them to make this decision?
- There are many museums throughout the world that possess remains and artifacts from other cultures. How do you think these objects were first acquired? Do you think these museums should return these objects to their home countries? Why or why not?
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