We’ve seen the mummies in Egypt. They’re in a small room at the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, and as it costs extra, we found ourselves bribing the guard to allow use of our student cards to enter. Inside a small room are a world renouned collection of mummies in incredible condition, preserved for thousands of years.
Those mummies may as well have been skeletons compared to what is at the MAAM museum in Salta. The story goes back 500 years (yes, the Egyptian mummies are much much older), from the Inca’s just before the arrival of the Spaniards. They are the “Children given to the mountain” and as we understand it, are sacrifices to the Gods. The children were of very high social status and were honored to be chosen. They were found in ruins at about 6700 meters (about 20,000 feet), and due to this altitude there was no bacteria, little oxygen and such cold temperatures that they did not decompose. They were naturally mummified.
The one we saw (there’s only one on display in the museum at any time) was so exquisitely preserved that we found ourselves waiting for her eyes to open. She still had normal musculature beneath her dark skin and hair. Her clothing and adornments looked as if they had been bought out of the craft market a week ago. She looked like any one of us, and you couldn’t shake the eerie feeling that she might wake up at any time.
Now, as you may be imagining by this point, this is all quite controversial. I mean, in effect they’ve desecrated a Native American burial site, taken the bodies away to a city, studied in and displayed it for a fee. In one of the interviews we saw in the museum (who does an admirable job of presenting both sides of the controversy), an indigeous woman from the area said the children ‘are sleeping’ on the mountain as a gift to the mountain to protect them and provide them with good harvest, as if they are (or at least were) still doing their job.
You can read more about the museum, the mummies, the extraction and the controversy here, and make up your own mind. For myself, it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about since going. I went in without too much knowledge of what was there, came out amazed and awestruck, but the more I think about it the more it bothers me. I’m glad I was able to see it because the children are truly amazing and the museum is very well done. But I wouldn’t support it if they meant to dig the site up now and don’t think it was worth disrupting in order to show the world. While they had lots of information about the expidition to study this site, what I never learned in the museum is why they decided to extract this site in the first place or whether they knew there were bodies there. Who decided they wanted to remove these? Why? What was the locals response at the time? I feel like there is much more to know.
These kinds of activities (pillaging and studying of ruins and historical sites) has gone on for millenia, but that certainly doesn’t make them right or respectful. But on the other hand, it appears to have been organized by the local government and for the local people, so at least the children haven’t ended up in the British Museum (just as one example). It’s always a particularly difficult question, how to preserve history. Especially when its not your own.