Dry Subjects: The Collection of "Artificial" and "Natural" Mummies from Peru in the Nineteenth Century History of Science

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Abstract Summary
To preserve the dead requires a well-timed pause—a cultural and technological application of energy or chemicals to create an indefinite ellipsis between a being’s biological expiration and the decay of their matter. In the eighteenth century, natural historians borrowed a word from the Old World, ‘mummy,’ to describe ancient human specimens of that dead worldwide. These conditions are also environmentally occurring, which in some ‘extreme’ places allows the living to preserve the expired with so little effort that distinctions between living and dead subjects blur. Once such place is in South America, where peoples harnessed nitre-rich sands on the Pacific coast, and the western Andes’ cold, dry air, to preserve dead for millennia—a coupling remarked upon since the 1500s, when that place became ‘Peru.’ These conditions made the country a particularly globalized site of environmental and historical science and, when Peru’s Independence from Spain was declared in 1821, made its Inca or “ancient Peruvian” dead into highly collectible specimens, studied to distinguish between ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ mummies. Yet when that dead travelled, they challenged epistemologies that insisted upon those distinctions. Removed from Peru’s culturally manipulated environment, the dead sometimes began to rot, requiring reproduction of ‘Peruvian’ environmental and cultural conditions to ensure preservation. In other words, if these mummies weren’t ‘artificial’ or ‘Peruvian’ beforehand, collectors ensured that that was what they became. This paper therefore explores how the reproduction of place in the history of science extended supposedly peripheral cultures and geographies of science into the metropole.
Abstract ID :
Submission Type
Organized Session
Abstract Topic
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Chronological Classification :
19th century
Self-Designated Keywords :
Peru, environment, archaeology, anthropology, museums, collecting, specimens, death, mummies