Third Place – Repatriating Machu Picchu: On the Yale Peruvian Expedition and the Imperialism of Archaeology


Stone within stone, and man, where was he?

-Pablo Neruda, “Heights of Machu Picchu”, 1944


One of the most astounding displays of national unity in Peru occurred in early 2007, when Machu Picchu, the fifteenth-century archeological site that is the undisputed cornerstone of Peruvian pride, was nominated to become one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The candidature was met with nationalistic fervency: the Ministry of Commerce and Tourism put in motion a frantic publicity campaign, the media featured the contest in headlines on a weekly basis, and schools gave students time to vote during class. It was common for Peruvians to ask each other whether they had voted already, and negative answers were most likely met with pressing advice and a sense of patriotic displeasure.

To the joy of Peruvians nationwide, who celebrated by taking to the streets, the world also recognized the importance of the Inca citadel in July of the same year. Machu Picchu’s earning of the title further proved how it has always been, and will always be Peru’s most famous landmark, the stoutest example of Inca legacy left upon the popular imagination.

Visitors seem to be aware of this importance, making the road to Machu Picchu a most travelled one. Up to 2500 tourists make their way up to the citadel every day, and the total would be much greater if it were not for restrictions imposed by Cusco’s Regional Directive of Culture, in response to UNESCO concerns for the conservation of the ruins.[1] There are a number of ways to get to Machu Picchu from nearby Cusco, and although adventurous hikers might embark on the weeklong Inca trail and brave the surrounding mountains, the large majority of travelers choose to take the train to the town of Aguas Calientes, and then drive up a winding road into the citadel. The train and the road share a striking similarity: they are both named after an American man, Hiram Bingham III.

The name is a monument to times when the road to Machu Picchu was the one less travelled. Although at the beginning of the 20th century the presence of the citadel was well-known to locals (a number of peasant families actually lived within the ruins) and to a limited number of Cuzco intellectuals[2], American explorer, politician and academic Hiram Bingham is largely and justifiably credited with bringing Machu Picchu to the public eye. His scientific discovery of the ruins took place in 1911, in what was the first of three Peruvian Expeditions funded by the National Geographic Society and by Yale University, where Bingham had earned a B.A and was a lecturer in South American history.[3] He would return in 1912 and 1915 to conduct further anthropological, geographic and archeological studies in the Peruvian Andes, and in his last expedition, he would not return to New Haven empty-handed. Under an eighteen-month loan from the Peruvian government, Bingham exported seventy-four boxes containing more than forty-six thousand artifacts found at Machu Picchu –ceramics, bone remains, jewelry and statues–to be kept and studied at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Almost a century later, as the nation fought to crown Machu Picchu a New Wonder of the World, the artifacts still had not returned to their home country. Amidst an ebullient wave of nationalistic pride, 2007 would see the Peruvian government embark on a second patriotic mission: to denounce Yale’s continued possession of the artifacts and repatriate them back to their home country.

The Peruvian Expedition and the government’s quest to recover the Machu Picchu collection, however, are not two separate and exclusive events, but part of a long process of 20th century nation building that would forever shape Peru’s self-constructed vision of itself and its relation to the United States. In the 95 years between the artifacts’ discovery and Machu Picchu’s nomination, Peru underwent a continuous construction of nationalistic values. Examining how these came to influence its relationship with Yale University is the main aim of this paper. Through close observation of newspaper portrayal of the conflict, and of the Peruvian government’s legal response to archaeological discovery as embodied in its civil codes, the essay will attempt to track both the crystallization of nationalism and the creation of anti-American sentiments in Peru, exploring the role of national pride, scientific hegemony and class conflict in the country’s defense of Machu Picchu against the imperialism of archaeology.

Bingham Under Scrutiny

On the 7th of May of 1914, newspaper kiosks in Lima offered, for 20 centavos of a Sol, the latest issue of The West Coast Leader. Its front spread confirmed the rumors that had been blazing through the scientific and social circles of Lima’s country clubs, hotels, dance salons and budding universities: after two years of absence, Hiram Bingham and his Yale Expedition were finally returning to the Andes. They would continue what The West Coast Leader avowed was a glorious mission “to read one of the oldest sagas of mankind, scribbled with shards of pottery and granite blocks, across the valleys of a mile-high range of mountains”.[4] The time had come for the discoverer to go back to Machu Picchu.

These were prosperous times for Americans in Peru, and the existence of The West Coast Leader proved that. Published entirely in English, the independent weekly targeted the “English-speaking people of the west coast of South America, and the travelling public”[5]. It was aimed at employees of the growing number of American corporations investing in Peru, most prominently the Cerro de Pasco Mining Company, the International Petroleum Company and United Fruit. For the first time since the establishment of the Peruvian republic, Americans were overcoming the British, who had been the long-time owners of the major commercial houses and railway lines, in their corporate investment in the country. [6]

This opening of the Peruvian economy to foreign capital was a result of a twenty-year rule of the country by Lima elites—what celebrated Peruvian historian Jorge Basadre named the Aristocratic Republic. The period was characterized by the ongoing rule of the Partido Civil (a party almost exclusively conformed of wealthy landowners and businessmen), by the creation of an economic dependency on British, American and German investment, and by the granting of a large number of concessions to foreign corporations for the extraction of Peru’s booming raw products: minerals, rubber, guano, oil, cotton and sugar.[7] It does not come off as a surprise that a number of the articles in The West Coast Leader discussed foreign intervention in Peru’s military, economic and social circles.

The pages of The West Coast Leader, however, show that corporate concerns were not the sole area of interest for Americans living in Peru. A three-page spread on the pre-Columbian mud city of Chan Chan, and the long article detailing “the magnificent scientific and exploration work”[8] of the Yale Peruvian Expedition are evidence of the role that historical, archaeological and cultural findings were playing on the expansion of U.S influences in Peru.

The allure of Peruvian history did not only concern individual readers of The West Coast Leader, but also the Pan-Americanist objectives of elite universities in the United States. At the turn of the century, educational institutions such as Yale, Harvard and Stanford were competing for prestige as they sought to transform from undergraduate colleges into complex research universities.[9] The result was a wave of university-funded expeditions to Latin America: the Titicaca Lake, Argentinian Patagonia and Amazon basin. In the case of Peru, such expeditions were fully supported by the governing elites’ established economic ties with and admiration of the United States. The Peruvian government, as evidenced by correspondence between Peruvian ministers and members of the expedition, would go as far as “recommend all authorities in the republic to give every amenity and assurance to the (Hiram Bingham) commission”[10]. This took the form of tax and tariff annulments, free transport and telegraphing services, military support, and the long-sought-after permission to export archeological artifacts. The connection between the objectives of the expedition and the support of the aristocratic government is clearly demonstrated in President Augusto B. Leguía’s—a wealthy sugar baron’s—signing of the final executive order that allowed the expatriation of the Machu Picchu collection.[11] Leguía’s eldest son was one of the few international undergraduates at Yale University.[12]

Yet, in spite of the government’s support of the expedition and of The West Coast Leaders’ glorification of Bingham, the excavation and expatriation of the artifacts would not escape some major criticism. It would predominantly come from the popular classes: the rising bourgeoisie and the intellectual left, sectors of the population that had been institutionally scorned by the racial exclusivity of the Aristocratic Republic. The heart of these complaints was crystallized in the pages of another Peruvian newspaper: El Sol.

At only 5 centavos the issue, El Sol was one of the most popular cheap publications in Cusco. In its home city, it was the newspaper of the working class, with lower-income intellectuals and blue-collar workers figuring prominently amongst its readership. Throughout the course of the 20th century and into modern times, El Sol would be associated with popular socialism, a movement that, at the time of Bingham’s expedition, was gaining in strength amongst the lower-income classes that felt repressed and excluded by the aristocratic government. Less than a decade after the exportation of the Machu Picchu artifacts, José Carlos Mariátegui, one of the most influential political thinkers of the continent and the founder of Peruvian Marxism, chose El Sol as a platform of denunciation.[13]

Due to its association with the rising middle class, it does not come off as a surprise that El Sol waged a furious battle against Hiram Bingham and his expedition. Starting in May of 1915, as the commission’s officials prepared to expatriate the artifacts, El Sol would run a long series of articles confirming what it called the “grave rumors” surrounding the archaeological excavations in Machu Picchu. Written in the grammatically flawed Spanish characteristic of low-tier publications, the articles described the finding and exportation, via a well-known mountain pass, of a “great treasure”. El Sol blamed the Yale Peruvian Expedition of “mocking our (Peruvian) customs agencies” to export the objects and of creating a “Yankee Zone” around the excavation site, where no individuals other than commission members were allowed. The entire expedition was portrayed as “gravely compromising the interests of Cuzco and the country in general”. [14]

Although the claims might seem inflammatory, there are three remarkable concepts present in the accusatory articles of El Sol that should be pointed out: their aggressiveness, their inaccuracy, and their nationalism. 

El Sol’s aggressiveness is evidenced by its determined attacks on the expedition.  The newspaper defended its biting claims not in one, but in a number of articles, including the vicious front-page headline: “The Criminal Excavation in Machu Picchu: The members of the Yale commission are stealing out treasures”[15]. It did not stop in laying its accusations on paper, but also challenged the government authorities to “break their usual silence”[16] and prosecute Bingham. The articles are littered with similar suggestions of strong anti-American sentiment. In response to the media hostility, Bingham wrote an extensive letter of response, which was published in late June by El Sol itself.

Bingham’s letter is evidence for the blundering mistakes of El Sol. It pointed out a number of inaccuracies present in the articles’ claims, such as that the commission was not exporting “more than 500 boxes” but only 74. It argued that the expedition had explicit and written permission from the government, in the form of a contract and multiple permits, to conduct its studies, refuting El Sol’s accusations of archeological illegality. Stating that the existence of secrecy and American exclusivity around the excavations was utterly false, Bingham invited the journalists of El Sol to visit the archeological sites and open the artifact boxes. Bingham also defended the scientific value of the expedition, which he believed would benefit the entire country by kindling foreign interests in the area, and vowed that he would “never…commit acts contrary to the laws and sentiments of Peru.”[17]

Finally, El Sol’s articles are banners of nationalism. Although some of its accusations might have been erroneous, El Sol did not build its case upon factual accuracy, but upon a firm nationalistic sentiment that was growing in popularity amongst its readership. In its articles, El Sol portrayed itself as a bastion of nationalistic righteousness that had “promised to always look after the interests of Cusco…and the conservation of its enormous and grand historical treasures”. El Sol even went as far as to justify its accusations under excuses of “patriotic enthusiasm”, denouncing that the actions of the commission “must not be tolerated by the people”.[18]

The wave of criticism towards the Yale Peruvian Expedition delivered by El Sol was an indicator of a new kind of nationalistic sentiment that was rapidly gaining in popularity in early 20th century Peru, a movement known as indigenismo. Like its name suggests, this particular branch of patriotism was based on the uplifting of native culture and history, which had long been institutionally and socially criticized. The indigenistas heavily begrudged the country’s current dependency on foreign intervention, so that the movement is associated with the creation of anti-American sentiments. In the context of the Peruvian Expedition, indigenismo served as the defense mechanism of the intellectual left, which, being largely conformed of amateur archeologists and historians, did not have access to the financial and educational resources available to members of the Bingham expedition. Their resentment at the taking of their historical heritage by Americans was translated into El Sol’s defamatory campaign, explaining the articles’ lack of factual accuracy and overreliance on the rallying effect of national pride.

The polarizing influence of the expedition can be better observed when comparing El Sol’s articles to the coverage of the same events by one of Peru’s oldest publications: the daily newspaper El Comercio. Long associated with the interests of the majorly right-wing high class, El Comercio continues to be run, even now, as a family business. It is owned by the Miroquesada Garland family, established members of Peru’s wealthy coastal elites. At four Soles the monthly subscription, and 30 centavos the issue in 1912,[19] El Comercio was amongst Peru’s most expensive and comprehensive newspapers.

In response to the media conflict, El Comercio published a retaliatory article that brushed off the accusations of El Sol as “unfounded denouncements”. The article defended the lawfulness of Bingham’s expedition, even describing the explorer as “distinguished and wise”. El Comercio argued that denying such foreign expeditions permission to conduct studies and export artifacts would not only go against “national utility”, but also against “an even higher universal mission in benefit of human science, a mission towards which all civilized peoples should be obliged to cooperate.”[20] In another article, El Comercio would be the first entity to utilize an argument that would be frequently repeated a century later, as the Peruvian government tried to repatriate the artifacts, that these had little historical value. The Lima newspaper stated that it found no “archeological remains of importance” upon inspecting Bingham’s boxes, and that these would serve no purpose other than “be a foundation for the exceedingly important studies undertaken by the Yale commission.” [21]

Almost a year before the artifacts boarded a ship at Lima’s port of El Callao and set off on their way to New Haven, their expatriation already had a strong polarizing effect on Peruvian society. As shown by the respective coverage of El Comercio and El Sol, whilst Lima elites had paved the way for the artifacts to leave the country, mestizo nationalism in Cusco had catalyzed around the lightning rod of Bingham’s archeological finds, leading to what might easily be one of Peru’s first cases of American-initiated class conflict. Yet, as the country’s nationalistic sentiments solidified during the course of the following century, the expatriation would have a second pioneering effect: it would set off one of the first legal battles over cultural ownership fought between the two American continents. To understand the conflict, one must follow the legislative and political trail it left on Peruvian 20th century history, and examine the writing of Peru’s civil codes.

Machu Picchu on the Stand

Yale University Manuscripts and Archives currently houses the totality of the Peruvian Expedition papers. It is a fascinating collection of explorer paraphernalia, including glass slides, photographs, journals, accounting records, maps, and correspondence. Hiram Bingham himself donated most of the material to Yale in 1936.[22] The hand of the discoverer has left its mark throughout the collection in the form of diary entries, personal letters and even a folder where Bingham kept careful track of media criticism of the expedition, containing a large number of clippings from El Sol’s defamatory campaign. Yet the expedition’s archives are not only about discovery, triumph and glory; many of its folders contain legal records dating to a decade before and after Bingham’s first visit to Peru. These translated copies of executive orders, contracts and civil codes are the first indication of the legal battle that would develop at the turn of the 21st century, of the role that Hiram Bingham and his expedition, long thought to be Indiana-Jonesque examples of triumphant discovery, would play in the formation of Peru’s legal frameworks on archaeology. The records foretell how the expatriation of the Machu Picchu collection served as a fundamental disruption that catalyzed important discussions about Peruvian nationalism and the role of the government in protecting its archeological heritage.

Yet in order to understand the impact of the Yale Expedition on nationalist responses to law implementation, it is important to go back almost ninety years before Hiram Bingham and his commission first set their feet in Peru. The first piece of Peruvian legislation considering archeological remains was passed in 1822, an executive order signed by President José Bernardo Torre Tagle. The order gave a nationalistic reason behind its specification that archeological remains were the property of the state, stating that these “belong to the glory that is derived from the nation.” It prohibited the “exportation…and extraction” of archeological remains, arguing that doing so would “deprive us (Peruvians) of the joy of having what is ours.”[23] This very first surge of nationalistic protection of archeological findings is easily explained by the historical context of Torre Tagle’s administration. He was only the second president of Peru, taking office barely a year after the country’s declaration of independence from Spanish rule. Hence, the executive order was most likely referring to the exportation of historical treasures to Spain. Torre Tagle most likely did not even suspect that his legislation would be replicated many years later, as Peru sought to protect its relics from a second imperial hegemon.

Only three decades later, however, the Peruvian government reversed its decision to claim ownership of historical artifacts. In 1852, Congress promulgated the first civil code in Peruvian history, under the presidency of José Rufino Echenique. Although it was pioneering legislation, the civil code of 1852 also tackled the issue of archeological exploration. In article 522, the code specified that any “treasure or buried object” found within public land was the property of the discoverer.[24]

The civil code of 1852 was still in force during the three Yale Peruvian Expeditions. In fact, its articles concerning archeological property had been reestablished by the 1903 Código de Aguas, a piece of government legislation regarding hydrological property distribution of Peru’s main rivers and water channels.[25] This meant that, in 1915, the artifacts found in Machu Picchu would have been the property of Hiram Bingham, their discoverer, with the Peruvian state having no claim over their possession.

Yet, the Peruvian government covered this loophole in what was the first example of the Yale Peruvian Expedition’s direct influence on the country’s legislation. On the 19th of August of 1911, President Augusto B. Leguía signed Executive Decree 2612, which modified enforced norms to announce that “all articles found belong to the government, which may give duplicates to those who ask for permission (to excavate).”[26] The order further established that exportation of artifacts was “absolutely forbidden”, under danger of being fined up to two hundred Peruvian pounds of gold.[27] Considering that the Yale Peruvian Expedition papers contain drafts of contracts between Yale and the Peruvian government dated as soon as 1908, where the university showed interest in exporting a large amount of artifacts,[28] it is most likely that Executive Decree 2612 was passed specifically so that Leguía’s government could lay claim to all object discovered by Bingham. Although the Leguía administration would be very complacent towards Hiram Bingham’s commission, the decree was one of the first attempts of the Peruvian government to protect its archeological heritage, permitting the state to gain the upper hand in legal matters and run negotiations with the American commission under its own terms.

The trail of the Machu Picchu collection’s impact on Peruvian legislation, however, grows blurry after its departure from Peruvian territory in 1916. There are little to no recorded attempts by the government to repatriate the artifacts throughout the course of the 20th century, in spite of it being a vital time period for Peruvian nation building. There does, however, seem to be an explanation behind this silencing. Only a few years after the 74 boxes left the port of El Callao on their way to New Haven, the Aristocratic Republic would fall. The following decades of Peruvian history would be troubled ones, marked by the resurgence of military dictatorships, economic crises, unbelievable levels of debt, crippling hyperinflation, coup d’états and peasant revolts. They terminated in one of Peru’s bloodiest conflicts, the civil war between Shining Path, a Maoist insurgency group, and the Peruvian government. During this wave of internal conflict, nationalism majorly became concerned with Peru’s economic performance, and anti-American sentiments grew around the role of American corporations in Peru’s markets. This most likely distracted the government from engaging with Yale over legal issues regarding the return of the collection.

In spite of this period of oblivion following the expatriation of the artifacts, the 20th century continued to display a clear correlation between the nationalistic tendencies of Peru’s governments and their stances on archeological law. The first civil code to establish the ownership of the state over any discovered archeological artifacts was implemented in 1936 under the administration of Oscar Benavides. In its article 822, the code specified that not only were archeological remains property of the nation, but also that they would be governed by “their own special law.”[29] This is unsurprising given that the Benavides’ government, the second in a series of military dictatorships, predictably defended a stronger sense of national identity surrounding Peru’s cultural heritage. Yet, internal political turmoil, the effect of Great Depression in Peru’s economy, and the war with Colombia over territorial delimitation hindered any attempt by the military dictatorships to repatriate the artifacts.[30]

A decade later, the Good Neighbor Policy reprieved some of the anti-American sentiments in Peru. This seems to have made local intellectuals more tolerant of American academics; Hiram Bingham was able to return to Peru in 1948 and inaugurate the highway that, even now, bears his name. Upon arrival, the same Cuzco crowds that had accused him of cultural thievery celebrated him as a hero.[31] Following the example of their government, they seemed to have forgotten the expatriation of the Machu Picchu collection.

The final civil code of the century, established in 1984, once again stated that archeological remains, even those found within private land, were the property of the state. But the historical events that were to follow its implementation would once more prevent the government from pursuing the recovery of the Machu Picchu collection, not only due to the rise of the Shining Path and the implosion of armed conflict throughout the country, but also because Peru fought, and lost, its first lawsuit over archeological property with the United States, the controversial Government of Peru v. Johnson.

In 1989, Peru would sue Benjamin Bishop Johnson, a private collector, for his possession of number of artifacts looted from the pre-Columbian site of Sipán.[32] The case fell under the jurisdiction of California’s District Court, which ruled that the Peruvian state had failed to prove that the objects where in fact found in and exported from Peru and when it was that they were discovered, and hence had no way of demonstrating that these had been exported before Peru’s civil codes claimed ownership of archeological remains.[33] The ruling was a harsh blow to Peru’s objectives of cultural recovery, one that would affect its decision not to immediately sue Yale over the Machu Picchu collection in American court. It would take the emergence of a new kind of fiercely nationalistic government for Peru to finally put Machu Picchu on the stand.

Neo-populism Strikes Back

In July of 2001, Peru saw a groundbreaking moment in its electoral history. After an ardent populist campaign, Alejandro Toledo became the first person of indigenous descent to assume the Peruvian presidency. In his first speech to CNN after the victory, he made two promises: to make Peru a multicultural society, acceptant of its complex historical legacy, and to contribute to Peru’s booming economy through the strengthening of the tourism market.[34] In Toledo’s mission to establish a strong national identity, Machu Picchu, as the ultimate icon of Peruvian pride, would play a special role. The return of nationalism had to be accompanied by the return of the artifacts to Peru.

Toledo’s government would be followed by two more populist administrations, those of Alan García and Ollanta Humala. Once again proving the connection between nationalist stances and archeological protectionism, the ten years spanning the return of neo-populism saw Peru embark on an aggressive campaign of cultural repatriation. The Ministry of Culture opened forty lawsuits, aiming to bring back approximately fifty thousand artifacts.[35] Of the forty lawsuits, twelve were fought with entities in the United States. Forty six thousand of the fifty thousand artifacts were under the possession of Yale University.[36]

Negotiations to return the artifacts started near the end of 2001, with Yale initially hesitant to acknowledge the Peruvian government’s claims of property over the objects. The university employed a number of arguments to strengthen its case, citing the doctrine of estoppel to argue that the state’s oblivion of the artifacts for nearly a century confirmed that Peru had no claim to the collection.[37] Richard Burger, anthropology professor and curator at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, reasoned that the events surrounding the expatriation were unclear, and that even though “all sorts of speculations” were being made, it was difficult to know whether the Peruvian government could lay claim to the artifacts.[38] Yale also defended its possession of the collection on the grounds that Peru did not have the resources needed to properly conserve the artifacts. University spokesman Tom Conroy stated that “preserving, restoring and researching the collection over many decades has cost Yale money…resources had to be secured and grants had to be found…it has not been a profitable exhibition,”[39] and Professor Burger displayed worries over Peru’s “long history of problems in terms of security of its collections.”

Yet, its status as a world-renowned academic institution did not help to strengthen Yale’s claims. The general public seemed to perceive the initial reluctance to return the artifacts as a paternalistic abuse of power on the university’s part. Even the National Geographic Society turned its back on Yale, with its president, Terry Garcia, stating that “National Geographic was there, we know what was said, the objects were lent and should be returned.”[40] As negotiations over the collection took place, Yale was undergoing a period of internationalization similar to the one that had prompted it to export the artifacts in the first place. This change was evidenced by the opening of Yale-NUS, collaboration between Yale and the National University of Singapore, in 2011, [41] by the initiation of a number of international conferences and by the growing percentage of accepted international undergraduates receiving financial aid. Richard Levin, Yale’s president at the time, contextualized these changes against the background of the Machu Picchu collection, stating that Yale sought to “demonstrate leadership in the (international) area, in a way that balances the legitimate interests of Peru against the worldwide interest in the reservation and conservation of these important historical artifacts.”[42] It would be these international pressures, as well as a letter from Yale alumni asking the university to return the artifacts, that finally prompted Yale to strike a deal with Peru and vow to repatriate the collection in 2007. In spite of this, conflicts concerning the amount of objects declared still lead Peru to sue Yale under the District of Columbia court in 2008.[43]

Back in Peru, however, the pressures prompting the government to repatriate the collection were not international, but strongly nationalistic. Anthropologist Eliane Karp, President Toledo’s wife, would be one of the most aggressive defenders of Peru’s right to repatriate the collection, an unsurprising occurrence given her reputation as one of the most fervent nationalists of Peru’s political circles. In an op-ed published in the Miami Herald, and during her official visit to the United States in 2007, Karp launched a series of attacks on Yale, stating the national importance of Machu Picchu, and claiming that failing to repatriate its artifacts went against the fact that “there is no more colonialism in the 21st century.”[44] Karp’s nationalistic tendencies directly influenced the government’s decision to reject any deals with the university in which complete ownership of the collection by the Peruvian state was not granted, including an offer to build a Yale-funded, state-of-the-art museum outside Machu Picchu to house the collection, and which would arguably have proved beneficial to both the conservation of the artifacts and their access to the general public.

Elian Karp was a hugely controversial and largely criticized figure, but her aggressive opinions on the Yale-Peru scandal raised few eyebrows in Peru, where anti-American sentiments abounded in connection to Yale’s stance on the artifacts. Headlines denouncing the paternalistic attitudes of the university were common in a variety of newspapers, including El Comercio, showing how even amongst Peruvian elites, the nationalizing effect of the issue was strong. Demonized by the Peruvian media and criticized within international circles, Yale would finally repatriate the artifacts, starting in 2011. Yale and the Peruvian government had struck a final deal: the collection, now fully the property of the Republic of Peru, would be exhibited at La Casa Concha, a small museum owned by Cusco’s San Antonio de Abad University, with Yale maintaining the right to continue its research of the collection.

The first shipment of artifacts was welcomed by the Peruvian president in an official ceremony on the steps of the Governmental Palace.[45] The last shipment arrived in Cuzco and was exhibited a year later, as Peru celebrated the hundredth anniversary of Machu Picchu’s scientific discovery by Hiram Bingham. Massive queues lined up to see the collection, which received thirty thousand visitors in the first few days.[46] Both the flags of Peru and Yale were hoisted outside the museum, but an air of nationalistic victory, of the triumph of Peru over imperialist America, would linger over the entire episode.

As of 2014, the Machu Picchu collection remains housed at La Casa Concha Museum. Although the institution was officially named the Yale International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture, the term has not stuck; locals, tour guides and tourists all refer to it by its old Spanish name. Compared with the collections housed at Cusco’s museums of Pre-Columbian and religious art, the exhibit at La Casa Concha is measly, mostly because its scientific value exceeds its artistic one. Of the collection’s forty six thousand pieces, only about two hundred and fifty were deemed worthy of museum showcase.[47] Not surprisingly, the number of visitors has dwindled enormously since the exhibition’s opening days, and only a few tourists are seen walking amongst the glass cases. Yale’s flag has been removed from the museum entrance. The fifteen minutes of fame of the Machu Picchu collection seem to be over.

Visiting La Casa Concha, no one would suspect the polarizing hold that the collection once had over Peru’s people. It was a hold that lasted close to a century, growing from a small domestic complaint into an international lawsuit, hoisting a flag of shared indigenous history around which a rising intellectual class would gather, changing a country’s legislation, all in the name of nationalism.

The importance of the Machu Picchu collection within the wider context of U.S imperialist history in Peru is evidenced by the fact that the Peruvian government, and the Peruvian public in general, displayed aggressive interests to repatriate a collection that had little historical worth when compared to Peru’s dazzling assortment of historical relics. Instead, the fervor seems to have been born out of anti-American resentment, out of a need to define Peru’s national identity by having it challenge the scientific hegemony of one of the greatest academic institutions in the United States. The Peruvian media and the Peruvian state catalyzed nationalism around the Machu Picchu collection by portraying it as a hostage of American imperialism that needed to be rescued, an act which left Peruvian pride hanging in the balance. But Peru came out victorious, the artifacts returned home, and now, they are again forgotten.


Micaela Bullard (’18) is a sophomore in Calhoun College.



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Alva, Walter. ‘The Destruction, Looting, and Traffic of the Archaeological Heritage of Peru.” In Trade in Illicit Antiquities: The Destruction of the World’s Archaeological Heritage. Edited by Neil Brodie, Jennifer Doole, and Colin Renfrew, 81-96. Cambridge: McDonald Institute of Archaeology, 2001.

Basadre, Jorge. Historia de la Republica del Perú (1822-1933), Obra Completa en 18 Volúmenes. Lima: Empresa Editora El Comercio S.A., 2005

Bullard, Alfredo. Informe Legal de Precedentes sobre el Proyecto de Acuerdo entre el Gobierno del Perú y la Universidad de Yale. Lima: 13 November 2007.

Melis, Antonio. “Mariátegui, el primer marxista de América.” in Mariátegui y los orígenes del marxismo latinoamericano, edited by José Aricó, 5-34. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1979.

Orrego, Juan Luis. “La República Oligárquica (1850-1950).” in Historia del Perú. Lima: Lexus, 2000.

Salvatore, Ricardo Donato. “Local versus Imperial Knowledge: Reflections on Hiram Bingham and the Yale Peruvian Expedition,” Nepantla: Views from South, 1 (2003): 6-80

Trafficking Culture. “Peru v. Johnson.” Accessed December 9, 2014.


[1] Ricardo Donato Salvatore, “Local versus Imperial Knowledge: Reflections on Hiram Bingham and the Yale Peruvian Expedition,” Nepantla: Views from South, 1 (2003): 70

[2] “Plan maestro de Machupicchu,” Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura de Cusco 2014-2018, accessed November 26, 2014. <>

[3] “Finding Aid to the Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers”, Yale University Manuscripts and Archives (MS 664), 4.

[4] “Yale Peruvian Expedition: Return to Peru”, The West Coast Leader, May 7, 1914, 3

[5] Ibid, 1

[6] Jorge Basadre, Historia de la Republica del Perú (1822-1933), Obra Completa en 18 Volúmenes (Lima: Empresa Editora El Comercio S.A., 2005) see volume 12, 21

[7] Ibid, 116.

[8] “Yale Peruvian Expedition: Return to Peru”, The West Coast Leader, May 7, 1914, 3.

[9] Salvatore, Local Versus Imperial Knowledge, 68.

[10] Government Director Ministro de Ramo to Elwood C. Erdis, 7 May 1914, Box 2, Folder 22, Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers (MS 664), Yale University Library.

[11] Dirección General de Instrucción Pública, Resolución No 31 firmada por Augusto B. Leguía, Lima, 27 January 1916.

[12] Salvatore, Local Versus Imperial Knowledge, 76.

[13] Antonio Melis, “Mariátegui, el primer marxista de América,” in Mariátegui y los orígenes del marxismo latinoamericano, ed. José Aricó. (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1979), 22.

[14] Clipping of El Sol, 2 June 1915, Box 32, Folder 51, Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers.

[15] Clipping of El Sol, 16 June 1915, Box 34, Folder 51, Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers.

[16] Ibid.

[17]Clipping of El Sol, 22 June 1915, Box 34, Folder 51, Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers.

[18] Clipping of El Sol, 16 June 1915, Box 34, Folder 51, Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers.

[19] “Subscripciones”, El Comercio, December 31, 1912, 1, in NewsBank/Readex, Database: World Newspaper Archive, SQN: 1448F4E646EE71D0.

[20] Clipping of El Comercio, 1915, Box 34, Folder 51, Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers.

[21] Clipping of El Comercio, 3 July 1915, Box 34, Folder 51, Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers.

[22] “Finding Aid to the Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers”, Yale University Manuscripts and Archives, 6.

[23] “Decreto Supremo No. 89,” 2 April 1822, in Alfredo Bullard, Informe Legal de Precedentes sobre el Proyecto de Acuerdo entre el Gobierno del Perú y la Universidad de Yale, Lima: 13 November 2007, 8.

[24] “Código Civil de 1852,” article 522, Sitio Oficial de Notarios de La Libertad, accessed December 5, 2014.

[25] Código de Aguas del Perú, 1902, (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2010), articles 56, 57 and 58, 32.

[26] Translated copy of Augusto B. Leguía’s Executive Decree 2612, 19 August 1911, Box 2, Folder 23, Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers.


[28] Draft of contract between Yale University and the Republic of Peru, 1908, Box 2, Folder 23, Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers.

[29] “Código Civil de 1936,” article 822, 2 June 1936, Scribd, accessed December 7, 2014.

[30] Juan Luis Orrego, “La República Oligárquica (1850-1950)”, in Historia del Perú, (Lima: Lexus, 2000), 894.

[31] Salvatore, Local Versus Imperial Knowledge, 77.

[32] Walter Alva, ‘The Destruction, Looting, and Traffic of the Archaeological Heritage of Peru,” in Trade in Illicit Antiquities: The Destruction of the World’s Archaeological Heritage, ed. Neil Brodie et al. (Cambridge: McDonald Institute of Archaeology, 2001), 93.

[33] “Peru v. Johnson,” Trafficking Culture, accessed December 9, 2014.

[34] “Change in Peru,” CNN World, accessed December 9, 2014.


[35] “Cincuenta mil bienes culturales repatriados al Perú en 9 años,” El Comercio, accessed December 9, 2014.

[36] “Hay 40 procesos para repatriar unos 5000 bienes culturales,” El Comercio, accessed December 9, 2014.

[37] Bullard, Informe legal de precedentes, 13.

[38] Andrew Mangino, “Explorer seen in new light,” Yale Daily News, accessed December 9, 2014.


[39] Kim Martineau, “Peru Presses Yale on Relics,” Hartford Courant, accessed December 9, 2014.


[40] “Yale debe devolver piezas Incas a Perú,” La República, accessed December 9, 2014.


[41] Yale-NUS College Fact Sheet, Yale-NUS college site, accessed December 9, 2014.


[42] Mangino, “Explorer Seen in New Light”.

[43] Evan Weinberger, “Peru Sues Yale for Return of Inca Artifacts,” Law 360, accessed December 9, 2014.


[44] Martineau, “Peru Presses Yale on Relics.”

[45] “FOTOS: Piezas de Machu Picchu devueltas por Yale se preparan para su exhibición,” El Comercio,  accessed December 9th 2014.


[46] “Más de 30 mil personas han visitado piezas de Machu Picchu devueltas por Yale,” El Comercio, accessed December 9, 2014.


[47] Matt Apuzzo, “Disputed collection holds key to Machu Picchu secrets,” Boston News, accessed December 10, 2014.



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