500-year-old mummy girl repatriated to Bolivia

The 500-year-old mummy of an Inca girl has been repatriated to Bolivia after 129 years in Michigan. This is the first time human remains have been returned to Bolivia which has in recent years made concerted efforts to reclaim its scattered cultural patrimony.

The girl, who was eight years old at the time of her death, is believed to have been a member of the Pacajes group of the Andean Aymara people. Radiocarbon dating found that she died in the second half of the 15th century, around 1470. At that time the Aymara were ruled by the Inca Empire before the arrival of the Spanish.

She was naturally mummified in the dry air of the Andes Mountains south of La Paz and remains today in an exceptional state of preservation. Her long reddish black braids are thick and entirely undisturbed even though her face is largely skeletonized. Her body was placed in a stone or adobe tower known as a chullpa, tombs built for the Aymara elite. She was wrapped in a cape made of camelid wool and small feathers were placed in her hand. In the chullpa with her were found leather sandals, a sling, a gourd full of small pebbles and a bag containing maize, fruit, beans and coca.

Not much is known about the discovery and export of the mummy and her funerary furnishings. They have been in the collection of the Michigan State University Museum since 1890 when the materials were donated by Fenton McCreery, son of the then-consul from the United States to Chile, William McCreery. The mummy was placed on public display in the museum in the 1950s and became one of its most popular exhibits, even featuring on a post card. It was removed in the 1970s when attitudes towards the exhibition of human remains began to change. She and the objects she was buried with spent the next 40 years in storage.

It was William Lovis, curator emeritus of anthropology, who started a campaign to return the mummy to her homeland. He figured since the museum wasn’t going to put the remains or artifacts on display ever again, nor were they planning on studying them any further, it would be better from a cultural heritage and scientific perspective if they were repatriated.

In October of 2018, Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to relinquish legal ownership to the state of Bolivia. The remains were first transported to the Bolivian embassy in Washington, D.C., where an official transfer ceremony was held on January 22nd.  In August, the mummy and artifacts arrived in La Paz. They are now being held in a refrigerated chamber at the National Archaeology Museum.

The mummy, who has been dubbed Ñusta, the Aymara word for “princess,” will remain in cold storage while researchers study her remains with a particular focus on the condition of the body. The objects she was buried with are being examined and any conservation needs attended to before going on display at the National Archaeology Museum in La Paz later this year.

3 thoughts on “500-year-old mummy girl repatriated to Bolivia

  1. I like this idea of getting repatriations started on things a museum do not plan to display or study: so much cheaply generated goodwill – and justified delaying of the stuff you might not want repatriated in the near future.

    Clearly the effects of all those blatantly dodgy politicians in the world today are rubbing off on me 😉

  2. I am completely on board with repatriation but the obvious intent of this girl’s culture was to inter the body and items away from public view. When a “Western” culture displays such artifacts/people it is offensive, disrespectful and of course, racist. Now that Bolivia will do the same, it will no doubt be a celebration of humanity. What rot!

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