After Almost 100 Years, Comes An Emotional Return

A proud people enter Plaza de Armas square, paying homage to their ancestors. They walk behind trucks carrying artifacts and bones of their Inca ancestors that were taken to the United States

On a guided tour, somewhere among the hand-sculpted stone wall remains of the fabled Machu Picchu, Jonatan the tour guide decided that I the American would be the perfect target for jokes. He asked if I had ever been to Yale University. Yes, I have, I said. Next time you go, he said, please ask when our Inca treasures will be returned.

Jonatan had spent a good part of the tour recounting Inca history from their early rule in the Peruvian valley and dominance across the continent to their internal powerful struggles that hastened their brutal defeat at the hands of Spanish conquistadors.

When he got to 1911 and the arrival at Machu Picchu of Hiram Bingham, Jonatan made a point to note that it was historically inaccurate to say that Bingham had “discovered” Machu Picchu since it was well-documented that two Peruvians had already found Machu Picchu years earlier. Also, when Bingham got to Machu Picchu there were two Inca families still living there. Nevertheless, Bingham did what the Peruvians had failed to do: announce to the outside world the existence of Machu Picchu. “The Lost City” – glory, hallelujah, had been found!

Machu Picchu

When Bingham, a Yale University professor and explorer, left Machu Picchu, he took with him to the United States many Inca artifacts, Jonathan said.  For decades, the descendants of the Incas and the government of Peru had been trying to force Yale University to return the items, which include skeletal remains of Incas.

“So everybody ask Mike when will Yale return the items,” wannabe standup comic Jonatan said, drawing laughter from the group. Hahahhah, Jonatan. Funny. This line of jokes – with me at the center – continued through much of the tour. “Mike, you have an answer about Yale, yet?”

Immediately after the more than 2-hour tour, as I explored the ancient ruins on my own, I heard a voice call out my name.  I turned around and saw that it was Jonatan. He asked a few basic questions about my trip, such as where had I been and where did I plan to visit next. As we then parted ways, Jonatan made another quip about the looted Inca treasures. He said he had never been to the United States and it was very difficult to visit, what with all the visa requirements and such. I said maybe the United States should have visa exemptions for the descendants of the Incas to visit their taken treasures. Jonatan said, yes, and then maybe he could go to Yale with me to help me petition for the artifacts. Yeah, funnyman!

El Jonatan

Fast forward to two days later. I’m back in Cuzco, the seat of the Inca Empire. I turn on the television for the morning news and on the screen there’s a live report from the Cuzco airport trumpeting the return of the Machu Picchu treasures from Yale University. Every speaker is declaring this a proud day for the Incas, their descendants and all of Peru. Say what?! When did this happen? I do a quick Internet search and learn that a deal had been struck months earlier between Yale and Peru to have the artifacts and remains returned. They would now be under the care of The National University of San Antonio Abad in Cuzco (Spanish: Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco). The public university would partner with Yale on research and exchanges. In other words, Yale students and staff get to visit the artifacts and to study them for research. In turn, San Antonio University students and professors get to travel to Yale for study and lectures. Win, win.

Fast forward two hours later. I’m sitting on the balcony of the Cappuccino Café in the Plaza de Armas. Suddenly there is drumming and Andean music blaring. A procession of men and women dressed in Inca vestiges enter the square. They are followed by a motorcade of police vehicles and trucks carrying boxes that hold – drum roll Jonatan – the returned Inca artifacts! More people enter the square.

One of several trucks and vans carrying the returned Inca artifacts and human remains

Plaza de Armas quickly fills with thousands of people, including various university and government officials who take turns at the podium to trumpet the return of the items after nearly 100 years and declare this day, June 22, 2011, a historic and proud day.

More Andean music blares from loudspeakers and as the items begin to make their way around the square in trucks under heavy guard and police escort, some descendants of the Incas dance traditional dances in jubilation while others are overcome with emotion and shed tears. It is a very emotional homecoming, no doubt. But perhaps some of those tears were being shed for what once was – a people whose empire stretched across most of South America – a proud heritage destroyed with the arrival of the Spaniards and others, such as Bingham, who carted away Inca treasures. For years into the 20th Century, Inca tombs were looted and sold off to museums and treasure hunters.

In his speech to the still-swelling crowd, the mayor of Cuzco said he and others would continue to fight until all the looted Inca relics are returned to Cuzco and its people, including artifacts now held in prestigious museums across Europe.

More artifacts circle the square

I wish I could have seen Jonatan again to let him know that I had everything to do with the return of the treasures. In two days’ time, here they were, back in Inca land. That would be my joke to him, of course.  That I had made some calls.

On that day, as I sat on that café balcony, I admit I shed a tear.  To witness this historic moment was nothing short of amazing. For nearly 100 years these artifacts had been taken from this land, and an international fight that made its way to the White House – with Peruvian President Alan Garcia making a personal appeal to President Barack Obama  on a visit– had finally produced results. And I had a front row seat to the historic moment.

It was indeed a special moment and one the thousands of proud Inca descendants will remember forever.

The rainbow flag that represents the Incas and their long lost empire - this particular flag has the emblem of the University of San Antonio in Cuzco, which will take charge of the returned artifacts. The seven colors in the Inca flag represent today's seven South American countries that once encompassed the Inca Empire

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