How to make an Inca mummy: Andean embalming, Peruvian science, and the collection of empire

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As scientific objects, mummies were born of Europe’s encounter with two “ancient” bodily knowledges. The first is well known: the embalmed Egyptian dead who were ground into a materia medica named mumia and later were collected as “mummies” themselves. Yet mummies owe their global possibility— of ancient sciences of embalming and environmental manipulation apprehensible worldwide—to the sixteenth-century Spanish encounter with the Incas’ preserved dead, the yllapa. This article argues that their confiscation and display desecrated their sacred affect, but their recategorization as “embalmed” bodies allowed Indigenous Peruvian writers to argue for the Incas’ lost medical sophistication. European scholars then used that sophistication to establish “mummies” as a comparative category. The original yllapas decayed, blurring both Inca sovereignty and the colonial Latin American sciences that anatomized it, but their imagined resurrection in the preserved bodies of other “ancient Peruvians” turned the “Inca mummy” into a highly collectible scientific object, embodying a newly national past of ancient learning and anti-imperial indictment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-27
Number of pages27
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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