What might “Lucy” say?
On November 24, 1974, In the Afar Triangle region of Hadar, Ethiopia, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson and some colleagues discovered—buried in sediment—a 3.2-million-year-old partial skeleton of a human ancestor. The skeleton was about 40% complete: skull, jaws and some teeth, some rib pieces, long bones from the arms and legs, part of a shoulder blade, part of a pelvis, and a knee and ankle.
The size of the skeleton, according to scientists, indicated that it was female.
The scientists named her “Australopithecus afarensis” and nicknamed her “Lucy” (after the popular Beatles’ song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”).
We don’t know her real name, but we know some things about her. We know that she walked on two legs. We know that she had strong arms that were built for load-bearing and that her upper body was adapted for partial life in trees. We know that she had opposable thumbs. Teeth marks indicate that she was killed and eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. A lot of what we “know” about her is based on sophisticated technology—bone scans—and educated guesses.
What we don’t know is this: What might “Lucy” say about strangers’ making plaster casts of her bones and taking them far away from her world? Might she say: “Leave me alone!”? Might she say: “Whatever, as long as you go away!”?
My friend and colleague, Judy Zalazar Drummond (Cahuilla / Chicana) taught sixth grade for many years at Horace Mann Middle School. The school was a project-based experiment in child-centered learning, in which the students helped create the curricula and the teachers facilitated. This student-based research, she said, increases not only the interest but the school success rate.
One year in particular, Judy remembered, the students had the opportunity of working with Donald Johanson.
One of Judy’s team members, the social studies teacher, had contacted Johanson for permission to use his materials. He loved what they were doing with his work, and, as Judy told me, “honored us by assigning a top researcher” who came in two days a week for a month with a set of Johanson’s casts of “Lucy’s” bones. He taught Judy’s students about the role of the scientist in learning and teaching about the ancient past. Her students worked in teams and the culminating project, she said, was called “the Lucy Fair.” Her students shined, she said—“they made books, they made a movie, they made posters, they prepared a presentation about archeological tools.”
“One of my students,” Judy told me, “said that this was the best year of his life. Another said she had become a pen pal with Tim White, one of Johanson’s students.”
“The kids were all convinced that they could research and learn and become successful. They remember it to this day as being exhilarating and they say it began their lifelong quest for learning.”
What might the ancestors say?
The other day, a friend said to me, “Egyptians who want to learn about their culture have to go to the London Museum.”
Every culture has some sort of funeral ritual(s). Sometimes they’re public, and everyone’s invited. Sometimes they’re mixed, for the community to share stories, songs and prayers. Sometimes they’re private, for family and close friends only. Funeral rituals are an ancient way of imparting and maintaining history and culture.
European-based archeology poses large questions. If maintaining a people’s history is an important part of ancient burial rituals, is it ever permitted to dig into graves to learn about their culture? What do we learn from examining people’s bones and is uncovering the burials of a people’s beloved dead permitted if it’s used as a tool for discovering how they lived? What might the ancestors say?
The modern fields of anthropology and archeology are rooted in colonialist ideology. My friend and colleague, Kelly Reagan Tudor (Lipan Apache) told me that she’s “heard horror stories from Indigenous students who’d had professors who treated them as a ‘field of study’ rather than as citizens of a living culture.”
Even outside of the classroom, she said, “it’s an unfortunate situation, where Indigenous individuals participate in things that are harmful to their own people. It’s still grave-robbing. It’s still looting the ancestors.”
There are cultural and Indigenous approaches to these fields. For many years, Indigenous people have struggled to repatriate the burial items currently on exhibit in museums. Since 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has provided a process for museums and federal agencies to return human remains, funerary objects, and other sacred cultural material. Still, looting continues—and the struggle continues.
So what should a respectful archeologist do? As Kelly said, without hesitation: “Ask for permission and don’t assume that there are no living relatives. Look for clues from the past and leave them in their place.”
My friend and colleague, Rachel Byington (Choctaw), told me about Kurt Sampson, a white guy and an archeologist by trade, who is passionate about the protection and preservation of the effigy mounds. Working with guidance from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin, Sampson organizes volunteers to take care of the mounds and make sure they’re not being overgrown. He advocates for them and provides knowledge for best-care practices.
In Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota as well, Native and non-Native people work together on cleanups and preservation and share what they’re learning.They respect the cultures who are connected with the mounds and their accompanying sacred ritual space and they know that the mounds deserve respect.
In teaching people about the effigy mounds, Sampson engages with students and teachers, arguing that there’s a living culture connected to those mounds. And that the ancestors who are buried in them want the mounds to be left alone.
What might an Indigenous child feel?
There are young people who travel with their class to a museum and see its exhibit of “prehistoric” skulls and clothing and blankets and pots. These young people might be awed by the beauty and age of the items in this exhibit and the knowledge and history that it holds. There are also young people who travel with their class to a museum’s “prehistory” exhibit and recognize that these “artifacts” come from—and belong to—their own families and tribal nations. They may be horrified to know that their families and their burial items are being used as objects to further “scientific knowledge.” And these young people might not feel empowered to speak up, so they remain silent. And they know that something needs to change.
My friend, Judy, remembers a particular incident “as if it were yesterday,” she said:
Our class went on a field trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and we came upon a staging with scenery and people. It was labeled “Early California Indians” and I kept looking at it. There were kids with sticks digging in the ground and our teacher said that that’s how they got their food, digging for worms, and that’s why they were called “Digger Indians.” It was a family scene, with other kids. I don’t remember what they were doing because I focused on this one kid and the words, Digger Indians and the teacher’s saying that’s what they were called. The picture in our textbook was the same picture from the museum.
I was so humiliated. I couldn’t look at anything else. I couldn’t say anything. It was like a blanket had been thrown over me. I just wanted to shrivel up and roll away. I don’t remember anything else. This has affected me all my life.
SHARUKO: El Arqueólogo Peruano / Peruvian Archeologist Julio C. Tello
author: Monica Brown
Spanish: Adriana Domínguez
illustrator: Elisa Chavarri
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low Books, 2020
Indigenous / Peruvian
In this well-researched and beautifully illustrated picture book biography of Indigenous Peruvian archeologist Julio C. Tello (1880-1947)—nicknamed “Sharuko” (Quecha for “brave”)—young readers will feel the “brave and curious” boy’s passion for exploration, his remarkable discoveries as a young man, and his accomplishments as the founder of modern Peruvian archeology.
In telling Sharuko’s story, Brown discusses the child’s growing up in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, his pride in his own indigeneity, and his dedication to Peru’s Indigenous history which led him on a path that would make him famous as the first Indigenous archeologist in the Americas—in a way that will resonate with young people.
Chavarri’s appealing gouche and watercolor paintings are mostly double-page spreads, highlighting the Andean mountains in saturated yellows and muted greens. Several portray Sharuko as a child with his loving family and their small gray chihuahua on practically every page. Single-page illustrations of country people and city people focus on radiant brown faces of varying tones. One spread shows the violence of the invading Spaniards, destroying everything. Most depict an adult Sharuko (now “Julio”) exploring archeological sites and studying in the city, and, on a background of Indigenous Peruvian motifs, a Peruvian family admiring a statue of Julio C. Tello.
One especially lovely and complex spread symbolically depicts the way Indigenous people keep oral teaching alive to pass on to future generations. Here, a wondrous Sharuko listens to his father’s accounts of history. While their pup naps next to them, father and young son sit on a colorfully woven rug. Although both remain in the present, they appear to be traveling across the sky, guided by the sacred condor who flies past Machu Picchu, to encounter three Indigenous people from long ago in their resplendent regalia, looking out at the reader.
Endpapers show the stone heads taken from the Chavín de Huántar site and highlighted throughout are motifs of Paracas textiles.
As always, Domínguez’s excellent Spanish, which appropriately forefronts the English text, doesn’t disappoint. She pays careful attention to the rhythm and the spoken value of the narrative, and whenever necessary, she switches the order of phrases or words. For instance, while a section in English reads,
For centuries, the Indigenous people of Peru were treated unfairly and faced discrimination. This started in the 1500s when Spanish soldiers invaded Peru. The Spanish were looking for gold, and when they found it, they claimed the land and its riches for themselves. They established control by killing many Native Peruvians and rejecting their belief systems. The Spanish destroyed temples and cities, all in the pursuit of wealth and power.
The Spanish reads:
Los indígenas del Perú fueron maltratados y discriminados por siglos. Esto comenzó en el siglo XVI, cuando los soldados españoles invadieron el Perú. Los españoles buscaban oro, y cuando lo encontraron, se quedaron con la tierra y su riqueza. Lograron el control matando a grandes cantidades de indígenas peruanos y rechazando sus creencias. Los españoles destruyeron templos y ciudades en su búsqueda de poder y fortuna.
(“The indigenous people of Peru were mistreated and discriminated against for centuries. This started in the 16th century, when Spanish soldiers invaded Peru. The Spanish were looking for gold, and when they found it, they kept the land and its wealth. They achieved control by killing large numbers of Indigenous Peruvians and rejecting their beliefs. The Spanish destroyed temples and cities in their quest for power and fortune.”)
Sharuko is an honest and inviting telling of Julio C. Tello’s life and the passions that drove him to become world famous as one of the most important archeologists in all of the Americas. However, the many illustrations of the caves and burial grounds that he explored—containing the bones of his ancestors—are accompanied by text that normalizes—no, valorizes—what Tello did then:
“Nothing scared Sharuko, not even the skulls he and his brothers uncovered in ancient tombs.” (italics mine)
“There (at Harvard University) he focused on anthropology and archeology, learning more about the ancient peoples of the Americas through the study of bones, tools, and other items they left behind.” (italics mine)
“At the (Chavín de Huántar archaeological) site he found art, structures, and other evidence that proved the Indigenous Chavín culture had been established more than three thousand years ago, making it the oldest culture known in Peru.” (italics mine)
“Julio also discovered an ancient cemetery with mummy bundles that showed how the Paracas people honored those who had died.” In her Afterword, Brown writes that “(Tello) also unearthed ancient textiles and hundreds of mummy bundles on the Paracas Peninsula.” (italics mine)
Sharuko treats Tello’s work respectfully—almost reverently, yet uncritically. Tello’s story can be used as a teachable moment about the ethics of archaeology (then and now), and supplemented, perhaps with information about the care and maintenance of the effigy mounds. Sharuko can be utilized as a springboard to raise questions for important discussions about the science of archeology, the role of archeology in “discovering” prehistory and prehistoric peoples, the ownership of the burial sites and their contents, and the responsibility to respect a people’s cultural wishes. In this context, Monica Brown, Elisa Chavarri and Adriana Domínguez—and Children’s Book Press—will have contributed to the furtherance of an important discussion.
But, as it stands, I cannot recommend SHARUKO: El Arqueólogo Peruano / Peruvian Archeologist Julio C. Tello on its own.
What values inform your life choices? Your career choices?
Who owns the burial sites of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples who are alive today? How do you know?
Who owns the burial sites of Indigenous nations whose people are assumed to be long gone? How do you know?
Is the gathering of knowledge worth the desecration of graves? Why or why not?
And always consider: What might an Indigenous child feel?
(published 10/15/20, revised 10/17/20)
Muchísimas gracias a mis amigas y colegas, Rachel Byington, Judy Zalazar Drummond, and Kelly Reagan Tudor. And honor to Kurt Sampson.