Paper presented at the XXII CONVEGNO INTERNAZIONALE DI AMERICANISTICA organized by the CENTRO STUDI AMERICANISTICI "Circolo Amerindiano", Perugia, May 2000 (Information:

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"The evolution of the values in cultural identity in Peru: building identity in the hands of communities and the role of the archaeologist"


This paper starts with the premise that our understanding of the use and usefulness of the concept of "cultural national identity" has been very reduced in the last 25 years. This concept, which is composed of icons and ideas of a nation, has become of little use at the end of this period. This is due to the influence of communities and regional entities in their interest to build identity at these levels that are more dynamic and active. A principal factor for this has been the evolution in the political organization in Peru and Bolivia. These political changes have a direct impact in the handling of concepts of cultural identity: these concepts are best managed at the community level. At this scale, the archaeologist and the community have to develop a relationship of "mutual benefit", in which both parties could accomplish the different objectives of reconstructing past societies for scientific purposes and for creating identity, respectively. These changes in the political relationships affect the complete process of assessing cultural heritage, from its preservation to its political or propaganda use.



            The way to practice archaeology in the Andes, and particularly in Peru and Bolivia, has changed drastically in the last two decades of the twentieth century. These changes have been consequence of the political evolution of these Andean countries more than from new ways of thinking in the archaeological field. Archaeologists have had to change working protocols because the power of decision in Andean communities has increased. This fact has made that a good part of the archaeologist’s work is done the living communities that should benefit for the scientific research, and not only with traditional archaeological evidence of past societies.

           This appears to be a problem that would simply require a more constant communication with the living communities. But that communication process is often ineffective as it is not an integral part of the research plan. The researcher has to be available to cooperate in the cultural development of the communities and that implies constant conversations with the community in every stage of the research. If we cannot think in archaeological research as a process of "mutual benefit" for both parties in archaeological research then the archaeologist work will be difficult in any community. Clearly, this process of mutual benefit requires avoiding patronizing attitudes from the scientist towards the inhabitants of the living community where he explores an archaeological site.

An archaeology that is twice social

           The practice of archaeology in the first years of the new century has the task to include ideological needs of the communities in which research is made, or in other words, this task would have to be "anthropologized". Channels of communication would need to be open in order to materialize in the archaeological research the interests of the community and the scientific interests. A relationship of mutual benefit with the communities requires a deeper anthropological sensibility to mainly understand the importance of the population’s "antecessors" remains for the identity of the community. Are they not the real descendants? Perhaps they are not. But that argument, which could come from the scientist, is quite unproductive. The community will build its identity and will affirm its roots on those remains. This is artificial to our eyes. But this is essential for the development of the community.

           The social archaeology of Latin American roots and the US anthropological archaeology dominate the archaeology in the Andes. However, it is the British post-processual, that has a forum at the World Archaeology Congress meetings, that have suggested important questions that need to be added to the strictly scientific objectives of an archaeological research. Some of these questions are for what, for whom, and in what ideological framework, not to say political one, do we make the reconstruction of the community’s historical past. The social and anthropological trends in the Andes have avoided including in their objectives plans the needs of the community. I would like to point out that social archaeology refers to the analysis of the mechanisms that formed prehistoric societies and not to the social work that is required today by archaeologists. The social objectives in Andean archaeology should then be doubled.

The origin of the changes in working priorities

           Legal aspects in codes on cultural heritage or research laws have not influenced these changes in the practice of archaeology, but rather by the political changes that have increased the control communities or townships on local level decisions. Therefore, the smooth operation of an archaeological project in a community depends more of verbal agreements and communication with the community leaders rather than on permits obtained in the offices of national institutes. Unfortunately, there are cases in the Andes, in the last five years, of projects affected by misunderstandings with the local communities, as a result of a poor management, or simply an absence of the concept of mutual benefit. This demonstrates that not every archaeological project arrives to find common interests with the communities where work is done; and perhaps they cannot envision that a lack of communication is, on the long run, unproductive for both parties.

From national identity to local identity

           These observations have important consequences for the topic of "national identity", a sociological topic that has been well studied in the last decade of the twentieth century. It is apparent that aiming at contributing to a national identity is a contradictory task for the specificity of our studies and for the different interests that exist at several political levels. This interest is higher, and the communication channels are better, at the level of the community level and the surrounding region; at this scale the archaeologist can find an excellent context for dialogue.

           The improvement of the concept and contents of national identity was proposed in the early 90s. At this time, the state of national identity was outdated and static, inherited from the 30s and 40s. The "national" scale of this concept, usually sponsored by governments, was to be updated with the help of archaeologist with an adequate synthesis of their interpretations. This objective was hard to accomplish because of a lack of coordination with the government, and perhaps because the concept of national identity is, after all, basically composed of icons and concepts that do not require too much change.

           In a 1992 paper I presented some guidelines for archaeologist to put into practice this objective. I myself applied it during my field research in Bolivia but is was clear that the only channels open for conversations and cooperation of the kind were in the community I was working, and with a little more effort, at the regional level. It is perhaps for political reasons that I found that the information from the region that I was working was of no interest to national institutions of the capital, which supported static concepts of national identity; it was these concepts that I proposed needed to be diversified.

           It is in this period that starts a process of empowerment of the communities in the Andes, and in Peru particularly, after a failed process of creating new administrative regions. The power acquired by the communities in Peru and Bolivia is manifested in the new attitude of managing and treasuring ancestral remains; the authorities are respecting these prerogatives of the community – that include the power to decide who can or can not work in their lands.

           Instead of aiming to have a "national" audience it is apparent that better channels of communication can be established at the regional and local level. These are the levels where both parties will have more interest in the development of a local or regional identity. This situation seems, at first sight, simpler but it is not. The archaeologist must become one more factor for the development of the community: he will have to contribute in producing elements that would reinforce communal identity, and not only ask for help in developing his own work. The archaeologist’s work will have to be framed in such a way that it includes a fruitful contribution in the understanding the local populations have of their past.

Cultural identity in the Americas

           How does this situation in the Andes compare with that of other countries in the Americas? I believe that the development of a policy of mutual benefit with local communities is essential to not alienate them and therefore to not disrupt the relationship between scientists and local populations as has happened, for example, in the US. This is an important example even though the antecedents in the US are quite more significant, principally due to the strong decrease in the number of native populations and its isolation in US modern society. The relationships between scientists and native populations are so deteriorate that it is impossible today to excavate burials and, in the next few years, museums will have collections that are not too representative of the prehistoric material culture in the region. These populations have gained a broad range of political and cultural rights after long years of disputes to reclaim their cultural property. These advances have immediately affected the scientific world, which had never established common interests in the study of the antecessors of the native populations during the twentieth century.

           The situation in the Andes is different (without obviating the transformations that have occurred in the last five centuries). First, the native population is very numerous. Second, they have living traditions adapted through time. Finally, its economy has adapted to a market economy while preserving important Andean patterns. In principle, there is no rejection to the work of scientists of excavating and studying the ancestors and their material remains.

           Andean native communities that participate in world meetings know of the successful disputes of US native populations to control their cultural heritage. But the historical conditions of both groups are very different. However, a lack of interest by scientists in establishing relationships of mutual interest in the Andes could easily lead to rejection towards their presence in the communities.

Some ideas for mutual cooperation

           The process of research has to be guided by the common interests of the community and the scientist. This process requires sharing the interests of both parties in every step of the research. It is a process of variable duration, that should be started as any ethnographic research where the work of the scientist is divided in stages in which trust, confidence, and mutual respect grows as the relationship evolves through time.

           An essential part of this process is that the archaeologist should provide the necessary explanations on the range of resources available so that the community benefits of the scientific research. The archaeologist has to explain the benefits of resources such as small shows in the civic hall or school, didactic handouts for students, presentations for the population and students, open sites, and, in the best of cases, a permanent museum in town in an adequate locale. Perhaps the community knows of these resources because they have seen them in neighboring towns, in which case they will approach the archaeologists with an idea and objective in mind. Gone are the times when the archaeologist could feel good with hiring local workers, renting a house for the team, and buying groceries in the local market.

           The benefits for the community include an increase in the sense of identity between the population and the place (positive in cases where the populations is of recent migration to the region) and the arrival of visitors to the region to see the small collection, museum, or archaeological site. These are two simple but very advantageous achievements for the archaeologist and the community.

Final comments

           Time, constancy, and short-, medium- and long-term objectives are key to establish a permanent museum infrastructure in the community. The museum is the most ambitious resources that is inscribed in a long-term plan, while panel displays, small shows, presentations, and even an open site, are resources more easily implemented to disseminate the information that the archaeologist wants to transmit and that the community wants to see. These several resources should be put in place in a successive fashion, parallel to the development of the scientific work.

           It is very possible that a new archaeological project in a community that starts immediately the construction of a museum would not be successful. The successful building, organization and maintenance of a museum is a process that develops from the interest the community that grows parallel to the development of the project and a participation of the archaeologist in civic and didactic activities in the community.

           In this presentation I have not mentioned either successful examples to follow nor cases where the type of relationships with the community need revision. Both types of cases have occurred in the Andes in the last five years. There are also those projects that have little relationships with the communities, and some of them have ended up rejected by them. In the future, a more detailed analysis of these cases could enlighten us on the importance and potential of the work of the archaeologist in the Andes to create a high level local cultural identity with the cultural heritage of the community.

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Tiwanaku and Andean Archaeology
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