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Skulls and idols: anthropometrics, antiquity collections, and the origin of American man

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During the first half of the nineteenth century, as Europeans and North Americans began to travel to newly-independent Spanish American countries and came in contact with the fabulous vestiges of ancient American civilizations, a set of problems motivated those among them who sought to explore the ruins: who built them? And did they give evidence of the origin of American man? The answer they preferred almost always substituted some other for the ancestors of the contemporary Indians who still lived near the sites. But it was harder to say who that hypothetical other was.

By the late 1830s, two sets of objects became central evidentiary tokens for arguments supporting a variety of hypotheses: human bones (presumably from ancient tombs on ruined complexes) and ‘idols’ (mostly sculpted antiquities). This talk examines how these two kinds of objects came together in the same physical and epistemical space. I will be arguing, in the first place, that bones and antiquities travelled together, along the same routes, mobilized by explorers, diplomats, commercial agents, and collectors. However this proximity stimulated association, it still does not guarantee that these kinds of objects would be studied in dialogue with each other. To understand how this happened, I will be tracing the emergence of artefacts and bones as the objects of study of two separate scholarly traditions: the antiquarian tradition and comparative anatomy. As bones and artefacts came together, their conceptual association drove an increasingly insurmountable distance between contemporary Indians and their idols. Reinforcing the hypothesis that there was an anatomical gulf between ancient Americans and present-day ones, the bones collected on site functioned within the sphere of exchange to delegitimize the Indian title to the ruins and the use of these objects – whether to sell, worship or safeguard – and legitimated the role of the collector/savant.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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