After more than ten decades, Yale decides to repatriate artifacts from Machu Picchu to Peru

When thinking about archaeology, we immediately think about Indiana Jones trying to find a gold artifact and selling it for money. However, TV is often misleading, and archaeology is more than finding and selling precious artifacts. Archaeology is the study of past people through their material remains, and people alive can have a relationship with the dead through archaeology. 

Those people had a past, and most of them believed that there was a reason why bodies had to be buried. For example, the dead were used as a symbol of power in religion in the middle age. Digging up a body without knowing why it was buried is unethical (Sayer 2010, 14). When is it ethical to dig up or own the past? Yale University held crates found at Machu Picchu. Peru claimed their property, and Yale University decided to return some pieces after World War I but said they could keep some under the laws of the day. (Orson, 2011) 

The ethical dilemma comes from whether those artifacts belong to Yale or not. In the past, archaeologists would disrespect people and artifacts and put them in a museum. Even though the local community already knew about the site (Swanson 2009, 471), Yale University was focused on finding more artifacts and doing more research because, by that time, they were in the process of becoming a research university (Swanson 2009, 473). They got the Peruvian government’s approval and help, and after agreeing that the artifacts found would be the property of the Peruvian government, the law was not enforced. In response, Peruvians modified an 1893 law that states that exporting any Inca monument is prohibited because they are national property. After that, Yale could only export a few artifacts, but remains and artifacts are still taken (Swanson 2009, 474). Among all the antiques that Yale took, there were human bones, jewelry, ceramics, and tools. Undoubtedly, they did not care about the Peruvians’ rights. Sometimes it is about decency because it does not sound good to disturb the resting place of a person to satisfy inquisitiveness or gain power.

Figure 1. A small aryballos — a pottery form generally used to carry oils or perfumes — is one of the artifacts Yale University is returning to Peru. (Orson 2011)

Yale University did not ask the community if they were okay with the artifacts being presented in their museum. In the first place, they did not have permission from Peru’s government to take those artifacts to the U.S. Peru’s government tried to claim their property. However, Yale University told them that the University could not do that because its prestige would be enhanced (Swanson 2009, 476). However, their prestige ended when Peru publicly warned Yale that they would charge them with criminal charges if the artifacts were not returned (Alderman 2014, 2). The public shamed Yale University since many influencers and Peruvians started to share the case on the internet (Alderman 2014, 2). Yale University agreed to return the artifacts by the end of 2012, and Peru is okay with Yale University. (Orson 2011) 

Figure 2. Peruvians held a demonstration in Lima demanding that Yale return the artifacts Bingham took (Orson 2011)


  1. Artifacts to Peru.” NPR. NPR, December 18, 2011. 
  2. Swanson, Stephanie. “Repatriating Cultural Property: The Dispute between Yale and Peru over the Treasures of Machu Picchu,” San Diego International Law Journal 10, no. 2 (2009): 469-494 
  3. Alderman, Kimberly. “Yale’s Repatriation of the Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru.” SSRN, February 18, 2014. 


Further readings

  1. Strauss, Mark. “When Is It Okay to Dig up the Dead?” Adventure. National Geographic, May 3, 2021. 
  2. Alderman, Kimberly. “Yale Agrees to Return Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru: Ethics-Based Repatriation Efforts Gain Steam.” SSRN, January 4, 2011. 

2 thoughts on “After more than ten decades, Yale decides to repatriate artifacts from Machu Picchu to Peru

  1. Considering that archaeological findings are an essential component of cultural heritage, how do these actions on Yale’s part violate the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

    • The UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous people states that the control over indigenous people’s lands, resources, and dominance of their cultural and ceremonial expression and territories is illegal. When Yale took those artifacts from Machupicchu, they violated the rights of indigenous people by processing control over their property. They took over and disrespected the antiques that Peruvians inherited.

Leave a Reply