Where We Draw the Lines: Weighing Commitments to Community and Heritage

Steve Kosiba
University of Alabama


The AAA Statement of Ethics asks anthropologists to “do no harm,” an injunction that is deceptively simple. After all, anthropologists can rarely foresee or influence the potential consequences and unintentional impacts of their research. The AAA’s injunction therefore introduces thorny issues pertaining to the long-term effects of data—the maps, village boundaries, and ethnographic interpretations—that emerge from anthropological research. We could ask: Who defines harm, both immediate and potential? And perhaps more importantly, how might we recognize the ways our data and our work can cause harm to the collaborators or communities with whom we work?


Such questions often trouble archaeologists, who typically must weigh competing obligations to living communities, cultural heritage institutions, and academia (see AAA Ethics Principle 3; Bria and Cruzado 2015; Silverman 2011). When conducting fieldwork, archaeologists frequently find themselves in tense conversations, informing farmers that their fields contain important ruins. In countries such as Peru or Mexico, this information is not just terminological. It implies a shift in value that can cause harm. By recording cultural remains on field forms, archaeologists draw “sites” on lands of semi-autonomous collectives (comunidades campesinas in Peru or ejidos in Mexico), then submit these maps to national institutions, such as a Ministry of Culture. In doing so, archaeologists convert the land and its attributes to cartographic representations, whereby places become coordinates and distributions of pottery sherds become polygons. Federal institutions use these representations to reclassify select sites as national cultural patrimony, a designation that converts landholdings into a general register of value (“heritage”), but divests communities of land (see also McCoy 2011).



Image 1: The ruins of Huanacauri before our 2014 excavations, Cusco in the background. 

This conversion from community landholding to national heritage, and its implications, became clear to me during my 2014 archaeological and ethnographic fieldwork at Huanacauri, an important Inca temple atop a peak that towers above the former Inca imperial capital of Cusco, Peru. Huanacauri is both a sacred mountain and a small temple complex (one-hectare), both of which have long been essential to Inca and Andean religious beliefs. According to legend, one of the first Incas became a god at Huanacauri. The Incas built a temple on the mountain’s summit where, in ceremonies held during the height of Inca rule, young boys became elites and emperors affirmed their sovereignty. Today, both farmers from Cusco and travelers seeking “mystical” experiences leave offerings for the mountain in hopes of gaining its favor and drawing on its power. Our archaeological and ethnographic research sought to uncover evidence of Inca ritual practices at Huanacauri. We collaborated with both the Peruvian Ministry of Culture (MC) and Kircas, a village of indigenous farmers (campesinos) who live below the peak.



Image 2: Huanacauri, a temple and mountain that embodied Inca imperial power, now Peruvian national cultural patrimony.

All of these parties—our research team, the MC, and the people of Kircas—were interested in protecting the ruins at Huanacauri. But the MC and Kircas simply could not agree on what the site was. The Peruvian government has established that the site lies within Kircas community land and the District of San Sebastián, Cusco. Kircas community members have protected the site from looters, and defined their community boundary by creating stacks of stones (mojones) above the ruins. But in 2007, the MC proposed a national patrimony site boundary within the community’s land, and su