Ethics, Science and Publication


Irina Podgorny (IES, Argentina)

The following article was submitted by (Dra.) Irina Podgorny, Directora IES, La Plata, Argentina ( (no attachments), It was the editorial in the last issue of Ciencia Hoy (Vol. 9 (51):10-11, 1999, Buenos Aires), a journal devoted to scientific extension. Ciencia Hoy is also a non-profit organization which aims at promoting a) scientific research in Argentina and Uruguay and the Latin American exchanges, and b) public interest in science and culture. It is worthy of note that the editorial board is composed by scholars and university professors who devote their time to this effort. The article was a response to the amazingly amount of mass-media publicity that surrounded the recent discoveries of “Inca mummies in the Andes”. The article was translated by Maria Delores Tobias.

There is a general agreement that certain fields of scientific research, like the biomedical disciplines that experiment with human beings, require a careful adjustment to particular and specific ethical principles. Although they are not the only ones whose praxis should be carried out within an ethical framework, their transgression might result in important consequences and might greatly affect society. The agencies for the promotion of the academic activity generally make public the ethical criteria which they consider necessary to the investigation. In this way in Canada, for example, the three National Councils of Scientific Development (Medical Research Council, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) disseminated a set of general criteria under the heading “Integrity in Research and Scholarship: a Tri-Council Policy Statement, January 1994”.

In addition to principles shared by all the disciplines are those that apply specifically to each one of them. The particular issue that we would like to discuss in this connection is that of anthropological research. Our concern is related to certain events which gained public attention recently after having been spread by a massive press. We refer to the discovery of mummified human remains in the Andean summits of Northwest Argentina by a crew of archaeologists financed by the National Geographic Society of the United States, a society without commercial purposes known for its worldwide magazine. The news identified among the people responsible for the discovery, a North American researcher that works in the Andean region and an Argentine archaeologist that works as a scholarship holder of the CONICET at the UBA institute in Tilcara. The press put emphasis on the feat of mountaineering, which involved excavations to find buried human remains often located at more than 6000 meters above sea level in a region that constitutes “an archaeological deposit of worldwide importance”, and on macabre details such as the state of conservation and the attire of the corpses, which were well illustrated with pictures and sketches. In what appears to have been an isolated reaction, a reader of La Nacion newspaper wrote a letter published on April 13th, expressing “astonishment for the treatment that the remains had been given”; he added that they belong to people of ancient cultures, who had been buried according to ceremonies and beliefs as respectable and exotic as current ones could be in a number of years. The reader claimed that this treatment of the remains had to do with the fact that these were bones that belonged to American Indians. Their removal was thus another episode in the history of “discrimination, haughtiness and contempt with which these cultures had been treated.” In order to give strength to his argument, he posed the following question: “Why not exhibit for both educational reasons and curiosity any last century ancestor of archaeologists and directors of museums together with the personal objects with which they were buried?”

The arguments of the letter published in La Nacion are not only historically well-founded on respect for the human rights, but also on their relation to ethic principles relevant to archaeological and anthropological research that nobody took into consideration. In a worldwide archaeological Congress held in Barquisimento, Venezuela, a number of criteria were approved, the application of which we think is essential. Three of these criteria are particularly important to the case of the Andean mummies we have referred to and support the need for archaeologists to:

obtain informed consent from representatives of the indigenous people whose cultural legacy will be subjected to research;
guarantee that the results of their research will be presented with deference and respect towards indigenous people; and
not remove the human remains of indigenous people without their express approval.
We do not know whether the first or third of these principles were taken into account, but the news to which we are guided do not seem to be very optimistic on this score. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that intentionally or not, owing to ignorance, frivolity, or some other reason we do not know about, the second principle was definitely not complied with. There was an incursion, a shameless exhibition of human remains which should have been treated with more respect, and a lack of consideration, verging on contempt, for the humanity of the members of the ancient indigenous culture who buried them. We do not intend to set ourselves up as judges but to attempt to create an awareness of the need to seriously apply and carefully handle ethics in cases such as the one we are analyzing.

Similar situations have arisen with human remains, artifacts and buildings of indigenous groups in the United States. Archaeologists have intensely discussed the way in which ethical principles similar to the ones presented above should be applied, and have widely disseminate them together with the debate for the general benefit of the public, which in turn joined the debate. For instance, the Smithsonian Institution has faced and settled many situations of this kind, sometimes satisfactorily and sometimes not. Nevertheless, in the USA, society with scientists in the lead has faced these difficult matters both maturely and with dignity. It could have occasionally been wrong, but it has always assumed its responsibility.

We are aware that those principles are frequently difficult to apply, especially when remains are more ancient, amongst other reasons because people may disagree as to who the descendants of the indigenous people being studied are. Moreover, more than once, conflicts have arisen among rival groups who disputed the remains and often, fights for political power or economic interests were concealed behind confrontations about human remains. But these principles are valid independently of the difficulty of their application or their abuse. A question that should be always asked, and the answer to which should be provided to the press by archaeologists working on the issue, is what important scientific reason justifies the manipulation of ancient tombs and which measures had been taken to treat them with respect. Not a word was heard about it in the case of the Andean mummies.

In various places in Argentina, indigenous groups have started to show concern over these issues as they have become aware of their state of exclusion. In 1992, the remains of the cacique Incayal were claimed in court from the Museo of La Plata. The verdict authorized the institution to continue to keep the bones that had been inventoried and the ones that were not, were given back and buried in the locality of Tecka, Chubut. We have news about similar claims in Rawson, Chubut (where there is doubt as to the real link between the claimants and the ethnic group to which the remains belong), and La Pampa (where the remains of cacique Yanquetruz are claimed). In Lorohuasi, Catamarca, human remains found by employees of National Highway were studied and returned to the community to be exhibited, after an agreement that resulted from a negotiation between provincial and local authorities. In 1997, a statement was submitted to the national authorities through a National Forum establishing the need for all scientific research to be carried out with the free consent of informed communities and for the results to be returned to those communities.

Last, is precisely what the ethical frameworks of the international community postulate. It is not only necessary for Argentine archaeologists and anthropologists to make an effort to respect, spread and debate the way in which these principles can be applied, but also to insure that the media will not put the matter aside. We hope that the case of the Andean mummies can be used at least to make people become aware of the matters at issue.