|Peru's glorious Machu Picchu WikiMedia Commons/Pedro Szekely|
Late last June, I first reported on a litany of misconduct allegations against Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, including sexual harassment, sleeping with students, bully, retaliation, and related behavior. Castillo is a professor of archaeology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), which is currently investigating the charges in various ways.
No sooner had I published my report than Castillo's defenders and enablers--of which there are many, including at his PUCP power base and elsewhere--began attacking me and my reporting. More importantly, however, these dishonest attacks were also targeted at Castillo's victims, who have been portrayed as liars on social media and in the self-satisfied whisper network that Castillo's friends (and would-be friends, because he is really loyal to no one but himself) keep churning in the most cowardly way possible. They do not have the courage to distance themselves from Castillo because they owe him their careers in many cases.
That led some of the survivors to write an open letter in July, pointing out that they and their bad experiences were real, and that those who would try to defend Castillo had their own very self-centered reasons for doing so. As they put it at the time:
"We came forward for multiple reasons—because it is time, or because the pain you caused began to heal, or because we built an international network of support. All of us, however, are driven by our ethical responsibility to protect those who may unknowingly cross your destructive path. We fight to prevent you from further harming students and colleagues. It is time to put an end to your abuse. It is time to dismantle the architecture of impunity that has enabled and facilitated your rise to power. Enough is enough."
Over the weeks since I last wrote about Castillo, a number of colleagues have approached me with stories and examples of corruption on Castillo's part, almost all involving playing fast and loose with Peru's priceless culture and archaeology. Castillo has served as both vice-minister of culture (August 2013 to April 2015) and also minister of culture (for a brief period last year.) Although some of the allegations of corruption would require considerable investigative reporting to unravel--and must be regarded as allegations only at this time--they are no doubt best left to some enterprising Peruvian reporters rather than a North American journalist.
However, one accusation did involve a U.S. institution, Yale University, and I found it relatively straightforward to report on. While Castillo was still vice-minister of culture, I was told, he was involved in the final arrangements between Peru and Yale to inventory the artifacts and human remains from Machu Picchu that Peru had fought hard to get repatriated. This inventory was essential to settling a lawsuit Peru had filed against Yale which led to their return. Castillo, I was told, tried to convince Yale to give him an honorary PhD as the price for signing off on these final details.
A fight for Peru's heritage.
The citadel of Machu Picchu, 2500 meters above sea level in mountains not far from today's city of Cusco, was built in the 15th Century by the Inka. But beginning in 1526, when the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzarro and his men first encountered the Inka, the Empire's days were numbered. By 1572 the Inka were completely defeated by the Spanish, and Machu Picchu was left abandoned to the voracious growth of the surrounding jungle.
There are a few reports of archaeologists and plunderers coming across the citadel over the centuries. But the real "discovery" of the site by Western archaeologists dates from 1911, when Hiram Bingham, a historian at Yale, conducted the first of three excavation campaigns at Machu Picchu, with the support of Yale and the National Geographic Society--and the authorization of the Peruvian government of the time. (See this article for a brief history of the excavations and a detailed history of the legal issues and history.)
Between 1911 and 1916, Bingham shipped thousands of artifacts and human remains to Yale's Peabody Museum, including mummies and other bones, jewelry, and pottery. But beginning in 1918, the Peruvian government began demanding the return of the artifacts. A key issue was whether the artifacts had been loaned to Yale or if the university had taken full ownership of them, a not uncommon dispute given the kind of callous plundering of national treasures Western archaeologists and governments were inclined to carry out whenever they could get away with it (think of the Parthenon marbles and so many other examples.)
The dispute lingered for decades, until 2001, when the Peruvian government made a serious attempt to convince both Yale and the NGS to return the artifacts. Yale resisted for a number of additional years, but did reach a tentative agreement with Peru in 2007; when that fell through, Peru filed suit against Yale, in 2008.
After a series of legal maneuvers over the next two years, the two sides reached an agreement in November 2010, with the help of the U.S. Senator from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd. The agreement required that an inventory be carried out, but that Yale would return everything to Peru. And in 2011, Yale and Peru agreed to partner up to create a museum and research center in Cusco devoted to the study of Machu Picchu and the Inca culture.
Vice-Minister of Culture Luis Jaime Castillo Butters asks for a piece of the action.
In November 2012, the last of the artifacts taken from Machu Picchu by Bingham were flown to Cusco, including some 35,000 pottery fragments. This third and final batch of artifacts, packed into 127 boxes, completed the repatriation. But there was still more to do.
For one thing, according to sources familiar with the details, the Ministry of Culture had to sign off on the full return of the artifacts, so that the Foreign Affairs Ministry could in turn notify the U.S. District judge in the case that the agreement between the parties had been fully met. Only then would the judge ratify the settlement and end the case.
But before the Ministry of Culture would sign off, sources say, Yale had to negotiate with the ministry about a number of details concerning the collection--including finalizing the inventories of artifacts and also whether or not certain faunal (animal) specimens should be included. These discussions, which stretched into 2013, involved on Yale's side Richard Burger, the university's leading Machu Picchu expert; and on the Peruvian side, then vice-minister for culture, Luis Jaime Castillo Butters.
While the negotiations over these issues were going on--they reportedly dragged over a number of months--Burger began to tell friends and colleagues that Castillo was asking Yale to give him a honorary PhD. I am told that Burger took this request very seriously at the time, and also that Castillo was actively in search of such degrees, even though he had received his real PhD from UCLA in 2012.
"He had been looking for honorary degrees for a long time," says one Peruvian official.
Although Burger declines to discuss many details of the episode on the record, he did confirm to me that Castillo had made the request, although he now says that he did not take it seriously--despite what he told colleagues back in 2013.
"I did not think of Castillo's remark about an honorary degree as a serious request," Burger told me last month, "nor did I treat it seriously. This is not something that Yale would have considered. It was not pursued."
I have seen no evidence that Yale did consider it seriously. But given what Burger told his colleagues, it seems quite likely that Castillo did mean it seriously. But even if he really was joking, some archaeologists say, that does not make it any better.
"As Vice-Minister of Culture of Peru, Luis Jaime Castillo Butters should comport himself like an honorable representative of his country and serious protector of Peru's cultural patrimony," one archaeologist who works in Peru commented. "Even a 'joke' can be construed as a mafia-like request for favors. But given [Castillo's] reputation as a bully and one who does quid pro quo to cement his power, this was certainly not a joke."