Thursday, November 23, 2006

News From The South: Sican and Mapuche

There have been two interesting news items recently from South America. The first item comes from Peru. It seems that Archaeologists have recently discovered some tombs which are over 900 years old. The exciting thing about these tombs is that they have not been robbed. The tombs are located in the Pomac Forest Historical Sanctuary, which is 680 kilometers (420 miles) northwest of the Peruvian capital, Lima. The tombs contain bodies from the Sican culture, from between A.D. 750 to 1375. An accounts of this discovery can be found here and here.

The most exciting aspect of this find is that archaeologists have found a large number of artifacts, including twelve "tumis". Tumis are ceremonial knives, which are also a Peruvian national symbol. The really exciting thing about the current find though is that this is the very first time that tumi have been found in their original context, without being disturbed by grave robbers. This should provide extremely valuable information about their use. Thus, this is a very important find indeed.

Meanwhile, further south, in Chile, the Mapuche people (the name means 'People of the lands') have filed a lawsuit against the evil Microsoft Corporation accusing the company of linguistic piracy. According to the story at CNN, Microsoft translated their software into the Mapuzugun language spoken by the Mapuche people. The lawsuit contends that Microsoft should have gained the permission of the tribal elders, before translating the software. Failing to do this, the suit contends, violates the Mapuche cultural and collective heritage.

Of course, the really interesting thing about this suit is that it raises the issue of whether, or not any particular group can 'own' a language. Given the utter insanity of intellectual property law at the current time, this is a fascinating, though worrying question. This suit also raises intriguing questions about globalisation and the actions of multinational corporations. Microsoft produced their software as part of an effort to bring the cultural riches of native peoples to a wider audience. Microsoft also wished to bring native peoples into [their version of] the digital world. This program has met with a good deal of hostility from the native peoples themselves. It certainly has colonial type tones to it. One wonders whether an open source project would have the cultural sensitivity to ask permission, and whether such an effort would meet with the same amount of hostility.

It will be interesting to see how this lawsuit plays out. One point to note though is that Microsoft has found in the Mapuche a formidable adversary. This people has historically strongly resisted attempts at subjugating them by both the Incas and the Spanish.

The CP

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