Mexico's Archaeological Turf War

Government plan to unearth an ancient city causes authorship flap with a US researcher

A CASE of brazen intellectual piracy or a simple misunderstanding blown out of proportion?

The Mexican government's Aug. 5 announcement of the excavation and restoration of a major city in ruins has triggered a heated controversy here between an American archaeologist and a Mexican scientific institution.

"It's an unjust, chauvinistic coup. Jeffrey Wilkerson presented his project - in confidentiality - to the National Institute of Anthropology and History [INAH]. And they broke that trust in contradiction to everything the North American Free Trade Agreement stands for," says Homero Aridjis, president of the environmental organization Group of 100.

But the INAH sees this as no more than a tempest in a pre-Hispanic teapot. "He's making a lot of noise over nothing," says Alejandro Martinez Muriel of the INAH Archaeology Department.

At the heart of the squabble is a mammoth restoration project described by Mexican officials as "the most important and ambitious ... in recent decades." The site, known as Cuajilotes to archaeologists, is a largely unexplored ancient city of towering pyramids and sprawling plazas in an isolated canyon along a 15-kilometer (9-mile) stretch of the Nautla River, west of the port city of Veracruz.

No one disputes that some of the sites in the city were discovered decades ago by Mexican archaeologists. But recognition of its scope, scientific significance, and the impetus for the project are in contention.

Two years ago, some Mexican rafters brought the area to the attention of C. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson, one of the world's leading authorities on the nearby ruins of El Tajin. Dr. Wilkerson, who has worked in the region for nearly three decades, hypothesized that this remarkable urban complex being called "Filolobos" could prove a theory he first proposed in 1972. Wilkerson says he believes there was a "cultural corridor" between the lowland Veracruz centers, such as El Tajin, and the great highland civilizati ons of Teotihuacan and later the Aztec empire of Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City is today).

Wilkerson submitted a survey proposal for the Filolobos site to the INAH. In September 1991, the 15-member Archaeology Council of the INAH gave him unanimous academic approval for his project. But after almost a year's delay, suddenly the Mexican government announced its own Filolobos project on Aug. 5. A day later, Wilkerson received by overnight mail a letter dated July 31 stating that his project had been turned down and there already existed a project for this site.

The announcement of the archaeological dig was accompanied by the declaration of a 26,000-acre nature reserve around the area. Rafael Tovar y de Teresa, president of the National Council for Culture and Art, touted the dual ecology-archaeology effort as a first and a new direction for Mexican archaeology. Wilkerson, who has long called himself a "cultural ecologist," had proposed to INAH a similar project in similar terms.

"Cultural ecology blends archaeology, ethnology, and ecology. For 29 years I've studied the relationship of man to his tropical environment through time," he says. Wilkerson has also been a critic of a Mexican dam project on the Usumacinta River that would cover numerous archaeological sites. What the two sides say

Mari Carmen Serra Puche, president of INAH's Archaeology Council, which gives the thumbs up or down on a project, says Wilkerson simply didn't meet the legal requirement of having an academic institution backing him.

Wilkerson is the director of a small, nonprofit research institute in Veracruz. He says he was told by INAH officials to get a research associateship to meet the requirement. With funding from the National Geographic Society and the New York-based Selz Foundation, and a letter from the Smithsonian Institution naming him an official representative, Wilkerson believes he has satisfied the requirements.

But Dr. Serra Puche, sister of Commerce Minister Jaime Serra Puche, chief negotiator of the free-trade pact, disagrees. And she's incensed that Wilkerson would take his case to the press. "This man is accusing the Mexican government of robbing his project. That's unheard-of," she says. "This isn't a case of anti-Americanism. If this were a nationalistic decision, why, in the 1991-92 year, were some 28 projects approved for foreigners? All but two were Americans."

Serra Puche says there's no evidence or basis for Wilkerson's claims that his project was stolen. "In the first place, projects submitted to the archaeology council are not secret," she says. "They're not confidential. They never have been. So there's no way to accuse the INAH of plagiarism. Second, the INAH project is much broader than Wilkerson's simple survey. It will have a budget at least 10 times bigger than his proposal."

Wilkerson agrees the first stage of his proposal is a survey. "But we're proposing what you always do before a major excavation," he says, adding that the next stage is to submit an excavation proposal and seek funding.

Arturo Pascual Soto, an archaeologist and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says he has no knowledge as to whether Wilkerson's project was cloned or not.

But he is surprised to learn that project submissions to the Archaeology Council are not confidential. "If they weren't confidential, nobody would present a detailed project. That's intellectual property. If it's not confidential, there would be a great quantity of projects being duplicated," says Dr. Pascual. `Dig' plan was kept quiet

Following the announcement about the archaeological dig, Wilkerson says he tried repeatedly, without success, to obtain an appointment with INAH officials. He was also in INAH's Mexico City offices two weeks before the Aug. 5 announcement and was not consulted about or advised of the project.

Indeed, several researchers working in Mexico City and Veracruz institutions say they heard nothing of the INAH project before it was announced. And few want to talk publicly about either project. "I cannot talk to you about this. If I did, I'd lose my job," stated one researcher. The Filolobos project does not yet have a director, but there are rumors that Serra Puche, the newly appointed president of the INAH Archaeology Council, will be in charge.

Those who say the project was stolen by INAH speculate that new INAH leadership may be a factor. "It's a bureaucratic institution with a terrible reputation. They latched onto this project to polish their image," says an observer who requested anonymity. Other academics say Wilkerson got caught on a technicality and overreacted. If he wants to have a professional future in Mexico, they say, he should do what's necessary to comply, and join the project team.

Both sides seem ready to talk over the dispute. "We're not contesting at this point how or why the new project was developed. My position is openly conciliatory," says Wilkerson. And, Serra Puche says "it's a big project. We'll need a big team. We need to sit down and talk, archaeologist to archaeologist."

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