Julio C. Tello 1880 - 1947

 “Our genealogical tree has deep roots, which in times gone by drew from this earth the wisdom that nurtured a nation of giants. The stem was cut by our European conquistadors. But a new and vigorous re-growth stems from that enormous national trunk. New shoots are beginning to appear and grow, nurtured by that same indigenous wisdom and the impulse of new ideas from the century in which we now live.”*

Julio César Tello Rojas was born in 1880 in Huarochirí in the foothills of the Andes to Julián Tello Garcia and María Asunción Rojas Erikes. His mother was a descendant of the last Inca governor of Huarochirí.

His nickname at the small local school in Huarochirí was Sharuko (meaning powerful and irresistible in Quechua) because of his impulsive, bold and lively nature.

When Sharuko was thirteen his family sent him to Lima for a better education.  They were a respectable provincial family, but not wealthy, and the young Tello worked his way through school and college doing various odd jobs, one of which was as a major domo at a doctor’s house.

A firm friend from schooldays in Lima was Ricardo Palma, son of the famous Peruvian historian and academic of the same name, who became his mentor and benefactor.

In 1900 Tello began studying medicine at the Science Faculty of San Marcos University in Lima. Ricardo Palma found him a job at the National Library to help pay his fees. It was there, so the story goes, that he came across a photograph of trepanned skulls that he recognised from his childhood adventures in Huarochirí. This was to ignite a passion for physical and cultural anthropology, and launch his career as Peru’s first indigenous archaeologist.

Tello made his public debut on May 4th 1906 at the Sociedad Geográfica in Lima with a detailed presentation on trephination, illustrated with skulls, mummies and various artefacts from his finds in Huarochirí. He went on to graduate to great acclaim with his thesis on the antiquity of syphilis in Peru.


In 1911 he received his MA in Anthropology from Harvard, where he held a position as an honorary conservator at the Peabody museum until his death. He donated several skulls to the museum in his will, which remain there today.

On a study trip to Europe he met a student from London University, Olive Mabel Cheesman. They married in November of 1912.

At the time archaeology in Peru was still very much in its infancy. There were no native born Peruvian archaeologists, and little or no government funding for (or interest in) developing a disciplined institutionalised science. Sites were plagued by widespread looting and vandalism, and exploration still focused almost exclusively on the coastal areas.

Tello was the first to carry out detailed research at important sites such as Chavin de Huantar, the Séchin complex in the Casma Valley, Cerro Colorado, Kuntur Wasi, Cumbemayo and Kotosh. His team also worked to uncover the Huiñay Huayna ruins on the Inca trail.

Tello’s discoveries on the Paracas peninsula constituted one of the most significant finds in Peruvian archaeology, and went on to underpin a major collection in Peru’s oldest state museum.

Housed in a late colonial building on the Plaza Bolivar in Lima’s old district of Pueblo Libre, the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History, which Tello founded in 1945, today showcases about 85,000 artefacts, the largest and most varied collection of pottery and textiles in the country.

From the very beginning Tello worked in a very hands on, grass roots, manner to establish both the practicalities and the concept of a public museum where the Peruvian people could encounter their heritage, and where access to national treasures was not limited to a few wealthy individuals who owned private collections.
One of the defining features of Tello’s work was his revolutionary new theory of the development of an ancient Peruvian ‘mother culture’ civilisation that grew from a centre in the mountains and migrated downwards to the coastal regions. He searched all over the coastal regions of Peru for signs of the Chavín culture to back up his theory and made finds in the valleys of Casma, Cupisnique, Nepeña and Lambayeque.

The idea that there had been an Andean cradle of American civilizations - that this ancient Peruvian society was the product of indigenous peoples rather than simply the influence of migration from Central America or Asia (and later the colonists) flew in the face of the current thinking of his time. It wasn’t only about historical discovery, for Tello it was also about engaging Peruvians with their own history, renewing a sense of pride in their indigenous roots, and giving them a vision for the future.

In 1936, whilst on a lecture tour in the US, Tello and a group of colleagues, conscious of the need for a coordinated approach, founded the Institute of Andean Research. The IAR granted him funds for the Upper Marañon Valley expedition focused on uncovering evidence to back up his theory and ‘new chronology’.

In July of 1946 Tello fell ill and travelled to the US for treatment. He returned to Lima in November and was treated periodically for his illness during the ensuing months, but his condition worsened and on June 3rd 1947 el sabio Tello, Peru´s most revered archaeologist died of lymphoma at the Arzobispo Loaya hospital in Lima.

He was 67 years old. He was buried, with full national honours, in the gardens of his beloved museum according to his wishes. The story is that his heart is still preserved in the Arzobispo Loaya hospital ‘s museum of pathology, but I have yet to find out if that is true, or simply part of the legend that is Julio C Tello.  

*extract from a speech given at the inauguration ceremony of the Museum of Peruvian Anthropology 
 taken from The Life and Writings of Julio C Tello - edited by Richard Burger

fig.1   Dr. Julio C Tello and Dr. Alfred L. Kroeber - photo from the Smithsonian Archives

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