Saturday, December 3, 2011

Astronomy, Memory and Pinochet's Regime

In 1973 the Chilean military overthrew Salvador Allende's Marxist government and General Augusto Pinochet assumed power, ruling the country as a dictator until 1990. Throughout the 70s he ordered the arrest and detention of thousands of leftist dissenters and young people, killing or holding them in concentration camps. At least 3000 people were killed and another 1000 remain missing; additionally, Pinochet's regime tortured at least 30,000 Chileans over his 13 year rule.

Patricio Guzmán's documentary Nostalgia for the Light follows three very different groups of searchers in the Atacama Desert of Chile. The first is a group of astronomers who set up powerful telescopes to take advantage of the clear skies offered by the Atacama, the driest region on earth. They collect data in search of very distant stars and galaxies and the origins of life. The earthbound seekers are archaeologists tracing pre-Columbian petroglyphs and mummified remains, and a group of women who scour the desert every day in search of body parts of loved ones killed by Pinochet in the 1970s. The film presents beautiful imagery of the cosmos and the strange, Mars-like landscape of the Atacama but also confronts the viewer with mass graves and the ruins of concentration camps.

What connects these disparate groups is an attention to time and memory and an attempt to uncover the past. The lead astronomer Guzmán interviews makes the point that what we see as the present has all happened in the past, even if just by a fraction of a second. This lag time caused by the speed of light becomes more apparent the farther one reaches. As young student we all learn that it takes 8 minutes for the sun's light to reach Earth. These astronomers try to catch light and sound waves emitted by distant planets and, ultimately, the Big Bang. The archaeologist working with the Atacama petroglyphs notes the similarity of their projects, calling the astronomers "archaeologists of the sky."

One of Guzmán most salient and troubling questions is the paradox that Chilean archaeologists seek to understand ancient inhabitants of the region at the same time that the country actively represses any acknowledgment of the violent history of Pinochet's regime. There is a disconnect between academic investigation of the desert's secrets and the personal, grief-fueled mission of the women. I found the assistance provided by the archaeologists very beautiful despite the difficult facts it unearthed, as it illustrates the usefulness of archaeological interpretation in bringing forth answers the Chilean military is still unwilling to provide. Starting in the 1990s after Pinochet stepped down, archaeological teams helped excavate mass graves, a process of which Guzmán shows archival footage. The women continually find tiny fragments of bones littering the desert, some less than an inch in length. Osteologists confirmed that these were human bones and archaeologists were able to reconstruct the gruesome process by which these came about. Pinochet's military would return to mass graves of prisoners they had murdered, dig them up with machines, and transport the bodies to a second location so they would not be found. The scatter of the bones allowed archaeologists to note that as the bodies were shoveled up their heads protruded from one side of the scoop and their feet from the other. Decomposed and broken bones would then fall back to the ground, leaving accumulations of metatarsal and skull fragments in an identifiable pattern.

Archaeologists working to expose the governmental wrongdoings validate the immense task these women have undertaken. To many their search for lost loved ones seems to be an impossible and fruitless refusal to let go of the past. Archaeology helps clarify what exactly went on in the 1970s and also provides academic support for their very personal quest. Juxtaposed with astronomical research that is exceedingly interpretive and otherworldly, these women's task seem more tangible and attainable. And presenting science in such a metaphysical light underscores the idea that the human search for knowledge cannot be totally secular or unemotional. The astronomer interviewed notes that his is a semi-spiritual project and that science cannot be divorced from belief. Taken together, these disparate stories show how essential human emotion is in driving our actions and how important it is to follow any drive for greater understanding of our condition, whether on a macro scale encompassing the entire universe or on a smaller scale hunting for ancestors thousands of years past or relatives lost a few decades ago.

Short TIME bio of Pinochet:,8599,1568723,00.html

Reviews of the film:

Image sources: and


  1. Emma, I agree - this is a beautiful film, probably the best film I saw this last year. Using archaeology to think about the human search for knowledge and understanding was a very powerful metaphor. I wonder how something like this might translate to an African context?

  2. I was reminded of the work you showed us by graduate students in the UK whose project involves increasing local understanding of the archaeology iron smelting- I don't remember specifics but I was impressed by the focus on community awareness and integration of archaeology into the collective historical knowledge of the area.

    In a broader vein, Africa is of course viewed as the site of human origins. It would be interesting to study human evolution and environmental changes in Africa from a social rather than scientific perspective and to observe how these created ideas of prehistoric Africa appear to us.