Who Counts?: The Mathematics of Death and Life after Genocide
Diane M. Nelson is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and the author of A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala; she is also the author of Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala and coeditor of War by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-Genocide Guatemala, both also published by Duke University Press.
This chapter builds from the etymology of algebra (meaning “bonesetter”), referring to the cancellation of like terms on opposite sides of the equation, to examine exhumations of mass graves and their role in counting the dead. Forensic anthropologists are disembedding bodies in order to count the bones and thereby ground the statistics and testimonies of truth commission reports and to reembed people back into family structures, rituals of mourning, and court cases against perpetrators, like General Ríos Montt. The chapter examines the controversy over the number 200,000—the war’s death toll as calculated by the UN Commission for Historical Clarification in...