Diane M. Nelson is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and the author of
The Algebra of Genocide
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 1999. Drawing on the Greek aletheia (an unconcealing or revealing)—which Heidegger connects to bringing out the dead, calling it an opening of presence that is necessary for adequatio, that “truth” of correspondence between mind and reality—the chapter explores the practices and apparatuses necessary to make people count, to produce truth.