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“When We Came Over the Hill” : Looting in Peru

When we came off the road and over the hill, we could see the huaqueros scatter. They dropped their shovels and most of them scrambled into a single, creaky Ford pickup that spun off into the dunes and toward the greened riverbed that stretched to the Pacific.  The others ran towards the ocean.

The dunes were rocky and spread to the shore, still over a mile away.  The ocean was rough and capped in hundreds of moving white piles.  A bank of fog sat several miles off of the shoreline. Onshore, the sun teased in and out of the clouds.  Human bones were strewn across the sand as far as the eye could see.

It wasn’t going to rain.

The looters couldn’t have known who we were but they clearly saw us as a threat.  From a distance we may have looked like the police.  We weren’t, but I took comfort in the fact that we were accompanied by one armed guard.

We had come simply to map the site.  The Paracas burial ground had only recently been discovered by local fisherman and reported to archaeologists working in the area.  Our group had time. There were ten of us, six archaeologists from Colorado, one armed guard and three Peruvian archaeologists.  Our goal was to spend three months in Peru excavating a series of mummies found near the village of Bella Union. Our excavation permit for the site had not come through yet and we were in a holding pattern until it did.  To fill time, we asked to map the newly found site and were granted immediate permission.

There is just no thrilling or satisfying end to this story.  There will be no gunfights with the evildoers and certainly no whips.  We didn’t catch the huaqueros.  We didn’t prevent them from coming back and didn’t prevent them from going on to destroy the next site.  In fact, once they figured out what we were doing, they sat and stood and drank and fiddled and watched us map the site. The Ford returned and they all eventually gathered not more than a mile off towards the rim of the river and simply hung out until dusk. Then they came back.

But no. This is just another sad tale of the destruction of our history and our humanity.  The cheapening of what we are and what we know about ourselves as humans.

Looting in Peru is an epidemic.

The one real-life huaquero I met in Peru sat in a bar in Lomas pouring himself llonque from a bottle in the canvas bag under his chair.  Nobody cared that he wasn’t buying anything. He ran his fingers over his moustache and claimed to have fought with the Sindero Luminoso.  I found that hard to believe.  In fact, I found it hard to believe anything he said after he claimed to be a millionaire. Then he claimed he was serving the best interests of his nation. I told him I thought that was crap. He growled at me. When I pulled out my camera and asked for a picture, he growled at me again.  I put the camera away and asked the waiter for a beer.

But, who knows. Maybe he was a millionaire. Paracas textiles go for tens of thousands of dollars – even hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases.  Rich Europeans love them. Japanese and Chinese aristocrats are increasingly interested. Pots and silver also fetch a decent price – not to mention the gold of Moche – but it’s the rainbow colored Paracas textiles that are most in demand.

These 2000 year-old textiles were the literature of their day.  Their complex designs related tales of family, community, fortune and fail.  They were tools of communication.  Some of the designs mirrored the geoglyphs on the Nazca Plain. The ancients wore them in life and were wrapped inside of them in death.

The people who lived in Pre-Colombian Peru were as sophisticated as, and even more sophisticated than, anyone else on the planet at this time. Without a doubt, they had technologies that matched or even surpassed our own.  The lack of research and reporting combined with the massive amount of information lost to looting has kept this from the general public.

It was like trying to find a teacup with a bulldozer.

In fact, in some places the looting is so blatant they actually do use bulldozers. The huaqueros had dropped a few of their man-length steal poles they used to probe the soil for the empty spaces that would indicate a burial.  All around us lay broken ceramics, wood and bone tools, woven bags, animal bones, gourds, polished stones and a fabulous ceramic flute shaped like a sea shell – all of it strewn in the sand.  There were also bits of textiles, but just bits – nothing whole.

Rocio, a small, gorgeous Peruvian archaeologist just whistled. Then she walked in circles. “Dios Mio,” she said eventually.

The process for the looters was to push the pole into the ground until they found a burial then rapidly dig it out, shake the bones out of the textiles and make off to the next grave. They were fast. They could dig out a hole ten foot deep and ten foot wide in minutes.

Our task was to take as many pictures as possible, plot the photo spots on a map were making with the transit and tape measures, take a few diagnostic samples and move on.  By late afternoon we were finished.  Then we shared out some beers and sat among the remains. Other than a few attempts at morbid humor,  we were silent.

Dusk found the huaqueros impatient.  They came closer.  A few of them yelled at us.  We could see that they were drinking and that the drink was making them brave.  The truck left and came back.  Or maybe it was another truck.  Suddenly, it seemed, there were thirty-some looters. Maybe more.  There were flashlights and lamps lighting the sand. They were well equipped and intent on working the site through the night.

When our armed guard became nervous I was no longer comforted.  We decided it was time to go.  The clouds had come in heavy and gray but it wasn’t going to rain.

It never rains in the Peruvian desert.


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