Peru’s Ministry of Culture looks like a cross between a Soviet-era high-rise and an Incan fortress. And, in a tiny office on an upper floor, historian Blanca Alva is rushing through a pile of work.
Alva is in her 50s, and typically wears colorful knit cardigans. She has been deaf since childhood, and communicates by speaking and reading lips. Alva is the key person in charge of defending Peru’s “cultural patrimony,” and it’s a pretty crazy job.
Peru's economy is exploding, and so is the real estate market here. In the capital, Lima, housing has gotten so tight that it's spilled over into some of the country's archaeological sites. Those sites are supposed to be protected, but land traffickers have been selling fake titles, leading people to build homes and even entire neighborhoods on top of important ruins.
Blanca Alva tells a story of how, a few years ago, she had to spend the holidays keeping thousands of people from moving into an archaeological site.
“The squatters closed the highway,” she says. “They threw rocks and launched Molotov cocktails at us. But with the help of police, we were able to carry out the eviction — and that was how I spent Christmas.”
Alva says she’s constantly running up against the limits of her job. For one thing, she heads a team of just four people, including her, and Lima alone has more than 400 ruins.
The Peruvian legal system doesn’t help, either.
“The problem with Peruvian law is that you have to evict people in the first 24 hours. Once the 24 hours are up, you can’t evict; you have to take it to court.”
And in court, it can take years to move people, if it happens at all. Take a site called Necrópolis Miramar, where people have been living for almost 10 years. It’s a dry, windy plain next to a highway, in the seaside district of Ancón. There are about 200 small houses, clustered together, and a lot of trash — broken concrete blocks, diapers, boxers, pantyhose.
There are only a few small signs telling people that it’s a burial site, and at first glance, it doesn’t seem anything special. That was what 24-year-old Flor Gomez thought, when she bought a plot here. The deed later turned out to be a fake, and the site, an important ruin.
“I didn’t know the ruins were right here,” says Gomez. “I said, okay, it must be somewhere nearby. And when I was told that this is Necrópolis Miramar, I started to do research, and that was when I saw the maps, that all of this is part of the archaeological site” — including the ground under the converted shed where Gomez lives with her mother.
Gomez, who herself studies history, says she was shocked to learn she was living atop a pre-Hispanic cemetery.
And local officials do little to keep more people from moving in. Jorge Arellanos is a municipal employee in charge of sites like Necrópolis Miramar. On a recent visit to the site, he conceded that it was his first time at the ruins. And he refused to go near Gomez, or any of the homes.
“It’s a security issue,” he said. “People always get defensive, since they think we want to kick them out. Culturally, we should do it. But, legally, they know that we don’t control that area, and that we can’t do it.”
Lack of cooperation from local governments and police, says Blanca Alva, makes it hard for her team to protect sites.
“We’re like firefighters, and we don’t have the resources or the people. An archaeologist calls and says, come quickly, they’re destroying an ancient wall, and it takes us two hours to get there. By the time we do, it’s been destroyed.”
As housing prices in Lima increase, so do takeovers of important ruins. Alva says in the first half of this year alone, there were 71 takeovers.
“The land traffickers are very enterprising. They advance every day, four or five more houses. And they know that I can’t be there every day.”
But that doesn’t stop her from trying.
An archaeological site in the midst of Peru's bustling capital has yielded yet another pre-Incan prize, an undisturbed Wari tomb containing two corpses wrapped in ceremonial fabric, archeologists said on Thursday.
The tomb, estimated to be more than 1,000 years old, was found at the Pucllana archaeological site in Lima. It contained the bodies of an adult and an infant, along with nearly 10 intact artifacts.
The adult was likely a master weaver, said Isabel Flores, an archaeologist at Pucllana. The infant, she added, was probably killed and buried in the tomb as an offering in the adult's honor.
"When we unwrap the bodies, we will be able to determine the adult's age, position in society and gender," said Flores.
The Wari civilization was active in an area that now contains Lima from approximately 600 to 1000 AD, some 500 years before the Inca empire emerged. Seventy Wari tombs have been unearthed at the Pucllana site, which is nestled in a residential neighborhood in central Lima.
But Flores and Gladys Paz, the head archaeologist of the team that made the discovery, both said that this most recent find is among the site's richest treasures yet.
"In terms of big discoveries, this is in the top three," said Paz.
Scientists in the United States and Canada are reporting the first scientific evidence that ancient civilizations in the Central Andes Mountains of Peru smelted metals, and hints that a tax imposed on local people by ancient Inca rulers forced a switch from production of copper to silver.
Their study is scheduled for the May 15 issue of ACS' Environmental Science & Technology, a semi-monthly journal.
The University of Alberta's Colin A. Cooke and colleagues point out that past evidence for metal smelting, which involves heating ore to extract pure metal, was limited mainly to the existence of metal artifacts dating to about 1,000 A.D. and the Wari Empire that preceded the Inca. The new evidence emerged from a study of metallurgical air pollutants released from ancient furnaces during the smelting process and deposited in lake sediments in the area.
By analyzing metals in the sediments, the researchers recreated a 1,000-year history of metal smelting in the area, predating Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish conquistadors by 600 years. Their findings show that smelters in the Morococha region of Peru switched from production of copper to silver around the time that Inca rulers imposed a tax, payable in silver, on local populations.
Article: "A Millennium of Metallurgy Recorded by Lake Sediments from Morococha, Peruvian Andes"