In Peru, a fossil-rich desert faces ungovernable development | ET REALITY


Millions of years ago, this Peruvian desert was a gathering place for fantastical sea creatures: walking whales, walrus-faced dolphins, sharks with teeth as big as a human face, red-feathered penguins, aquatic sloths.

They bred in the calm waters of a shallow lagoon protected by hills that still surround the landscape today. Eventually, tectonic shifts separated land from sea. More than 10,000 years ago people arrived. With them came art, religion and monumental architecture.

Researchers have pieced together these snapshots of the distant past from bones and graves found scattered in the Pisco Basin, a thick layer of fossil-rich sediment that stretches across 200 square miles of badlands and riverine corridors between the Andes mountains and the Pacific coast. southern Peru.

Discoveries in the region have occurred at a rapid pace in recent decades, and at least 55 new species of marine vertebrates have been found so far. In August, paleontologists unveiled what could be the region’s most notable find yet: Perucetus colossus, a manatee-like whale now considered the heaviest animal known to have ever existed.

“There always seems to be something new coming from Peru,” said Nicholas Pyenson, a paleontologist and curator of marine mammal fossils at the Smithsonian Institution. It’s not just the abundance of fossils that makes the region special, he said: “In many cases they reflect species that we don’t see anywhere else, and we don’t really know why.”

But paleontologists in Peru warn that this unique wealth of bones is threatened by one of the most insidious ways the country loses its natural and cultural heritage: unplanned development.

In the agricultural town of Ocucaje, the gateway to the Pisco Basin, the desert is rapidly turning into land for real estate projects, illegal settlements and chicken farms. New roads cut through swaths of desert and windswept sand dunes. Mud barriers and posts with barbed wire have been erected along them.

“We are being dissected,” said Laura Peña, mayor of Ocucaje, as she inspected rectangular markings in the sand on the outskirts of town. “This used to be an open pampa. Before there were no roads. There was only the land. In recent years everything has been fenced.”

It has happened so quickly, Peña said, that he is still trying to determine who owns what and how much of it is legal. Like many small-town mayors, Peña does not have a land tenure map of his district and has difficulty following decisions made by provincial and regional governments.

Many of the subdivisions contain fossils or pre-Columbian sites that should have been declared off-limits years ago, he said.

Unruly growth has long been a challenge to the preservation of Peru’s countless ancient ruins, especially along the arid coast, where pre-Columbian civilizations once flourished in the river valleys occupied by Peruvians today.

In Ocucaje, Manuel Uchuya, 73, lives in an illegal community on top of a ceremonial center of the pre-Columbian Paracas culture. More than a century ago, German archaeologist Max Uhle unearthed several mummies at the site that were at least 1,000 years old and wrapped in elaborate funerary bundles, including one with a snake motif and a macaw feather headdress.

“We had nowhere else to go,” Uchuya said.

The site had already been ransacked by looters when he and his wife built a shack on a small piece of land to retire about 20 years ago, he said. Around the corner from their small hut, the remains of a pre-Columbian adobe wall still remained, and shards of pottery, ears of corn, and shreds of reddish textiles littered the floor.

Due to the enormous housing deficit in Peru, neighborhoods tend to be built first and legalized later. In the last 15 years, 90 percent of urban development has occurred informally or outside of regulations, said Andrés Devoto, a lawyer.

As available land has decreased in the arid region between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, where most of Peru’s population and economic activity is concentrated, speculation has spurred demands for settlement in increasingly unlikely areas.

Ocucaje, a remote outpost in the burgeoning agricultural export region of Ica in southern Peru, has a population of less than 5,000 people, no sanitation system and an annual budget for public works projects of around $30,000. Older residents once worked without pay on the hacienda there, until land reform came in 1969. Today, most people farm, harvest seaweed on nearby beaches, or work as day laborers in the cities.

In Ocucaje’s main square, children play with a sculpture of Megalodon, a shark three times the size of the great white, and a paleontological museum displays fossils to casual tourists.

Mario Urbina Schmitt, a paleontologist based in the capital Lima who has become Peru’s most prolific fossil hunter, said he was surprised when he returned to work in the region in 2021, after closures due to the Covid pandemic. -19. Although many Peruvians They spent the year under strict lockdowns, land claims and illegal settlements skyrocketed. “It’s like going to the Grand Canyon,” Urbina Schmitt said, “and suddenly there are signs everywhere saying, ‘This is mine!’”

Archaeologists know Ocucaje as a crossroads of ancient civilizations: a place where the Paracas and Nazca people created figures of animals and warriors on the slopes of the hills and the Incas laid out a path to connect the region with their empire.

Paleontologists consider the region one of the best places in the world to research the evolution of marine animals. The virtual absence of rain (Ocucaje receives one millimeter a year on average) has even preserved the red color of the feathers of the five-foot-tall Inkayacu penguin and the hair-like filters in the whales’ mouths.

“It is beyond being a UNESCO World Heritage site in terms of the extent of its abundance,” Dr Pyenson said, comparing the area to Wadi al-Hitan, a celebrated marine fossil site in Egypt. “It’s like you have a Wadi al-Hitan from many different time periods.”

Urbina Schmitt said that even after four decades of exploring the Ocucaje Desert, he still finds so many fossils that he can afford to be picky. “Anyone can find a normal whale,” she said. “They’re everywhere. I don’t count them. I want the new ones. The strange ones.”

A decade ago, he saw a huge Perucetus vertebra embedded in the side of a cliff. The revelation of the new species, published last month in a Nature article he co-authored, has been widely celebrated in Peru.

At the Museum of Natural History in Lima, where the vertebrae and part of the pelvis of Perucetus are on display, visitors line up to take selfies with Urbina Schmitt. “It’s like we won the World Cup,” she said.

Peruvian paleontologists hope the enthusiasm will translate into more support for their underfunded field and its efforts to protect Ocucaje.

Peruvian government officials have talked for at least a decade about creating some kind of park in Ocucaje. The idea has made little progress, in part because of a dispute over which state institution should lead the effort.

The Geological, Mining and Metallurgical Institute, an agency within the Ministry of Energy and Mines, wrested authority to oversee fossil protection from the Ministry of Culture in 2021. But it is still reviewing which areas to declare off-limits and plans to rewrite Peru’s proposal to add the region to UNESCO’s World Heritage list, said César Chacaltana, its director of paleontology.

Meanwhile, at least four real estate projects announce land to build suburban-style homes in the Ocucaje desert. In videos broadcast on social networks, the discovery of Perucetus is cited as a reason to invest in the region. Another promotes quad biking through the desert.

None have requested a permit to certify, before starting construction, that there are no fossil remains on their sites, as required by law since 2021, Chacaltana said.

Heavy machinery appears to have already leveled the ground in some demarcated areas, taking with it possible fossils. “Any evidence on the surface would have been destroyed,” Ali Altamirano, a paleontologist at the institute, said during a visit.

Peña, who took office in January, suspects that at least some of the newly demarcated areas in Ocucaje are the work of land traffickers, mafias that organize illegal occupations to appropriate public lands. “We don’t know what they want in Ocucaje,” he said. “There is no water here. We only get water once a week for a few hours.”

Under Peruvian laws that aim to protect the landless poor, squatters cannot be easily evicted from vacant public lands and can eventually petition authorities for property titles and public services.

But increasingly, criminal groups are exploiting those safeguards. They could pay people to put shacks on vacant lots and demand title to property that they can then sell or reuse, or they could use violence or bribery to gain approval from local officials. “Land trafficking is one of the most lucrative businesses for mafias in Peru,” said Devoto.

Some fenced areas in Ocucaje show only slight signs of occupation. Near Cerro Blanco, where faded signs point out clusters of whale fossils for visitors, a one-room brick house sits in the sun, with no access to water or any indication that anyone lives there. “We never see anyone inside,” said Elvis Ormeño, a local tour guide. “This was not done for a family in need.”

The winds that buffet the desert dunes still hide and reveal clues to the ancient past; It takes trained eyes to see them. Paleontologists and archaeologists fear that uncontrolled development at Ocucaje could destroy potentially valuable finds before they are known.

“You can be standing there, day after day, doing your job, and not see a geoglyph because of the way the sun hits the landscape,” said Lisa DeLeonardis, an art historian at Johns Hopkins University. “And then when you do it, all the rocks line up and you realize there’s a geoglyph there.”

Geoglyphs (large-scale designs made by scraping soil or lining up rocks) were once thought to have been created solely by the Nazca civilization, whose famous figures stretch across the desert about 50 miles to the north. But earlier geoglyphs of the Paracas are increasingly found on the slopes of Ocucaje and nearby valleys, Dr. DeLeonardis said.

One resident, Mirtha Mendocilla, 28, recalled taking her son and his friends to see a geoglyph that locals saw not far from town, only to be met with fences and a sign that said “Private Property.”

“What private property?” said Mrs. Mendocilla. “This is our heritage. We have to get it back before it is ruined.”

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