October 19, 2005
Squatters, scribble threaten Peru’s Nazca lines
By Jude Webber
NAZCA, Peru (Reuters) - A tiny, hand-painted sign mounted
on a flimsy barbed wire fence warns visitors to Peru's Nazca
lines: "No entry. Area off-limits."
The latest threat to the vast U.N. World Heritage site
where the enigmatic shapes and lines, stylized figures of birds
and animals were etched in the desert some 2,000 years ago, is
a camp of around 30 shacks that appeared in August.
The rudimentary straw-matting huts are pitched in the dry
earth on the fringe of a protected area that covers 111,200
acres -- roughly 2-1/2 times the size of Washington, D.C.
Directly below them is an ancient burial site still pitted by
long-ago scars of tomb raiders hunting for priceless textiles,
pottery or jewels to steal.
The lines -- one of Peru's top tourist attractions and only
properly visible from the air -- were made by clearing away
surface shale or piling it up onto other stones when the Roman
Empire still existed. But there are signs modern vandals have
been at work.
One giant trapezoid, which is not on the usual tourist
aerial overview, has graffiti scrawled all over it.
Nearby, someone has also drawn a penis -- a recent
addition, judging by how the newly disturbed earth stands out
brightly against the gray of the plain.
"Everyone thinks we're exaggerating when we say the lines
are being irreparably damaged, but I'd like them to see the
amount of graffiti on these lines," said Eduardo Herran, chief
pilot at Aerocondor, who flies over Nazca almost daily.
The squatters -- who have been reported to the police but
say they have nowhere else to go -- have invaded the edge of
the Nazca no-go area, next to an older shanty town on protected
land that is so established it has a concrete sports field.
Ironically, they are just over the road from the house of
Maria Reiche, the German mathematician dubbed the "Lady of the
lines," who devoted her life to studying and protecting them.
Although the shacks are far from Nazca's most emblematic
figures, like the monkey with the spiral tail, archeologists
fear they will spread unless people are evicted.
"Look around: all this is off-limits ... it's full of
excrement, rubbish, (old) signs of looting," said squatter
EVER MORE URGENT
Tomb raiders remain one of Nazca's top threats. From the
air, it looks like some areas have been machine gunned because
of the clusters of craters dug over the decades.
Herran said a textile from the Paracas civilization, when
archeologists say the earliest lines in Nazca and those in
neighboring Palpa were made, could fetch $1 million. The
Paracas culture ran from about 500 B.C. to 200 B.C. and Nazca
from about 100 B.C. to 650 A.D.
Among other dangers, Herran said he had seen goat tracks 10
yards (meters) from the head of the famous hummingbird figure.
Protection is increasingly urgent as the area -- whose
baffling lines have variously been interpreted as landing
strips for alien astronauts, astronomical charts, an agrarian
calendar; or linked to fertility, rituals or water -- reveals
For example several largely unknown Paracas-era figures on
the Nazca plain, including one like two monkeys and another
like a fish or snake, came to light in September.
"Everything that has been preserved by the desert is being
destroyed now by man -- by agriculture, expansion of housing
and destruction of archeological sites," warned Guiseppe
Orefici, an Italian archeologist excavating the Nazca
ceremonial site and pyramids of Cahuachi.
TREASURES WHEREVER YOU TREAD
The Nazca lines were declared a U.N. heritage site in 1994
-- six decades after a lizard figure was chopped in two by the
construction of the Pan-American highway.
Further damage occurred later when electricity towers were
installed, close to at least one figure.
"Wherever you tread in Nazca there are archeological
remains, evidence of cemeteries as well as lines," said
historian Josue Lancho.
And just treading is trouble. The plain is partly covered
by scree but the earth underneath is peculiarly spongy, making
even the faintest footprints or marks virtually indelible.
That is why the Nazca and Palpa lines have survived
virtually intact for some 2,000 years. But it is also why
half-century-old tire tracks are now part of the scenery.
Helaine Silverman, an authority on Nazca at the University
of Illinois, said more should be done. The authorities "plead a
lack of funds but it's really a lack of will," she said.
Only a couple of watchmen on motorbikes patrol Nazca, one
of Peru's top tourist attractions. One, Humberto Cancho, said
he had found people dumping a truckload of trash inside the
protected area, and said long-distance buses routinely chucked
refuse sacks out of windows as they sped by.
Leading archeologist Johny Isla said people seemed to be
waking up, as damage in Nazca has fallen in recent years.
But he said things were critical in Palpa, which does not
yet share Nazca's protected status. The lines there are on
desert hillsides, with a shanty town creeping closer, and some
have been damaged by curious people clambering up for a look.
"The classic thing is to write their names. There aren't
many untouched hillsides left now, he said.