People have lived in Peru for more than 11,000 years, since not long after the first humans arrived in the Americas. Beginning around 6,000 BC, hunter-gatherers began to settle along the country’s long coastline. Peru was once home to some of the oldest civilizations in the Americas, with coastal settlements dating back to 4000 BC. Beginning around 300 BC, Peruvian cultures like the Wari, Paracas and Moche flourished, leaving behind a rich legacy of ceramics, gold and silver ornaments, textiles and architectural features ranging from pyramids to the “Nazca lines,” desert geoglyphs that were the focus of complex outdoor rituals.
Peru may be one of South America’s richest nations when it comes to archaeological resources, but it’s also one of the hardest-hit when it comes to looting. The practice dates back to the Spanish conquest nearly 500 years ago, when tombs were dug up in a hunt for gold.
More recently, pot-hunters searching for easily-sold ceramics from Peru’s Moche and Paracas cultures have devastated vast areas of northern Peru, digging trenches across hundreds of square miles.
Nation-wide, an estimated 100,000 tombs – half of the known sites in Peru – have already been plundered. At burial sites in central Peru, intricately woven textiles preserved for 1,500 years have been torn from the ground in the last few decades.
There is some good news: Looting in Peru has actually declined recently, thanks to growing economic prosperity, public education and (surprisingly) a growing supply of fakes. According to UCLA professor Charles Stanish, local craftsmen have become expert at creating ceramics that can fool all but the best-trained collectors and archaeologists. The result has been a drop in demand for the real thing, since buyers are worried about getting burned2.
Nationally, culture is also changing: Just a few decades ago, pot-hunting was a popular pastime. Education campaigns about the role of archaeology and archaeologists have helped turn it into a taboo, although more work remains to be done. And a growing economy has lifted 20 percent of the population out of poverty in the last decade, reducing the incentives to target cultural patrimony.
The popularity of Peru’s heritage sites has also put them at risk. Machu Picchu, an Incan temple complex archaeologists think was built for a few hundred elite Incans, now sees 2 million visitors a year, more than a six-fold increase in a little over a decade. UNESCO recently put the Incan stronghold on a watch list of sites warranted “grave concern.” Archaeologists report local tourism officials bulldozing parts of ancient temple complexes elsewhere in Peru to widen paths or make accessing the site easier for paying tourists, and attempts to reconstruct or repair sites to make them more impressive have destroyed their archaeological integrity.
Laws designed to spread mining wealth to local communities have taken a toll on archaeological sites. Funding is only available for building projects, which provides strong incentives for communities to build on land that is sometimes archaeologically sensitive.
Tourism is Peru’s third-largest industry, with foreign visitors representing nearly $3 billion in expenditures and 7 percent of the GDP. A significant portion of that is cultural and heritage tourism, much of it focused on Peru’s best-known archaeological sites – Machu Picchu, Chan Chan, Sipan and the Nazca lines, for example. The tourism sector employs a tenth of Peru’s work force (close to 800,000 jobs).
Peru is a representative democracy. It was a Spanish colony until 1822, and its 20th-century history has been one of military coups and political chaos. Between 1968 and 1980, the country was ruled by a succession of military dictators. In the 1980s, the Peruvian government battled communist guerilla movements including the SenderoLuminoso, or Shining Path.
The political violence of the 1980s claimed the lives of 70,000 people, mostly civilians. Antiquities were deliberately targeted during this decade, either as a source of funds for guerillas or simply targets of opportunity for poverty-stricken Peruvians. Since the early 1990s, the situation has stabilized. Transparency International ranks Peru 83rd out of 174 countries in terms of corruption, with a score of 38 out of 100.
Today, archaeology and cultural patrimony fall under the recently-formed Ministry of Culture’s authority. The Minister of Culture is Diana Alvarez Calderon, a lawyer and Peruvian politican. Most decisions and enforcement efforts take place at the local level. Each of Peru’s 26 regions has its own Ministry of Culture office. The ministry’s state and local representatives are not always archaeologists,and while each state has an archaeologist on staff responsible for issuing building and excavation permits they are sometimes out-maneuvered by corrupt officials within the ministry.
Peru is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, and has worked aggressively with international authorities to recover looted Peruvian artifacts.
Peru’s laws are strong when it comes to claiming pre-Columbian artifacts: As far back as 1929, Peruvian authorities declared all pre-Columbian artifacts not already in private hands as national property. Government permission is required for any excavations, and it is illegal to export artifacts without a permit (typically only issued for museums and scientific research). Peru’s legal framework was the model for many other South American countries.
However, enforcement of the law is another matter. Corruption and a lack of resources have made it hard for Peruvian authorities to catch and punish looters.