Threats to archaeological heritage in coastal Peru: Urban and industrial sprawl

Much of the population of Peru lives on the narrow desert coast (approximately 9 out of the 30 million inhabitants live in Lima). Economic development is also centered on the coast, favoured among other things by harbors for international trade and the Carretera Panamericana which provides a well-functioning north-south connection. Along the coast, population is centered on the valleys which bring water from the Andes down into the desert. Because of the very dry climate, these river valleys have been the foci of human settlement for at least five milennia. As a result of the early colonial population collapse, many formerly settled areas along the river valleys were abandoned and remained largely untouched for centuries. Since the twentieth century, urban and industrial sprawl as well as agricultural expansion have been increasingly threatening and destroying traces of pre-columbian cultures.

I want to use two examples from the Palpa Valley (400 kilometres south of Lima) to highlight what has been – and still is – happening. In the first example, a SAN (Servicio Aerofotográfico Nacional del Peru) aerial photograph from 1944 shows numerous geoglyphs as well as outlines of buildings roughly one kilometre north-west of the town centre of Palpa.

SAN aerial photograph, 1944.

SAN aerial photograph, 1944.

The 2009 GoogleEarth image shows that the town has been expanding, and much of the archaeological settlement area has been built over. Extensive looting has occurred in the south-western section of the image. Most of the Nasca period geoglyphs in this area have not been built over, but many of them have experienced severe damage due to new paths and removal of surface materials.

2009 satellite image (c) GoogleEarth.

2009 satellite image (c) GoogleEarth.

The second example shows the impact of a large chicken farm roughly seven kilometres south-west of Palpa. Peruvian chicken farms are one of the more apalling examples for human relations with the animal world: many thousand chicken are kept in large (each more than 100 metres long) stables where they are fed to a large part with fishmeal (in case you ever wondered why eggs in Lima tasted funny…). Near the town of Palpa, a large chicken farm with 26 stables (each 115 by 12 metres) had been in operation in the late twentieth century. In the 1966 Corona spy satellite image (acquired through Earth Explorer, several large Nasca period geoglyphs can still be seen largely intact.

1966 Corona spy satellite image.

1966 Corona spy satellite image.

By 2001, the chicken farm had been built, used and already been demolished again, leaving traces of stables and roadways. The Google Earth image from the year 2009 shows the impact of the former chicken stables on the geoglyphs: several large trapezoids and lines have been almost completely obliterated.

2009 satellite image (c) GoogleEarth.

2009 satellite image (c) GoogleEarth.

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