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23 October 2005
Squatters, scribble threaten Peru's Nazca lines

The latest threat to Nazca, 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. 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. 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.
     However, 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 BCE to 200 BCE and Nazca from about 100 BCE to 650 CE. 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 reveals more treasures. 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 Giuseppe Orefici, an Italian archeologist excavating the Nazca ceremonial site and pyramids of Cahuachi.
     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.

Source: Reuters (19 October 2005)

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