Before leaving for our epic trip to Peru and Bolivia, I jokingly told one of my friends in Paraguay that I would be sure to rob an Incan tomb to bring back a “real souvenir.” Looking back, that comment was truly prophetic because, for the first - and hopefully the last - time in my life, I saw what real grave-robbery looks like.
For me, the most interesting and thought-provoking experiences in all of Peru (take THAT Machu Picchu!) were unplanned visits to two Nazca burial site. One had been protected and preserved while the other had…not.
Chauchilla Necropolis is thought to be one of the largest ancient burial grounds ever discovered in the Western Hemisphere. It is also the only Nazca burial site officially protected by the Peruvian government. The ancient Nazca people mummified and buried their dead here for about seven hundred years, ending in the 9th century AD. The site wasn’t uncovered by Western archeologists until the late 1920’s and, after its discovery, Chauchilla was ruthlessly looted for decades until 1997, when the Peruvian government stepped in to preserve the site further desecration. We decided to visit the well-publicized cemetery one morning on a whim; it’s not often that I search out corpses as part of my travel escapades in foreign countries!
We arrived at Chauchilla and found that we had the place to ourselves, with the exception of a French family trailing a teenage daughter who was clearly UNIMPRESSED at her father’s insistence that she traipse around a field of corpses snapping family photographs. “Mais…c’est trés dégoûtant papa,” echoed through the air and was adopted as our quote of the day.
Chauchilla was fascinating. While the majority of graves lay undisturbed beneath the sand, a few tombs hiding under the shade of straw huts had been opened for public viewing. The mummies were well-preserved and it was interesting to see the assortment of objects each corpse was interned with, carefully organized around dozens of bodies folded into eternal fetal positions. It was an open air museum like no other! Although a bit run-down, the tombs were tastefully displayed. We were impressed that the Peruvians had done such a good job at protecting the tombs and we were happy to pay the seven-dollar entry fee that covered the cost of security for the site. We wandered around for an hour and decided that we’d had our fill of history for the day.
When we arrived back in Nazca, we booked a tour for that afternoon to go sandboarding and dune-buggying in the desert south of Nazca. We chilled drinking coffee and eating far too many churros before setting out with an ensemble of five other people for what we thought would be solely a sand-boarding adventure.
As we drove south through the barren hills, it became obvious that human burial sites peppered the desert. Shards of white bone stuck up through the sand and, on a few occasions, I caught glimpses of human skulls, sand drifting through empty sockets, grinning into the piercing blue sky.
Our guide suddenly halted the dune buggy at a small necropolis that had been ransacked by grave-robbers with bulldozers two days earlier. He became increasingly agitated as he described the brazen attacks on Nazca’s cultural heritage and outlined his government’s apathy and unwillingness to intervene. “This is legal,” he explained in fiery Spanish. “There is high demand in the Eastern-European market for Nazcan artifacts…people here view robbing tombs as a valid way of making extra money! We need laws to discourage this!” He gave a frustrated wave at the bulldozed sand around the buggy and left us to explore the area.
Thus began some of most surreal moments of my life. Dani and I ventured into the churned sand and picked our way through the debris. Pottery shards littered the ground and mixed with decaying clothes, weapons, and bits of wood. Human remains were interspersed with the wreckage; Dani and I treaded carefully, trying to avoid stepping on body-parts. It was a futile effort. I pointed out some colourful bead jewelry hanging from a skeletal wrist that the looters had missed. We could discern different shades of hair-colour hanging from millennium-old scalps. We saw one twisted face so well-preserved that she probably would have been recognized by someone who had known her centuries ago. It is eerie to stare death in the face but unnerving when the dead smile back! I felt something wedged between my toes and gingerly picked a mummified finger from my flip-flop. I decided that I’d had enough. Feeling uncomfortably like a voyeur who spies on something intimately private and personal - I’m not sure I would be stoked about camera-wielding tourists tramping on my remains, even if it is a thousand years in the future - we trudged back to the dune buggy and continued on our way.
I still haven’t quite sorted out my thoughts about this; it certainly wasn’t a run-of-the-mill tourist venture and probably not one I could repeat, even if I tried. The logistics of finding a freshly looted mummy-burial-ground would simply be too difficult to replicate! It’s certainly given me a lot to think about though. It also resolutely dispelled the common misconception that tomb raiders wear sexy spandex outfits.