Clash Over UNESCO World Heritage Site Involves Death Threats, Poisoned Dog

Foreign archaeologists and local squatters are at loggerheads over Peru's Caral

Maxar satellite imagery of Caral, Peru — an archeological site of the remains of an ancient city.
Satellite image (c) 2020 Maxar Technologies

If you’ve read David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, you’re likely aware that searching for and excavating ancient cities can be a dangerous business. But an alarming recent dispatch from Peru illustrates that it isn’t just the process of finding historically significant locations that can lead to unsettling events.

As Dan Collyns reports in The Guardian, the clash over a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Peru has taken an unsettling turn. UNESCO’s description of the site notes that, at 5,000 years old, it’s the oldest city in the Americas, and that its elements give a good sense of the activities that took place there: “The city’s plan and some of its components, including pyramidal structures and residence of the elite, show clear evidence of ceremonial functions, signifying a powerful religious ideology.”

Archaeologist Ruth Shady, who discovered the space, has been threatened by a group of squatters; they’ve left ominous voicemail messages for her and, according to the article, killed Shady’s dog using poison.

Collyns notes that the squatters are likely members of an extended family who believe that they have a claim to the land. Shady, meanwhile, contends that Peru itself is the only landowner in this case. The squatters have also taken direct action, including using a digger to damage parts of the historical site in July.

The Guardian reports that a police car now patrols the site; otherwise, however, the standoff continues.

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