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Peru has a very rich precolumbian history, of which literally thousands of archeological and mortuary remains speak, especially along the narrow desert strip of the Pacific coast. Huaqueo means looting and comes from Huaca, which in Quechua means “sacred place”, though today any ancient ruin or cemetery is called Huaca. Most of the precolumbian cultures that flourished in the river valleys of the coast of Peru since 3000 B.C. have buried their dead in ‘everlasting’ tombs, often mummifying the corpses of the important and noble people and clothing them in extraordinary richly woven textiles, as well as wonderful jewelery made of gold, silver and copper, and giving them all kinds of ceremonial ceramics and pots full of corn and beans and peanuts and coca leafs for their long journey through the ‘valley of the death’. The extremely dry conditions of the desert have preserved bodies and objects in an astonishing way.

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It is known that precolumbian tombs have been looted ever since the Spaniards arrived (some say, that it was already a custom during the Inca period). The fact is, that the people of every village in every valley of this vast country have turned to the huaqueo, whenever there was a drought or any other reason for their crops to fail. And, of course, there has been ever since an international mafia that buys all these objects, mostly incredibly cheap and sells them for exorbitant prices to private collectors, maybe even to museums. There are though always people who exclusively dedicate themselves to the huaqueo – the huaqueros. They are considered by law as criminals and are naturally people from the underworld, full of gruesome stories of encounters with the dead. Some of them die in prison, some of strange and aweful diseases.
But, while the traditional huaqueros are supersticious and careful, and work only during nights of full moon and dig with ordinary shovels, the modern huaqueros have no scruples. They have modern equipment and use bulldozers and work in full daylight when ever allowed. The archeological contexts are thus being totally destroyed.

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Not that I am too interested in all this. I never liked the principle of mummifying the dead and maintaining necrophilic relations with the past. But an archeologist from Cambridge and friend of mine, who has studied a certain area of the lower Ica valley, has asked me to make a photographic registration of all the mortuary remains, before the whole context was destroyed. So, during 3 days I toured the region and visited over 20 sites in company of an ex huaquero – son of one of the most famous huaqueros in the region, who has accompanied his father since he was 7 years old and since 1986 is a carpenter by trade. What I found was most dramatic. The cemeteries of at least half a dozen precolumbian cultures, all of them along or on top of the arid hills on the north side of the valley, have been looted over and over again.

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The first thing a huaquero is after, is gold and jewelry. Gold, as we all know, is a fever. So, in order to get it, they desperately excavate the mummies and tear them apart, often breaking valuable pottery and textiles in the way. Later, sometimes after many years, they, or other huaqueros come back to the same tombs and scan them for the previously discarded pieces of ceramics and textiles and other objects, depending on the dictation of the market. Of course, where bulldozers have been used, there is nothing but mountains of dust and bones. So this business seems never ending. And still today one can find intact tombs – the dream of every huaquero and archeologist in the country.

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Claudia Lüthi is an amateur photographer who lives in Lima, Peru. She is a founding member of aamora. You can see Claudia’s previous aamora posts by clicking here. You can also find her in JPG Magazine and in el lente de la coneja .