Huaqueo by Claudia Luthi


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.




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.




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.




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.


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 .

13 thoughts on “Huaqueo by Claudia Luthi”

  1. The skull with the brown hair – how can that be? Must have been a wig….and, those teeth! Claudia, your world fascinates me, and I love the brilliance of your documentation.

  2. Fascinating and tragic, Claudia! You captured the mood wonderfully. I hate that anyone stoops to this level of grave robbing but hopefully some type of karmic reaction will occur bite them in their asses!

  3. Wonderful work, Claudia. I had not heard of the Huaquero and I am astonished to hear this story. You bring it to life (no pun intended) perfectly with your photos. (Nice memory from Ronnie too!)

  4. Amazing work, Claudia. Your sensitivity, knowledge and brilliance are evident in this extraordinary documentation. Years ago I worked at the Museum of Natural History in NYC for a well know anthropologist. Her offices were situated just below the eaves of the museum, we could hear the cooing of nesting pigeons above our heads. There were several large store rooms adjacent to the offices where we worked. The rooms were filled with artifacts from years of archeological digs and I was blessed to have the opportunity to spend time to wander through the rooms that held these ancient treasures.

  5. Hola Claudia, millones de gracias por la traducción. Entendí todo en inglés y luego descubrí tu post aquí en español. Gracias de nuevo. El testimonio que dejas es magnífico y espantoso a su vez. Magnífico porque supongo que podrías pasarte meses en el desierto buscando restos y documentando y porque cualquier pequeña aportación a ello es inpagable con dinero. Lo de espantoso no hace falta explicarlo. De todos modos, en todos los países, cuando se juntan el hambre y las ganas de comer, suceden saqueos de este tipo en toda clase de escenas y restos arqueológicos. Vaya, que en todos lados cuecen habas. Me gustó el documental. No es muy neutro, o sea, que se ve tu mano o mejor dicho tu ojo, pero es realmente interesante y creo que deberías repetir excursión y apoderarte de más fotos como estas. Quizá uno crea que no tienen valor alguno, pero su poder y valor es incalculable. Felicidades por el trabajo bien hecho.

  6. This is a fascinating photo essay Claudia! This interesting and terrible story is beautifully illustrated by your vivid photos so we feel as if we are actually there with you.Thankyou! You always have such interesting things to share with us.

  7. This post is AMAZING. I heard about this, but to actually see firsthand images that are not “sanitized” or, the opposite, embellished to make a point, is a really stunning document. And your visual sensibility, the sense of vast empty space and the fleeting nature of the moment are perfect for it. Brava!!!

  8. Especialmente para Llorenç, la traducción del texto al español:

    “El Perú tiene una riquísima historia precolombina, de la que literalmente hablan miles de sitios arqueológicos y restos mortuorios a lo largo de la desértica costa del Pacífico. Huaqueo significa ‘saquear’ y viene de Huaca que en quechua significa ‘lugar sagrado’, aunque hoy en día cualquier ruina o cementerio antiguo es llamado huaca. La mayoría de las culturas precolombinas que han florecido en los valles de los ríos costeños del Perú desde 3000 aós antes de Cristo, han enterrado a sus muertos en tumbas hechas para la ‘eternidad’ y han momificado a los cadávares de la gente importante y noble, conjuntamente con textiles extraordinariamente finos y maravillosas joyas hechas de oro, plata, cobre y piedras preciosas, así como ceramios ceremonials y vasijas llenas de maíz, maní, frijoles y hojas de coca para su larga travesía por el ‘valle de los muertos’. Las condicones extremadamente secas del desierto han preservado tanto a los cuerpos como a los objetos de manera sorprendente.

    Es sabido que las tumbas precolombinas han sido saqueadas desde la llegada de los españoles (algunos dicen que inclusive desde la época Inca). El hecho es que la gente de cada pueblo en cada valle de este vasto país se ha recurrido al huaqueo, cada vez que hubo una sequía o por cualquier otra razón por la que sus cosechas fallaran. Y, desde luego, existe desde ya una mafia que compra todos esos objetos, generalmente por una bicoca y los vende a precios desorbiados a coleccionistas privados, tal vez hasta a museos. Aunque siempre hay gente que se dedica exclusivamente al huaqueo – los huaqueros. Son considerados gente del hampa y pertenecen naturalmente al submundo, llenos de historias de encuentros truculentos con los muertos. Algunos mueren en prisión, otros de enfermedades raras y horripilentas. Pero, mientras que los huaqueros tradicionales son supersticiosos y cautelosos, y solo trabajan en las noches de luna llena y excavan con palas ordinaries, los huaqueros modernos no tienen ningún tipo de escrúpulo. Cuentan con maquinaria moderna y usan bulldozers y trabajan inclusive a la luz del sía si las condiciones lo permiten. Por ello, los contextos arqueológicos están siendo destruidos por completo.

    No es que todo esto me interese mucho. Nunca me gusto el principio de la momificación ni mantener relaciones necrófilas con el pasado. Peo un amigo arqueólogo de Cambridge que ha estudiado cierta area del bajo valle del Río Ica, me pidió hacer un registro fotográfico de los restos mortuorios, antes de ue los contextos fuesen totalmente destruidos. De modo que recorrí el lugar durante 3 días en compañía de un ex-huaquero – hijo del huaquero quizás más famoso de la región, y quien había acompañado a su padre desde los 7 años, y desde 1986 se deica a la noble profesión de la carpintería. Lo que encontrá es sumamente dramático. Los cementerios de quizás media docena de culturas, todos a lo largo y encima de las colinas en el lado norte del valle han sido huaqueados una y otra vez a lo largo de los últimos 50 años.

    La primera cosa de la que un huaquero quiere apoderarse es oro y joyería. El oro, como sabemos, es una fiebre que nos ciega. De modo que, en orden de llegar al oro, excavan la tumba con desesperación y descuartizan a las momias. Muchas veces rompiendo valiosos textiles y ceramios en el camino. Más tarde, a veces después de años, ellos u otros huaqueros vuelven a las mismas tumbas para rebuscarlas y rescatar las piezas previamente descartadas, según el dictamen del Mercado. Claro que, donde se ha usado bulldozers, no quedan más que montañas de polvo y huesos. Sea como fuere, este negoio parece de nunca acabar. Y aún hoy en día se puede encontrar tumbas intactas –el sueño de todo arqueólogo y huaquero en el país. “

  9. Stories like this sadden me.
    History destroyed by the ignorant and greedy. The buyers worse because they create the market.
    Your story and images are moving and thought provoking.

  10. Magnificent photos.

    The rich do love their collections. Now they let their heirs fight over their gold and jewels rather than be buried with them so that future generations of poor will not be digging them up to get at the loot.

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