Etched into the surviving art of the Moche, one of South America’s most ancient and mysterious civilisations, is a fearsome creature dubbed the Decapitator. Also known as Ai Apaec, the octopus-type figure holds a knife in one hand and a severed head in the other in a graphic rendition of the human sacrifices the Moche practiced in northernPeru 1,500 years ago.
For archaeologists, the horror here is not in Moche iconography, which you see in pottery and mural fragments, but in the hundreds of thousands of trenches scarring the landscape: a warren of man-made pillage. Gangs of looters, known as huaqueros, are ransacking Peru’s heritage to illegally sell artefacts to collectors and tourists.
“They come at night to explore the ruins and dig the holes,” said Cuba Cruz de Metro, 58, a shopkeeper in the farming village of Galindo. “They don’t know the history, they’re just looking for bodies and for tombs. They’re just looking for things to sell.”
A looting epidemic in Peru and other Latin American countries, notably Guatemala, has sounded alarm bells about the region’s vanishing heritage.
The issue is to come under renewed scrutiny in the run-up to July’s 100th anniversary of the rediscovery of Machu Picchu, the Inca citadel in southern Peru, by US historian Hiram Bingham. He gave many artefacts to Yale university, prompting an acrimonious row with Peru’s government which ended only this year when both sides agreed to establish a joint exhibition centre.
A recent report, Saving our Vanishing Heritage, by the Global Heritage Fund in San Francisco, identified nearly 200 “at risk” sites in developing nations, with South and Central America prominent.