‘3,000 Years of History Are Literally Just Beneath Our Feet’

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“Buyers would come from Chiclayo and we’d sell the pieces for a pittance because we didn’t know what they were worth,” Mr. Villareal said. He recalled finding and trading masks, shell necklaces, gold pectorals and ceramic sculptures with erotic themes.

At the new site, he helped to carefully pack a skull to transport to a Cálidda lab for further investigation. “We would have discarded all of this,” Mr. Villareal said.

The newly uncovered graves were most likely part of a cemetery used for hundreds of years by different groups that farmed along the Chillón River, said Roberto Quispe, an archaeologist with Cálidda. Archaeologists first became aware of it after seeing aerial photos, taken in the 1940s, that showed the telltale signs of tomb raiding.

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“You see some plots of farmland and next to them an empty lot that’s completely full of holes,” Mr. Quispe said. “The cemetery had been completely looted and people started to settle on top of it.”

As Mr. Quispe worked inside a tomb, a restaurant nearby blasted cumbia music and passers-by stopped to watch and take pictures.

“I came to show my kids and nephews,” said Rolando Torres, a local resident, as children in school uniforms peered into one of the graves. A neighbor had sent Mr. Torres a video of the discovery, so he came right away to see the site. “We who live here, this is part of our ancestry,” he said.

The objects found in the graves correspond to the Chancay culture, which occupied an area north of Lima from 1,200 to 1,450 A.D., and to an earlier cultural development known as Huaura. The unearthed items include a ceramic flute, a figurine perhaps representing a goddess and an early version of a cuchimilco, a ceramic figurine with an expression of awe or surprise that was placed in Chancay tombs to accompany the dead.



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