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The Very Edge of the World


[clock] 16-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Fall 2007

If you begin at the ocean, following Lima’s Avenida Javier Prado going east, past the residential districts of San Isidro and Magdalena, through the traffic-choked intersection with the Via Expresa, past the newly-inaugurated National Library and into the wealthy district of La Molina, past El Jockey, Peru’s first American-style shopping mall, alongside the University of Lima with its glittering tower, and beyond it, to the foot of the hill where the avenue seems to dead-end, there, on the other side of an underused soccer stadium grandiosely named El Monumental, the road shrinks from six lanes to only two—and here you will find a rather unimpressive Inca structure, or the remains of one, riddled with bullet holes.

It’s easy to miss. The structure is just a squat, thick-walled adobe windbreak, much of it crumbled, all of it coated in the same grayish yellow dust that the hills surrounding Lima seem to emanate. It blends seamlessly into the mountainside that hovers over it. There is a better-preserved temple not far away, not as easily visible from the avenue, and together with the hill itself, the entire archaeological area is known as Puruchuco. I went for a visit in July with a local archaeologist, Guillermo Cock, whose macabre discovery in the vicinity had been reported in newspapers all over the world. Here, in Puruchuco, in the outskirts of the Peruvian capital, his team of researchers had found the first confirmed gunshot victim of the Americas: a man’s skull, its parietal bone neatly perforated by a single round hole less than an inch in diameter.

Daniel Alarcón on “Foreign Exchange”

Initially, Cock confessed to me, he didn’t think much of it. His first thought was simple: a stray bullet had found its way into an old skull. When this part of Lima was much less densely inhabited—there are now nearly half a million residents in the immense district of Ate-Vitarte—the area was an ad hoc firing range, hence the bullet holes adorning the otherwise forgotten and obscure Inca ruins alongside Javier Prado. In the late 1980s, two squatter communities grew on the other side of the hill—literally on top of the largest indigenous cemetery in all of Peru, perhaps all of the Americas. Túpac Amaru and Portales de Puruchuco are poor neighborhoods, beset by all the usual problems of drugs, gangs, violence; no better or worse than many parts of the city, but places where a gunshot now and then is not unthinkable. In fact, Cock told me, once his team had been forced to suspend its work while the police chased a group of gang members along the ridges of the hills, both sides exchanging fire as they ran after each other. With this experience in mind, Cock reasoned that the discovery of a skull with a bullet hole, though unexpected, had a ready explanation.

But of course, Cock soon realized, a five-hundred-year-old-skull, if struck by modern bullet, would be shattered beyond recognition. His new hypothesis was much darker: a contemporary skull, hit by a contemporary bullet. In other words, a murder, a potential police matter that would call for forensic specialists, not archaeologists. “I thought Vladimiro Montesinos might have buried him here,” Cock told me with a laugh, referring to the now-imprisoned adviser to disgraced ex-president Alberto Fujimori. Montesinos is known to be one of the architects of the Fujimori regime’s heavy-handed response to the terrorist threat that shook Peru in the 1980s and early 1990s. It didn’t seem that unlikely to stumble upon evidence of this kind of dirty work—tens of thousands died or were disappeared in the process of pacifying the country. And even if it weren’t a political murder, any police snooping would certainly slow down the dig. Cock asked his team to ignore the skull for the time being. Let the work continue, he thought. His professional concern is not, strictly speaking, the recently deceased.

*  *  *  *  

Guillermo Cock directs his work from a nondescript two-story house in the middle-class Lima suburb of Surco. Though it isn’t far—perhaps a twenty-minute drive from Puruchuco—Surco is a world away from the slums that surround the archaeological dig. The day I visited was cloudy and cool, and sitting in the office, knowing I was in the company of two or three thousand bodies stored on the upper floor, made it somehow seem a little colder. Cock is a corpulent, gregarious man, pale, with a quick smile and a graying beard. He was dressed in the stereotypical getup of an anthropologist, or a tourist out on safari: the wide-brimmed hat, the light brown vest with dozens of pockets, pants to match. We talked for a while at the office, and then drove to Puruchuco, and through the communities that surround it, where everyone seemed to know him. Doctor, they said, as we drove through the streets, and he would stop and chat with the residents from the window of his Jeep, seemingly on friendly terms with everyone we met. All the archaeological work in the area had been done with the collaboration of residents, and Cock had employed many locals.

We drove through Portales and Túpac, then rounded the hill again, got out and walked a bit, along the access road running by Javier Prado. Here Cock pointed out the obvious: one day Lima’s growth will demand that this hill be blown up. The avenue runs directly into the base of the rock, then does a semicircular arc around its edge, before continuing its path. If a city such as Lima can be said to have a master plan, that plan includes the removal of this small, unremarkable hillock, along with whatever historical remains may be buried there. In this context, one can understand Cock’s unwillingness to slow his work. Túpac and Portales, the neighborhoods on the hill’s opposite face, will be unaffected whenever this project comes, but the gravesites on the avenue side—some still unexcavated—will be lost forever. As we walked, we came upon a place of upturned dirt and, poking from the brittle earth, a swatch of fabric. This is our history too: frayed, torn, and reddish. Cock looked unsurprised. A grave robber perhaps, he said, though not necessarily. It could be anyone. The bodies were buried very shallow around here, and the archaeological area isn’t exactly cordoned off. It sits in the middle of a nation’s capital, in a city of more than eight million residents. A busy avenue with its endless traffic, a soccer stadium, and two economically struggling communities all are adjacent to the site.

After we returned from Puruchuco, we sat in his office, talking for a while, and then walked upstairs, where Cock called for one of the office workers to bring him skull number 123. Moments later, he was opening what looked like a shoebox. There, wrapped in plastic, was a skull. Number 123 was small, its jaw missing, and the hole was neat and almost perfectly round. There were tiny grooves in the bone. Cock had used a swab to clean the hole, and then sent this swab to be analyzed. The test results came back with traces of iron particles. Number 123 was killed by a Spanish musket ball.

One of the humbling things about seeing a skull is realizing how ordinary it is, how much each one resembles every other one. A five-hundred-year-old skull is remarkably similar to mine or yours, and in the presence of a man’s bullet-pierced cranium, I felt very clearly that archaeology is neither esoteric nor obscure, but a necessary element of any honest discussion of what is happening now. Peru’s present is a constant, often tense, negotiation with its past: like many countries in the region, we live with an archaeological record that testifies to a history of grotesquely violent cultural change. The cemeteries of Puruchuco housed perhaps ten thousand dead and represent a particularly fraught transitional period in South American history: the late years of the Inca Empire, the arrival of the conquistadores, the struggle for what would become Lima. All social classes from the indigenous world were buried here, and most, it seems, died natural, even peaceful, deaths. Many likely died after the first contact, succumbing to new diseases previously unknown in the Americas, and a small group—perhaps seventy or so—were killed, unmistakably the victims of horrific violence, interred in shallow graves, without the ceremony accorded their predecessors. Limbs severed, faces bashed in, chests impaled. It was something new for the area. According to colonial chronicles, a pitched battle was fought around 1536: the Spanish and their indigenous allies versus those indigenous armies loyal to the Incas. These military victories helped consolidate Spanish control over the valley of Lima, safeguarding the fledgling city that would become the administrative center for the entire region.

For many years Puruchuco was essentially empty. There was some farming done in the area, and it was also the source of raw materials used to build up other parts of Lima. Then, the explosive political violence of the 1980s brought wave after wave of refugees to the city, seeking shelter and safety. Most of the residents of Túpac and Portales are from Peru’s southern provinces, where the brutal back-and-forth between the Shining Path and the military was especially fierce. And it goes almost without saying that the people who live here, like most of the poor in Peru, are primarily of indigenous descent. They came escaping violence, to live atop their ancestors, at the inhospitable edge of the capital.

*  *  *  *  

Cock had recommended I look up Filomeno Condor, more commonly known as Gato, a moto-taxi driver who lived in Túpac. Gato was, according to Cock, an expert skull cleaner, the best on the entire project. One Sunday, I took a cab to the moto-taxi stand at the end of the avenue, and asked one of the drivers if he knew him. The young man nodded, and we rode up the hill. I’d been hoping for a break from winter—the weather had given me a nasty cough—and sometimes, while the rest of Lima is buried beneath a thick canopy of clouds, here, closer to the mountains and far from the ocean, the sun shines. But not today. The cold air rushed into the moto-taxi, and everything was damp, the tops of the hills only dimly visible behind the low fog. Lima’s harsh winter weather has been described as a trick played on the Spanish by the indigenous people. Build your city here, they told the Spanish one spring day, knowing that Lima’s long, cloudy winter makes it one of the gloomiest valleys on South America’s Pacific coast.

Closer to the avenue, the solidly constructed cement homes were like those all over the city—squarish, unadorned houses behind high pastel walls topped with barbed wire or broken glass—but the higher up the hill we rode, the poorer the neighborhood became. We drove through Portales, and up into Túpac, past the local school, shut down for two weeks while teachers across the country were on strike. Beside it, a few boys played soccer on a grassless patch of earth. The main road leading up the hill was hard-packed dirt, interrupted by the occasional muddy puddle. I’d been told the digging would soon begin for a project to bring running water and a sewer system to Túpac, and some of the pipes and even machinery lay in the median, alongside the beginnings of a ditch that ran up the slope. This sort of improvement project had been impossible until the archaeological work was finished. You can’t build infrastructure like that in an Inca cemetery. A few days before, as we’d driven this very same road in Cock’s Jeep, I’d asked him where the bodies were found. He smiled, and pointed all around us. Here, he said. Here, here, and here, too. Everywhere.

I found Gato’s house without too much trouble, and in case there was any confusion about who lived there, a moto-taxi was parked out front, conveniently labeled with his nickname. Gato and his brother Florencio came to the door.

I explained who I was, and they both nodded.

El Doctor said you were the best skull cleaner in Puruchuco.”

Gato just smiled.

“It’s true. You must respect him,” Florencio said. He wore his balding black mane in a ponytail. Now he patted his brother on the back. “Call him Señor Gato,” he said, and we all laughed.

Gato seemed content to let his brother speak for the both of them. Yes, most of the neighbors were from the provinces, but not them. We are from Lima, Florencio assured me. The neighborhood was founded in October of 1989—one of the war’s bloodiest years—and Florencio used to say to his brother, how can you live out here? There was nothing around. It wasn’t the edge of the city. It was the very edge of the world.

“Nothing,” Florencio said. “Do you understand?”

I nodded, and he went on. His brother’s nickname is sometimes used in its diminutive form—Gatito—because he’s small and wiry. It made sense. In fact, looking at Filomeno Condor, I was sure there had never been a more appropriate nickname in the entire history of nicknames. Gato indeed had a feline air about him: sharp gray eyes, a narrow forehead, a scruffy black-and-gray beard that grew in whiskerlike. Some unfriendly people had spread rumors that Gato was so named because he ate cats, but Florencio assured me this was not the case. “We don’t do that. The only people who eat cat are in La Victoria,” he said, referring to one of Lima’s historic working-class neighborhoods, just east of the city’s colonial center.

“I love cats,” Gato said, laughing.

The expert skull cleaner didn’t talk much at first, but when he saw that I kept coughing, he invited me inside where it was warmer. There was a Barney doll on the floor, and a tricycle parked next to a large canister of gas. Two deflated birthday balloons hung limply from a nail tacked to the wall. I was offered a seat on a long wooden bench. Gato’s daughter Kayla stood, bent over a red plastic bucket, washing clothes, and around her the dirt floor was soft and damp. A blanket hung from the ceiling, dividing the large room in two, and behind it a tense struggle for control of the television remote was underway. I could hear the channel change every few minutes—soccer to cartoons and back again—and each time, one child’s voice or the other would rise in complaint. Gato and Florencio didn’t seem to notice. Kayla would laugh every time it happened and shout at her younger siblings. She wore a black Nirvana T-shirt. She hoped the strike would end soon, she told me later; she missed school. If all went well, she would graduate next year. Gato and Florencio joined me on the bench. The plywood door was left open a crack, and neighborhood dogs wandered in and out as my hosts told me some of the history of the neighborhood.

We all, to varying degrees, live with the ghosts of our ancestors, but there is nothing quite as stark as digging into the soil beneath you and finding that your neighborhood rests atop a cemetery. How many bodies? Thousands. The way Gato and Florencio described it, the experience sounds like a story the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo might have composed: bodies everywhere, sprouting wild from the soil. When Gato moved to the area, no one had any idea about the burial grounds. Sure, they saw the temple, and the antique walls in the hills, but who could imagine their homes sat above thousands of dead? They just wanted a place to live, free from violence, a place they could call theirs. Then suddenly, you’d be digging to lay the foundation for your home, and they were right there, just below the surface—mummies beneath your feet, everywhere, for blocks around. For people coming from the war zones of the Andes, where bodies buried in shallow graves were neither new nor strange, but terrifyingly common, it must have been especially harrowing. But the first concern, of course, was the land. We knew we had come across something big, Gato said—and that it endangered their claim on the property. People were afraid that the National Institute of Culture might force them to move, and so when the archaeologists came, they decided to negotiate the terms of the dig. Many postponed the construction of their homes while the issue was settled, preferring to live in shacks and lean-tos in the meantime.

Now that the two communities have been excavated and cleared, a building boom is on. As we talked, the hammering was constant. On the walk to the house, I’d seen men mixing cement in front of their homes, and strong-backed boys carrying bags of sand along the streets of Túpac. Just the day before, a new road had been inaugurated down in Portales—dark and black, it snaked through the neighborhood, the stinging chemical smell of newly laid asphalt still lingering. Túpac and Portales are, in this manner, two very ordinary neighborhoods on the outskirts of any South American city. Visit them again in a few years, and the changes will be remarkable: houses with two and three stories will dot the area. There will be more paved roads, and restaurants with neon signs, and discos that stay open deep into the night. There will be pharmacies and evangelical churches. There will be internet cafés on every other corner, and the children will chat with their peers in other countries who live in neighborhoods just like theirs. To bear witness to the white-hot pace of this change is to understand just a bit of the drama of South America. No one is quite sure how this will play out, or how these transformations will affect the region’s politics or culture, its environment or economy, but the change is coming, and it can be fearful or hopeful, depending on how you choose to look at it.

Gato had cleaned skulls because it was a good job, and because he had to get them out of the way—so he could build. He liked it, he told me, but now it was done, and he and other the residents of Túpac could move on to that project the entire city seems to be engaged in—that ceaseless and optimistic labor of plotting out a better life. Gato couldn’t talk long. He had planned to work after lunch, he said, apologizing. He offered me a ride down the hill in his moto-taxi. His wife had a cart down on the avenue, where she sold candy, cigarettes, and juice. Maybe she could give me something for that cough.

I thanked him. Before we all got in the moto-taxi, I asked what it felt like to live on top of a cemetery.

Gato shrugged.

Florencio cleared his throat. He was a bit of a showman, after all. “What my brother means to say is that we’re all afraid that one day someone will build on top of us.”

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