HomeScienceIn Peru, a Fossil-Rich Desert Faces Unruly Development

In Peru, a Fossil-Rich Desert Faces Unruly Development

Millions of years ago, this desert in Peru was a gathering place for incredible sea creatures, such as walking whales, walrus-faced dolphins, and sharks with human-sized teeth. There were even red-feathered penguins and aquatic sloths. These creatures thrived in a shallow lagoon surrounded by hills that still exist today. However, over time, tectonic shifts lifted the land, and humans arrived over 10,000 years ago, bringing with them art, religion, and monumental architecture.

Researchers have been able to piece together this ancient history from the bones and tombs found throughout the Pisco Basin, which is a large area of fossil-rich sediment that stretches across 200 square miles between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific coast of southern Peru. In recent decades, numerous discoveries have been made in the region, with at least 55 new species of marine vertebrates being identified. One of the most remarkable finds to date is Perucetus colossus, a manatee-like whale that is now considered the heaviest known animal to have existed.

Despite the abundance of fossils in the region, paleontologists in Peru are concerned about the threat of unplanned development. In the town of Ocucaje, which serves as the gateway to the Pisco Basin, the desert is rapidly being divided into plots of land for real estate projects, squatter settlements, and chicken farms. New roads have been constructed, and fences and barriers have been erected. This unplanned development not only poses a threat to the natural heritage of the area but also to the cultural heritage, as many subdivisions contain fossils or pre-Columbian sites that should have been protected.

The rapid growth of settlements and land claims has been a challenge to preserving Peru’s ancient ruins, particularly along the arid coast. In Ocucaje, a squatter community has been established on top of a pre-Columbian ceremonial center of the Paracas culture. The area has already been looted by treasure hunters, but shards of ceramics and other artifacts still remain. The lack of available land in the region has fueled settlement claims in unlikely areas.

Ocucaje is known as a crossroads of ancient civilizations, with evidence of the Paracas, Nazca, and Inca cultures present. It is also considered one of the best places in the world for studying the evolution of marine animals. The arid climate has preserved even the colors of feathers and hair filters in fossils. The region is incredibly abundant in fossils, and paleontologists like Mario Urbina Schmitt continue to make new discoveries.

However, the future of Ocucaje remains uncertain. While there have been talks of creating a park in the area for over a decade, progress has been slow. Government officials are still determining which areas should be protected, and real estate projects continue to advertise plots of land without obtaining the necessary permits to ensure the absence of fossils.

Local authorities, such as the mayor of Ocucaje, are concerned that land traffickers may be involved in the rapid development and are calling for stricter measures to protect the region. They fear that without proper preservation efforts, the unique natural and cultural heritage of Ocucaje will be lost.