"Where my foot steps, that is patrimony."
December 12, 2010 8:10 AM   Subscribe

The Ocucaje desert in Peru is one of the richest marine fossil sites in the world. Now that it is starting to draw attention from the outside world, questions are being raised over who should be allowed access to the treasures.

Desert treasures include novel whales, seabirds, meteorites, megalodon teeth, and archeological sites of the Paracas who successfully practiced head binding and brain surgery.

Peru is becoming more aware of the problem (English translation) but it's big business and legal protections are weak.
posted by arabelladragon (2 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I make my own fossils at home.

Actually, I find them at the side of the road in NY. They aren't as big and fancy as the ones in Peru, but there sure are a lot of them.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:21 AM on December 12, 2010

Ugh, so, last time I was in Peru, I unwittingly joined the ranks of these evil smugglers. To wit: I knew that historical artifacts, including but not limited to Inka pottery, were illegal to remove from the country. What I did not know was that the numerous nautilus fossils being sold at every street-side market were also illegal. I saw them for sale openly everywhere in highland Peru, often under the noses of watching policemen. There was one utterly gorgeous fossil that I paused to admire but could not possibly afford (a single slab with three fish...museum-quality) and I did ask that vendor if stuff like this shouldn't be in a museum. He told me nobody cared; archaeological items were important but fossils weren't a big deal.

So, I bought a small nautilus -- there were tons of them for sale as necklaces, but I thought a slightly larger one would make a good gift for my dad, so I got one about six inches across.

Fast-forward a month to me getting pulled off my international flight home by a man who confiscated my passport, led me back past passport control, out past security, and then into the bowels of the airport to a holding room, where I was asked to empty my bag under the steely eyes of five uniformed authorities of some kind.

So, I had no idea what was going on, here, and nobody was explaining, and my Spanish is very rusty, but I gathered I'd packed something I shouldn't have, and I was in very deep shit for it.

I did have a panicked, wild idea that somebody had planted cocaine in my bag (which I'd left at the hostel while sightseeing, my final day in Lima). I *knew* I was about to spend the rest of my natural life rotting in a Peruvian prison for something or other. (Pro-tip: Don't watch Jailed Abroad shortly before your international flight.) I started removing socks, bras, underwear... I decided that they must want the big hunk of turquoise I'd bought at the same market where I'd gotten that nautilus. I pulled it out hopefully.

"Nice rock," said one of the men. "We don't care about rocks."

Okay, so that wasn't what they wanted. I kept looking, increasingly desperate, increasingly convinced I was about to unearth somebody else's pound bag of marching powder. In desperation, I pulled out a bootleg DVD of Hindi film songs I'd bought for two soles in Cusco. "Es el problema?" I asked in my broken Spanish.

...Which made a couple of them break into chuckles and a third sigh and whip out a flyer of prohibited items deemed important to the natural patrimony, at which point I saw the huge drawing of a nautilus and realized in a cold wave of horror that I was a danger to the national patrimony. I unearthed it and handed it over with a dozen horrified apologies, which they waved off; apparently it's pretty common for tourists to buy these things without a clue that they're banned. The signs forbidding the purchase or export of ancient pottery and historical artifacts are *everywhere,* but I'd never once encountered any information about fossils.

So, yeah. I felt like a total idiot -- because it's really my responsibility to make sure I'm not breaking any laws of the country in which I'm visiting -- and was very grateful when my erstwhile interrogators complimented my Spanish, my taste in lingerie, and urged me to come back to Peru soon! "Que tenga un buen viaje," they said cheerfully as they escorted me back to the plane.


Anyway, I wish this NYT article had come out about six months ago. It would have saved me a white hair or two.
posted by artemisia at 2:51 PM on December 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

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