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El Niño and the Archaeological Record in Northern Peru

Daniel H. Sandweiss

As reports of flooding, disease, and crop failure reached the central government in Lima, officials responded in typical bureaucratic fashion: They prepared two questionnaires and sent an inspector up north to find out what had happened. Witnesses spoke of whole villages washed away by the waters, people forced to take refuge on the high hills and huacas (pyramid mounds) or to flee to other regions, and plants rotting in the field or devoured by plagues of mice and insects. Local farmers pleaded for tax relief until they could rebuild and recover. The year was 1580, and northern Peru was still reeling from the first major El Niño of the Colonial Period, in 1578 [F. de Alcocer, (1580) 1987, Probanzas de indios y españoles referentes a las catastróficas lluvias de 1578, en los corregimientos de Trujillo y Saña. Transcribed by Lorenzo Huertas Vallejos. In Ecología e Historia. Chiclayo: CES Solidaridad]. Until this past year, El Niño has continued to strike the Peruvian north coast without warning and with similar consequences.

Tucume Huaca, non-Niño year
Tucume Huaca, non-Niño year

El Niño is an interannual climate perturbation linked to weather disturbances throughout the world. It was first recognized and named on the coast of northern Peru and southern Ecuador. El Niño brings warmer sea surface temperatures to the Andean coasts, reducing the normally high biological productivity of coastal waters while also causing torrential, often disastrous, rainfall on the normally arid coastal lowlands (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1994, Reports to the Nation: El Niño and Climate Prediction. Washington DC: NOAA. Available on the Web at, S. G. Philander, 1990, El Niño, La Niña, and the Southern Oscillation. San Diego: Academic Press). Strong El Niño events have occurred several times each century at least for the last 5,000 years (D. H. Sandweiss, J. B. Richardson III, E. J. Reitz, H. B. Rollins, and K. A. Maasch, 1996, Geoarchaeological Evidence from Peru for a 5000 Years B.P. Onset of El Niño. Science 273: 1531-1533). For some time now, climatologists and archaeologists have paid attention to these events, but it is only during the past year that El Niño has become a household term throughout the world.

Tucume Huaca, 1998
Tucume Huaca, 1998

The 1997-1998 El Niño was climatologically similar to many earlier occurrences, but for the first time, a major event was successfully predicted months in advance. The Peruvian government (among others) was able to initiate some mitigation efforts in advance of the floods, so the consequences of this El Niño were different from prior events. Some of these consequences involve Peru's cultural patrimony.

El Niño affects Peruvian archaeological sites in many ways. Torrential rain in the north Peruvian desert directly erodes the surfaces of sites, especially those with positive or negative topographical relief, such as mounds or depressions. Looters' pits (and archaeological excavations that have not been backfilled or roofed) are focal points for edge erosion and pooled water that soaks into the soil and accelerates destruction of many remains. Runoff from the rainfall causes flash floods, leading to erosion along drainage paths. Overbank flooding in the coastal valleys inundates sites and affects their contents. The increased available moisture causes vegetation to flourish in the desert, and roots of these plants may further damage archaeological deposits. Finally, as Michael Mosely has pointed out (M. E. Moseley, D. Warner, and J. B. Richardson III,1992, Space Shuttle Imagery of Recent Catastrophic Change along the Arid Andean Coast. In Paleoshorelines and Prehistory, edited by L. L. Johnson and M. Stright, pp. 215-235. CRC Press, Boca Raton), where El Niño floods deposit massive volumes of sediment at the coast (e.g., Río Santa), sand is entrained in the constant onshore winds. As sand sheets move inland, sites and even landscapes on the southern, downwind sides of valleys can be covered within a few decades.

In 1578 and presumably in all major events before and after, flood victims relocated onto huacas and other high points that often have archaeological remains (W. E. Copson and D. H. Sandweiss, Native and Spanish Perspectives on the 1578 El Niño. 1997 Chacmool Conference Proceedings, University of Calgary, in press). These temporary Niño camps can last for over a year and occasionally, they become permanent settlements. Inhabitants of these settlements carry out activities that affect the underlying archaeological deposits. In the 1982-1983 El Niño, informants in the Lambayeque and Zaña valleys used the same terms as their early Colonial predecessors to describe their relocation actions, exemplified by the 1983 relocation of La Raya village on the east side of Túcume, a late prehispanic site in the Lambayeque valley. With the agricultural infrastructure in a shambles and reduced marine productivity undermining fishing, out-of-work villagers in Lambayeque and other north coast valleys often turned to looting archaeological sites in an attempt to make a living.

Even for archaeology, however, El Niño's clouds do have a silver lining. First, erosion channels through sites offer interior views generally impossible to achieve with standard excavation techniques and funding levels. An example is Carlos Elera's work at Huaca La Merced, part of the Batán Grande complex in the Lambayeque valley. Following the 1982-1983 event, Elera rescued two partially disturbed tombs and resolved stratigraphic and construction issues (see pp. 335-337, I. Shimada, 1990, Cultural Continuities and Discontinuities on the Northern North Coast. In The Northern Dynasties: Kingship and Statecraft in Chimor, edited by M. E. Moseley and A. Cordy-Collins, pp. 297-392. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC). Second, temporary Niño camps as well as sites permanently abandoned or initially settled during an event provide potential analogs for recognizing and understanding the archaeological signature of human response to El Niño. In the Zaña valley of northern Peru, the village of Lagunitas has moved twice in this century, following the 1925 and 1982-1983 events. The three villages (pre-1925, 1925-1982, and 1983-present) are spatially discrete and made of different materials: quincha (wattle and daub), cement-floored adobe, and cement. These sites could be studied through documents, informant interviews, and excavations to gain insight into how El Niño's effects are recorded in the ground.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to tour the Lambayeque valley briefly in the wake of the most recent El Niño. I was particularly interested in what had happened at Túcume, a site I had worked for many years (T. Heyerdahl, D. H. Sandweiss, and A. Narváez, 1995, Pyramids of Túcume. Thames & Hudson, New York). Widely disseminated by email, a Peruvian newspaper story had reported the collapse of part of Huaca 1 (the tallest mound at Túcume), revealing the painted interior face of an earlier structure. When I reached Túcume on July 13, 1998, I was fortunate to find Alfredo Narváez, the resident archaeologist and my former fellow director of the Túcume Archaeological Project, along with his principal assistant Bernarda Delgado. As we walked around the site together, I was immediately struck by the unaccustomed vegetation that had sprouted on and between the mounds, much of it already brown and dying only a few months after the rains. Moving across the site, Narváez explained what had happened over the last year.

A majority of climate models had predicted a strong El Niño more than six months before the rains began in northern Peru, and the central government decided to act on this warning. The Ministry of Industry, Tourism, Integration, and International Commercial Negotiation (MITINCI) provided funds for the protection of north coast archaeological sites of tourist value. Huaca de la Luna and Chan Chan in the Moche valley, El Brujo in the Chicama valley, and Sipán and Túcume in the Lambayeque valley were among the north coast archaeological sites of tourist value eligible for MITINCI funding. In August 1997, Narváez presented a mitigation plan for Túcume to MITINCI and was awarded 140,000 soles (about $50,000) to clean and channel the gullies already cutting through the site, cover some excavated areas such as the Huaca Las Balsas and its mud friezes with clay-rich dirt, roof the large, open excavations on Huaca 1 and Huaca Larga, and improve the roof on the site museum, offices, and storage rooms.

Conducted under Delgado's direction while Narváez was on a fellowship in England, the work was completed prior to the onset of the rains. It was quite successful in protecting the roofed and covered areas, and little new erosion seems to have occurred along the cleaned gullies. The site covers over 200 ha, and it was of course impossible to protect most of it directly. The Túcume huacas are all covered with erosion channels from El Niño rains over the last 500-1000 years, and 5 m of eroded sediments from the mound face have accumulated on the north side of Huaca 1. However, my impression is that where undisturbed by looting or excavation, these mounds have reached hydrological equilibrium and little further erosion now occurs. This claim is worth investigating to improve future mitigation plans at sites like Túcume.

Regarding the newspaper report on the destruction of Huaca 1, Delgado said it was simply wrong--a few small segments of adobe facing had collapsed, revealing nothing underneath them nor posing a threat to the structural integrity of the mound. By and large, Túcume fared quite well during El Niño. Although flow rates in the rivers of Lambayeque at times surpassed the 1982-1983 maximum flow, government projects to channel water out of the cultivated sectors of the valley were successful in preventing massive overbank flooding near Túcume, as had occurred in 1982-1983, in 1578, and presumably in other strong events.

Not all of Lambayeque's archaeological patrimony fared as well as Túcume or Sipán, which also was adequately protected. No funds were available to safeguard sites that were not on the tourist circuit. The Batán Grande complex, where Izumi Shimada and his colleagues have worked for many years, was badly damaged. According to newspaper reports and to Carlos Wester, an archaeologist at the Brüning National Museum in Lambayeque, at least one site on the south side of the Lambayeque valley was totally destroyed by flooding of the Río Reque. Prior to El Niño, Huaca El Taco lay some 300 m from the river. After the first erosion episode in March, a team from the Brüning Museum started test excavations on this late prehispanic mound, which measured about 30 x 60 m and was 22 m high. The next day, the river washed away most of the remaining structure.

Under the direction of Walter Alva, the Brüning Museum is responsible for cultural patrimony throughout Lambayeque Department. Although they received government grants to mitigate El Niño at major sites such as Sipán, an unforeseen consequence of the event was a serious drop in visitors to the museum. The resulting loss of income has forced the museum to seek other funding for daily operations and to cease its normal investigations.

According to John Dickson, a U.S. Embassy information officer in Lima, the embassy became concerned with the broad impact of El Niño on the Peruvian economy and on the lives of Peruvian citizens in early 1998. Spurred in part by the news report of destruction at Túcume, they included the cultural patrimony in their discussions. Ambassador Dennis Jett wrote to the SAA Bulletin [D. C. Jett, 1998, 16(3): 3] alerting Society members to the ongoing damage, and many archaeologists also were contacted by email. United States Information Service (USIS) personnel held a series of meetings with archaeologists and officials from Peru's National Institute of Culture, and Connie Stromberg of USIS became the coordinator for these efforts. Among her activities was the compilation of a list of sites throughout Peru known to have been affected by El Niño between late 1997 and May 1998.

Although the embassy had no direct funds available, USIS personnel offered to help broker applications to international agencies such as the World Bank. The Lima office of UNESCO agreed to handle any funds that might be acquired. In May, Walter Alva presented a proposal for "protection and conservation of the archaeological patrimony affected by El Niño in the Lambayeque Region" for the embassy to forward to appropriate agencies. Alva listed the project's major benefits: In addition to preserving important segments of the remaining archaeological record, the project would employ many of the local people hardest hit by El Niño. When I left Peru in late July, however, funds had not yet been secured.

The previous high-impact El Niño, in 1982-1983, caused over $8 billion of damage to the global economy (NOAA 1994). Final dollar figures on the impact of El Niño 1997-1998 are not yet available, but the effects on world economy, ecology, and cultural patrimony were certainly severe. As usual, the central Andean nations bore a large share of these costs. But this event was different in one crucial way from all prior Niños: Accurate predictions were available with enough anticipation for some effective mitigation. Decisions, however, needed to be made on how to allocate scarce funds, and the Peruvian government should be lauded for including cultural patrimony among its priorities. Protected sites such as Túcume escaped relatively unscathed. Other sites of lower economic priority, such as Huaca El Taco, were damaged or erased from the archaeological record.

Peru's archaeological resources, like those all over the world, are under constant threat. The situation worsens during El Niño, which augments virtually every source of danger to the cultural patrimony: Increased erosion, enhanced wetting and drying cycles, temporary and permanent settlement expansion, greater poverty resulting in looting as an economic necessity for local people, new construction during rebuilding, and so on. Such destruction cannot be new. El Niño is not only a component in scenarios for cultural change, it also is a critical formation process for the local archaeological record.

El Niño 1997-1998 offers valuable lessons for the future of Peru's cultural patrimony. We need more than the anecdotal information provided here--we require critical studies of how climate predictions were transmitted and employed at various levels; of the processes by which local, regional, and international agencies reached decisions and channeled funds for mitigation efforts; of how agricultural and other mitigation projects such as regional drainage systems had unexpected consequences--positive and negative--for archaeological sites; of which on-site conservation techniques were effective and which were not. Taking proper advantage of the recent event will require an interdisciplinary collaboration among archaeologists, geomorphologists, climatologists, political scientists, and economists--at the least. If the trend of the last 20 years continues, El Niño will return ever more frequently. The more we learn from the recent event, the better prepared we will be for the next one.

Daniel H. Sandweiss is assistant professor of anthropology and quaternary studies at the University of Maine. All photographs in this article were taken by Sandweiss.

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