Isle of Mystery and Lore: Archaeologists and Historians Are Uncovering a Rich Body of Cultural and Natural Heritage on San Lorenzo, off the Coast of Lima, Peru

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What secrets does San Lorenzo hide? Located in the Pacific Ocean only two and a half miles from Peru's capital, Lima, this island has long piqued the interest of scientists and travelers. In 2003, a team of Peruvian researchers from the Project for the Recovery of the Natural and Cultural Heritage of San Lorenzo Island (PASL)--created by the Peruvian Navy with the backing of the Grau Foundation--began a series of excavations on the island. At only five miles long and a little over a mile wide, San Lorenzo is the largest of a group of uninhabited islands--Fronton, Cabinza, and Palomino are the others--clustered just off the coast. However, people along this shoreline have had a special relationship with San Lorenzo since pre-Columbian times. First the island was a cemetery, later a pirate hideout, a guano-extraction site, a sanitary and health station for immigrants at the port of Callao, a concentration camp, and a naval base. It has even been the site of presidential meetings.

One of the PASL team's first finds were the remains of a young man born half a world away.

The year was 1855, and Li You was about to change his life. From the Zinhui district near Guangzhou (Canton), the capital of Guangdong Province, in China, he had just turned twenty when he decided to journey across the Pacific Ocean to Peru. He was leaving China with hopes of creating a better future than the one his country could offer him. China was going through one of its most difficult political and economic times. It had just been defeated by the United Kingdom in the Opium Wars (1839-42)--its first war against a European power. At home, frustrated peasant farmers had found support in the Taiping religious movement (1848-64), which called for an independent, egalitarian state based on Christian rather than Confucian principles and an end to abuses by foreigners. In the midst of these problems, hundreds of thousands of Chinese undertook a massive exodus to various parts of the world where they were forced into manual labor. Some were treated like slaves. They traveled to the Pacific Islands, Australia, the United States, and Latin America, particularly to Panama, Cuba, and Peru. Between 1849 and 1874, some 100,000 of these laborers arrived in Peru.

One of them was a young Cantonese man named Li You.

Li You arrived with an eight-year labor contract specifying that he would be required to do all the work asked of him except that of collecting guano. He would be a low-level servant under the orders of a Peruvian landowner and politician, Domingo Elias. A man of great power and influence, Elias had become Peru's main importer of Chinese laborers. But this young man who had sought a new life in Peru would never work under Elias. Li You died from dysentery, probably contracted during the long trip aboard a ship with deplorable sanitary conditions, and was buried on San Lorenzo.

Two years ago, when Li You's mummified body was first found and examined by the PASL team, forensic doctors Uriel Garcia Caceres and Guido Lombarda concluded that his death was the result of "a depressed immunological system, a case of severe dehydration, malnutrition, and respiratory deficiency." According to archaeologist Jose Antonio Hudtwalcker and anthropologist Jose Pinilla, the project's leaders, Li You's body was found "in an extraordinary state of conservation, along with his clothing." Next to the body was a blue linen bag with unusual objects--a stash of about 150 grams of dried white Chinese olives wrapped in a cotton cloth; a bronze coin probably forged during the time of Emperor Tao Kuang (1821-50); two other coins, one bronze and the other copper, probably made during the reign of Emperor Ch'ienlung (1736-95); a polished bone brush; a wooden domino piece marked with the numbers 5 and 6 on opposite ends; a bundle of twelve sticks cut from bamboo; Chinese bamboo chopsticks; a bamboo support for the chopsticks; a double comb used traditionally for removing lice and nits; a decorative wooden comb; and a , spool of dark thread wrapped around a piece of corncob. …