The Very Edge of the World

Article excerpt

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 trafficchoked 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.

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. Tupac 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. …