Peru’s Lovely Bones

The Ocucaje Desert holds some of the most important fossils in the world—and Roberto Cabrera is standing guard


| September-October 2010



Peru's Lovely Bones Image

Morgan Stetler / imorgan.com

I am investigating the skull of a huge toothy beast on the rocky slope of a dun mountain when I hear Roberto cry out. I look over to see him doing a shuffle in the dust, tan arms held above his head—the lone spot of motion on the mountain’s stony face. He gathers us around so we can see what he has found: the fossilized tooth of a megalodon shark, one of the most fearsome killers in the planet’s history. The tooth is a six-inch dagger, gleaming white.

It’s our second day deep in the Ocucaje Desert in the Ica region of southern Peru. Photographer Morgan Stetler, Sergio Tueros Grimaldo (a 17-year-old spending his summer vacation studying extinct sharks), and I have traveled here with our guide, Roberto Penny Cabrera, in search of fossils.

For eons, this land was the bed of a shallow bay off the coast of South America. The water teemed with life: whales, dolphins, giant penguins, crocodiles, and the megalodon, a 60-foot-long whale-eating shark, which disappeared some 1.5 million years ago. Now the landscape looks like Mars. Wind-formed hills of crumbling stone and dunes of fine sand enclose basins of shiny polished pebbles that appear to have been sorted by size: small ones here, larger ones over there. And the remains of all the creatures that once swam now lie buried in the stone.

The fossils make the region one of the most important paleon­tological areas in the world. Yet the Peruvian government offers the desert no legal protection. Fossils—taken by unscrupulous scientists and local scavengers and sold to collectors and museums—have become lucrative exports.

Our guide, Roberto, sees himself as the desert’s only protector, and for the most part he’s right. Behind the wheel of Hermelinda, his trusty and heavily modified black-and-olive Datsun diesel pickup, he cruises the trackless desert sands like one of the lonely, indefatigable desert foxes that live there.