Destruction at archaeological sites following Dakar Rally
Car race causes “irremediable damage” in Chile and Argentina
By Lucian Harris. Web only
Published online: 09 September 2009
Delhi. Irreversible damage to a number of important archaeological sites in Chile and Argentina has been caused by the Dakar Rally, an annual off-road automobile race held in South America for the first time in January, in spite of persistent warnings from archaeologists and environmentalists both before and during the event. The extent of the damage emerged from a report submitted to the Chilean government by the National Monuments Council in early July. Expanding on preliminary findings published after the race in February, the report—extracts from which were published in the Santiago Times—claims that “irremediable damage” sustained at six archaeological sites could have been avoided if recommendations issued by the council in 2008 had been followed.
The world famous 15-day race, run along a notoriously tough course that originally started in Paris and finished in Dakar, Sudan, is contested by around 500 vehicles ranging from motorbikes to 4WDs and rally cars. The French organiser Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) decided to move the rally to South America in 2009 after the threat of terrorist and rebel attacks caused its cancellation in 2008.
The response to the rally in South America has been very positive, with plans already well underway for a repeat running in 2010. With ASO claiming that the rally brought a total of $74.5m in sales and profits to Chile and Argentina, most of the archaeologists and environmentalists who have voiced their concerns about the rally have accepted that cancellation is an unlikely prospect—and that the threat to sites can best be minimised by ensuring that the route is thoroughly surveyed beforehand in close cooperation with the organisers. Other voices have been more forthright about the impact. “This [race] is absolutely illegal,” said Carlos Aldunate, director of Chile’s Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, to the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio. “If you destroy an archaeological site, you destroy a national monument.”
According to the National Monuments Council’s report, four of the sites that sustained damage are in the region of Atacama and two are in the region of Coquimbo, around 500km north of Santiago. The report focused specifically on Pelican Creek, near the town of La Higuera in Coquimbo, where a team of council archaeologists discovered a pre-Columbian hunter-gatherer camp, half of which had been destroyed by the race. The vehicles destroyed stone implements such as knives, arrowheads, spear points and scrapers as well as fragments of ceramics and shells, human bones, and rock structures dating between 9000BC and 1500AD. According to Óscar Acuña, the executive secretary of the council, only 120km or 10% of the route had actually been inspected and it was possible that more instances of damage could emerge.
The issue of protecting the archaeological sites in the Atacama Desert has not been focused exclusively on the Dakar Rally. At the time the rally was held in January, Sergio Cortes, a local ranger and tour operator, told authorities that in the Tarapacá region south of Iquique, the Alto Yape geoglyphs and the remarkable dunes that preserve 18,000-year-old wind patterns had already been seriously damaged by 4WD tourist vehicles and off-road driving enthusiasts. The Atacama Desert’s 5,000 or more prehistoric geoglyphs are massive images depicting humans, animals and geometric patterns made from stones and pebbles on the flat desert, which mysteriously seem only to be properly legible when seen from the air.
Cortes said that vehicles had left tyre tracks all over the geoglyphs, some of which were being studied by British archaeologists who had asked him to keep their locations secret, but he now believes that if the locations of these geoglyphs were revealed it would be easier to ensure proper measures for their protection.
Speaking to the Santiago Times, Dakar Rally representative for Northern Chile Jose Cornejo said that the problem with 4WD tourist vehicles and off-road sports enthusiasts could not be levelled at the rally organisers, who had in fact reduced the 12th stage by 33km when it was realised that it was set to cross archaeological sites.
A major factor, he said, was the lack of infrastructure and the absence of markings to show tourists the exact locations of the geoglyphs. Chilean rally driver Rodrigo “Yiyo” Illanes reiterated the problem, telling the Santiago Times that although a strong code of ethics prevents them from going near the geoglyphs and other archaeological sites, there are often no indications of where the sites are, and it was of great importance that they should be mapped out before the next rally. “Sometimes the sites simply can’t be seen,” he said. “At other times there is very thick fog in the desert and you can only see five or six metres ahead of you.”
Concerns have also been raised that the geoglyphs might be threatened by mining in the region, and the National Monuments Council has announced an investigation to determine if this is indeed the case, with any mining company responsible for the welfare of sites in areas being worked. In early 2009, mining company Doña Inés de Collahuasi spent $143,500 to preserve the “Geoglifos de Pintados” in the Tarapaca region.
A similar struggle has been waged by environmentalists who fear for the unique desert flowers that grow just beneath the surface of the sand. They also object to the way that the rally encourages and promotes the use of gas-guzzling, high-emission 4WD vehicles.
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