A small drone soars above an arid countryside, scanning the ground below in search of irregularities, signs of life and any secrets the landscape will give away.
While this could be a scene from a U.S. military mission somewhere in Yemen or along the Afghani-Pakistani border, it’s actually in Peru. Instead of hellfire missiles these drones are equipped with camera gear, and instead of hunting terrorists the unmanned aerial vehicle is looking for archaeological sites … and in some cases illegal miners, squatters and builders.
The drones have helped researchers in the Andean nation construct 3-D maps of ancient Incan and pre-Incan archaeological sites and at a record-setting pace – within days or weeks instead of months or years.
"With this technology, I was able to do in a few days what had taken me years to do," said Luis Jaime Castillo, a Peruvian archaeologist with Lima's Catholic University and an incoming deputy culture minister, told Reuters. “We have always wanted to have a bird's-eye view of where we are working."
Speed, scientists argue, is key to preserving the country’s ancient places. As Peru’s economy grows at a rapid pace of on average 6.5 percent, development has taken on new bounds and gone unchecked in some areas of the country.
"We see them as a vital tool for conservation," Ana Maria Hoyle, an archaeologist with the Peruvian culture ministry, said about the drones. She added that the Peruvian government has plans to buy several more drones and hopes that these will speed up the process of determining whether or not land slated for development contains any cultural artifacts.
Drones have already surveyed archaeological sites in Peru this year, including the 13,123 feet colonial Andean town Machu Llacta.
While Incan ruins are the main tourist attractions in Peru, archaeologists are also very excited about the earlier chapters of the country’s pre-colonial past. Earlier this summer, a team of Polish and Peruvian archaeologists found 63 bodies in a pre-Inca mausoleum 1,200 years old in the northern Ancash region, the Antamina mining complex said.
According to the researchers, 57 of the bodies were noblewomen of the Wari culture, who were buried in funerary bundles with more than 1,200 objects of gold, silver, bronze, bone, wood, textile, ceramic and gourd.
The other six bodies are thought to have been ritually sacrificed and thrown upon the bundles to close the funerary chamber, which was then covered with some 33 tons of small stones, the daily El Comercio said.
The discovery was made in an area called Castillo de Huarmey, a place far from the center of Wari culture, which was in the southern region of Ayacucho.
Despite the recent publicity, Peru’s annual archaeology budget is only around $4.6 million and the culture ministry struggles to protect its 13,000 plus archaeological sites from development and illegal occupation.
“When a site is not properly demarcated, it is illegally occupied, destroyed, wiped from the map," said Blanca Alva, an official with the ministry.
EFE contributed to this report.