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Lost (and Found) World

Peru's Ocucaje Desert is known as the most abundant repository of marine fossils on the planet. It's also a preferred destination for legions of sticky-fingered scavengers. Meet the man who has vowed to fight the fossil thieves.

Author Andy Isaacson Photography Andy Isaacson


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Fossil guide Roberto Penny Cabrera in Peru’s Ocucaje Desert


IT’S DUSK BY THE TIME WE REACH Marker 340 on the Pan-American Highway, where it connects with an unpaved road penetrating the Ocucaje Desert. My guide, Roberto Penny Cabrera, turns off the highway here. After several miles he stops the jeep, backs up 50 feet, drives off in another direction, stops again, then wheels the vehicle in disorderly circles over the sand. Satisfied that he’s thrown off anyone who might be trying to follow his tracks, Penny cuts the headlights and we continue on, in search of bones.

Paleontologists use a German word to describe lands like this barren stretch of Peru’s southern coast: lagerstätte, or “resting place.” A palimpsest of extinct and exotic marine animals—red-feathered mega-penguins, marine sloths, whales with legs—lies interred in a former seabed that rose when the Andes were squeezed out of the earth’s crust 140 million years ago. Encompassing more than 7,000 square miles, Peru’s southern desert contains what may be the richest trove of ocean fossils in the world, which has made it a target for rapacious collectors, unscrupulous scientists and legions of black marketeers.

Penny, who’s been exploring this desert for three decades, has an unusually detailed understanding of what’s out here (and, importantly, where it is), a knowledge that he believes brings great responsibility. “Whatever I have in my mind,” he says, “I will take to my grave.” Actually, this isn’t 100 percent true: As a professional guide, Penny makes a living taking people on fossil tours. But he insists he is selective about what he reveals, and to whom.

For this trip, Penny is taking me, along with his 16-year-old son and protégé, Nicky, to some of his more accessible discoveries. “Fossils? Oh, you’ll see thousands of fossils,” Penny says in accented English, steering us up a darkened ridge in the jeep he calls Deborah. Then he switches on the headlights, illuminating the countless chalky skeletal fragments that litter the desert floor around us. “Bones, bones, bones.”

We eventually reach a small plateau, and Penny swings the vehicle around with a flourish so that the headlights fall on a ghostly skull, over 6 feet long, half-buried and trailed by a string of vertebrae. “I’m not a scientist,” he says, killing the engine. “I’m not going to give it a name. I don’t care—it’s a whale, that’s all. But isn’t it beautiful to see, here, in the ground?”

The whale skull is an awesome sight. But in the silence and the glare of halogen lights, the spectacle also takes on a creepy feel, like that of an ancient crime scene. Penny lights a cigarette. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s set up camp.”

FOSSILS, PENNY TELLS ME, have a habit of going missing here. Part of the problem is that Peruvian conservation laws tend to be a little vague. It’s lawful to gather fossils for personal collections but not to remove them from the country, which means, in effect, that half the smuggling process can be carried out in broad daylight. After that, all you need to do is sneak them across the border. Nobody knows the rate at which the Ocucaje’s treasures are being ghosted out of Peru, but in 2010, agents at Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport seized almost 2,000 cultural items protected by law, most of them fossils.

In light of what Penny sees as officials’ indifference—to them, he says, “fossils are a business”—he has established himself as one of the most vocal critics of the government’s track record on protecting fossils. But he’s willing to go even further, sometimes taking matters into his own hands (he claims, for instance, to have collared a French paleontologist who’d been excavating without permission).

You get the sense that this cat-and-mouse game with fossil scavengers is something Penny rather enjoys—along with his image as a desert fox. When my bus arrived in the city of Ica the day before we set out, he approached wearing a safari shirt and fatigues, a long blade tucked into his belt and a cellphone strapped to his wrist. At 57, Penny is tan and sturdy, with blue eyes and a Burt Reynolds mustache. He shook my hand firmly and, seeing my surprise at his presence (I was supposed to call him from the station once I arrived), he explained that he’d had a hunch about what time my bus would get in, and even managed to guess the right gate. He took this as a good omen. “Look at these chicken bumps,” he said, holding up an arm.

Penny descends from Capitán Doctor Gerónimo Luis de Cabrera y Toledo, a Spanish conquistador who founded Ica in 1563. He lives alone, occupying a single room in a semi-decrepit yellow mansion built on Ica’s main square by his grandfather a century ago. His cluttered quarters resemble an archaeologist’s lair: satellite maps on the wall, dusty glass cases containing skulls and teeth, a desktop strewn with rocks. There’s also a teakettle, a mini fridge and a bedpan. On the balcony outside, he keeps a rope tied to the railing so he can make a quick escape in the event of an earthquake.

Penny doesn’t put much stock in domestic comfort—he is most at home outdoors, living simply and quietly. Our first night we dine on ramen, which Nicky prepares, and beans straight from the can. (Even in the city, Penny rarely goes anywhere without beans in his vest pocket and a spoon around his neck.) I drink water to stay hydrated; Penny has a Coke. Reclining in a lawn chair, he lights another cigarette, and—appropriately in these surroundings—starts to ponder life.

Penny explains that he used to own a mining company, earning a good living extracting minerals used in fertilizer. But in the late 1990s, a bridge he relied on to move his product washed out in a flood, wrecking his business and, ultimately, his marriage. He turned to booze. The desert had always held an appeal for him—his mother brought him here as a kid—but during this difficult period he found peace here, and eventually sobered up. The Ocucaje, he says, saved his life.

BY 9 O’CLOCK THE NEXT MORNING, the sun is already raging, giving the landscape the flat brightness of another planet. “You see the ground?” Penny says as we scour an area he knows to be rich in shark teeth. “You’re looking for a reflection. You need to see where wind has brushed. Then you look for plankton, and bones. When you find a bone, look closely. Maybe, just maybe, you find a tooth.”

As I strain my eyes in search of a glint, I try to imagine the scene that might have played out here tens of millions of years ago. Maybe a seal was frolicking in the surf one Miocene afternoon, oblivious to an approaching shark, and then—snap! In the ensuing feast, the shark loses a tooth, which drifts down and buries itself in the sediment. I spot something pointy partially covered by rock bits and broken shells, browned but perfectly intact, maybe 2 inches long. I hold it up. “Found one!”

“Good,” Penny says. “Find a few more of those little teeth, there’s a good chance you’ll find a megalodon.” He’s referring to Carcharodon megalodon, a prehistoric shark that measured 50 feet or more from snout to tail, with teeth up to 8 inches in length (though Penny claims to have uncovered a foot-long tooth once). “If I want to find a megalodon tooth, it takes me one day, two days. But I don’t give up.”

Moving deeper into the desert, Penny guides Deborah over steep dunes and into dun-colored valleys where the process of erosion has made neighbors of creatures that lived eons apart. At a burial ground dating back thousands of years, ossified human remains are strewn around the openings of looted graves. Scavengers have taken the valuable textiles, Penny says, and left the bones. “Who’s the guard here taking care of this!” he shouts, incensed, as a braid of human hair flutters in the breeze.

PENNY HAS A BIT OF A TENDENCY to romanticize the pre-Columbian natives of this desert. “They were wise people, and kind to each other,” he says that night by the campfire. His own family, he tells me, was torn apart by greed and materialism— and those traits are also driving today’s lucrative black market in fossils.

Given the clamor for these relics and the absence of hard-and-fast rules in Peru, it can be tricky to distinguish the good guys from the bad. Penny sees himself as the desert’s most ardent defender, but he isn’t above slipping a tooth into his pocket from time to time. His personal policy is to never dig for fossils, but once they are unearthed naturally, he figures, they’ll return to dust anyway—so it’s either him or the elements. He also makes clear that he never sells the stuff he finds.

One thing’s for sure, though: Penny’s stance on fossil scavenging has made him some enemies. On the final day of my visit, we drive by a whale skeleton that Penny often visits. A nearby rock face has been etched with writing that slanders Penny by name, calling him “thief” and much worse.

Penny appears rattled by these insults; he is particularly upset that Nicky had to see them. We spend the next few hours looking for shark teeth, but something feels off. Penny’s been to this area countless times, and he always comes across something. Today, after combing layer after layer of sedimentary rock, we find nothing. “Gypsum—it doesn’t belong here,” Penny says, pointing to a white powder on the ground. “[Poachers] put it around the fossils to help pull them up.”

The midday heat is unbearable, so I seek shade in Deborah’s passenger seat. But Penny insists on continuing the hunt: He’s noticed whirlwinds sucking up sand on a nearby slope, and wants to investigate. Once there he cries out, holding up a palm-size rock the color of oxidized copper. He pulls out a compass and holds it over the rock. The needle goes haywire. “A meteorite!” he exclaims, doing a celebratory shuffle.

A few minutes later, walking back to the jeep, Nicky points. “Look, Papa!” Lying in plain sight on the coarse gray sand is a 3-inch megalodon tooth. Then Penny spots something else. Not 10 feet from the tooth is a motorcycle track—the mark of the scavenger. Somebody was here before us, and missed the tooth.

“It’s perfect!” Penny cries. “It’s like Mother Earth said at the last moment, OK, guys, this one’s for you. You think it’s a coincidence? Guy should have found it—look at the motorcycle!” His eyes become intense. “This is what blows my mind about this desert world,” he says, throwing his hands to the sky. “Now, my son, compadre, you cannot take the smile off me all of the night!”

ANDY ISAACSON is a New York-based writer and photographer. After four days eating canned tuna and ramen in the desert, he rejoiced over fresh Peruvian ceviche.

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