Connect to share and comment

Is Venezuela flooding an unexplored holy site?

Archeologists may never solve the mysteries of a pre-Columbian indigenous site if Venezuela goes ahead with a plan to create a hydroelectric dam.

Whatever its origins, there seems to be little doubt that the site was used by the local indigenous people: lithic axes and a clay grinder were discovered nearby.

Tachira, which borders with Colombia, is rich in archaeological sites. Duran is also investigating a 2,300-year-old village consisting of 30 terraces of houses at Queniquea, a site that she calls “the Macchu Picchu of Venezuela.” The site has been declared a site of cultural interest by the Institute of National Patrimony, a status that should guarantee its protection.

But whether archaeologists will ever be able to solve El Porvenir’s mysteries hangs in the balance. The government has earmarked the valley as the site for a 20-square-kilometer reservoir. With Venezuela undergoing its worst electricity crisis in history, plans to flood the valley and build a new power plant are scheduled to begin by 2011.

“We have various archaeological missions planned to go there with the aim firstly of analyzing the remains there and secondly what can be rescued before the flooding,” said Juan Barillas, president of the state company that manages western Venezuela’s hydroelectric dams.

El Porvenir’s survival is further threatened by the fact that the Venezuelan army has been using the surrounding forest as target practice. Just a couple of hundred yards from the site, three-foot craters can be found and pieces of shrapnel are embedded in the trees, some of which have been torn apart by what locals said sounded like cannon fire.

And even if the stones at El Porvenir are transported elsewhere, Duran believes a crucial piece of the jigsaw in mapping Venezuela’s indigenous history will be lost forever when the valley is submerged underwater. “That signs of a settlement nearby could be discovered should not be ruled out," she said. "The actual site is what really tells you something."