After surviving 5,000 years, the oldest archaeological site in the Americas is under threat from squatters who claim the coronavirus pandemic has left them no choice but to conquer the holy city.
The situation became so bad that archaeologist Ruth Shady, who discovered the site of Caral in Peru, was threatened with death if she did not give up the investigation of her treasures.
Indiscriminate invasions and destruction began in March when the pandemic imposed a nationwide lockdown, archaeologists told an AFP team visiting Karal.
"There are people who come and invade this site, which is the property of the state, and use it for planting," archaeologist Daniel Maita told AFP.
"It's very harmful because they destroy 5,000-year-old cultural evidence."
Caral is located in the valley of the Subi River about 182 kilometers (110 miles) north of the capital, Lima, and 20 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Originating between 3000 and 1800 BC in a barren desert, Caral is the cradle of civilization in the Americas.
Its people were contemporaries of Pharaonic Egypt and the civilizations of Mesopotamia.
Its history dates back to before the well-known Inca Empire 45 centuries ago.
None of that mattered to the occupiers, who took advantage of minimal police surveillance during the 107 days of lockdown to seize 10 hectares of the Chupacigarro archaeological site and grow avocados, fruit trees and beans.
"The families don't want to leave," said Maita, 36.
“We explained to them that this site is a (UNESCO) World Heritage Site and that what they are doing is dangerous and could see them go to prison.”
Shadi is the director of the Karal Archaeological District and has been managing investigations since 1996 when the excavations began.
It says land dealers - who illegally occupy or protect state land to sell for personal gain - are behind the invasions.
"We receive threats from people who are taking advantage of the epidemiological conditions to occupy and invade archaeological sites to set up huts and plow the land with machines... They destroy everything they come across," Shadi said.
“One day they called our lawyer and told him they would kill him with me and bury us five meters underground” if archaeological work on the site continued.
Shadi, 74, has spent the last quarter of a century in Caral trying to bring to life the social history and legacy of civilization, such as how the building techniques they used have withstood earthquakes.
“These 5,000-year-old structures have remained stable until the present and structural engineers from Peru and Japan will apply this technology,” Shadi said.
The Karal people understood that they live in a seismic zone.
Their structures were filled with baskets with stones at the base that softened the movement of the earth and prevented the building from collapsing.
The threats forced Shadi to live in Lima under protection.
She was awarded the Order of Merit by the government last week for her services to the nation.
"We are doing everything we can to ensure that neither your health nor your life is endangered by the effects of the threats you receive," Peruvian President Francisco Sagaste told her during the ceremony.
Karal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009.
It stretches over 66 hectares and is dominated by seven stone pyramids that seem to light up when the sun's rays fall on them.
It is believed that the civilization was peaceful and did not use weapons nor fences.
Caral was closed due to the pandemic, reopened to tourists in October and only costs $3 a visit.
During the lockdown, several artifacts were looted in the area and in July police arrested two people for the partial destruction of a site containing mummies and ceramics.