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Remains of 19th-Century Chinese Laborers Found at a Pyramid in Peru

Between 1849 and 1874, more than 100,000 workers traveled from China to Peru, where they faced discrimination and abuse

An archeologist works at the site where 16 tombs belonging to 19th-century Chinese immigrants were discovered, at Huaca Bellavista in Lima, Peru. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
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Thousands of years ago, indigenous groups living on the Pacific coast of Peru built towering adobe pyramids, which functioned as religious centers and tombs for elite members of society. Long after these groups ceased to exist, their adobe pyramids, or huacas, were used once again—not by native Peruvians, not by Spanish colonists, but by 19th-century Chinese workers.

As Reuters reports, archaeologists working in Lima recently found the remains of 16 Chinese laborers at the top of the pyramid of Bellavista, a pre-Inca site. The deceased had been buried in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and likely worked at a nearby cotton plantation.

It is not the first time that such a discovery has been made; archaeologists have unearthed the remains of Chinese workers at other adobe pyramids in Lima. These finds testify to the mass wave of migrants who traveled from China to South America in the latter half of the 19th century, reports Dorean K. Collins of NBC News. According to Milenio, a national newspaper in Mexico, some 80,000 to 100,000 people made the journey—often by force.

“Many were kidnapped or tricked into enduring a 120 day journey on boats referred to as infiernos flotantesor ‘floating hells,’” Collins writes.

More than 100,000 of these unfortunate laborers landed in Peru, Justina Hwang explains on the website of Brown University Library. At the time, Peru was experiencing high international demand for sugar and cotton, but its industries were stunted following Great Britain's termination of its slave trade to Peru in 1810. Then, in 1854, Peru abolished slavery for good. To fill the void, the government passed a law subsidizing the importation of foreign contract workers.

Many of these workers came from China, where political unrest had created large populations of displaced people in need of work. Once in Peru, they labored on cotton and sugarcane plantations, mined guano, and built railroads. But life abroad was harsh, and often miserable. According to Hwang, “racist views about [the] unworthiness of the Chinese race prevailed,” in spite of Peru’s dependence on foreign workers. Between 1849 and 1876, almost half of the Chinese workers who were brought to the country, died from exhaustion, mistreatment or suicide.

The remains at the Bellavista huaca suggest that over time, circumstances did improve for some laborers. The first 11 bodies were wrapped in a simple cloth before they were placed in the ground, but the later ones were found inside wooden coffins, dressed in colorful jackets. One person had even been buried with a ceramic vessel and an opium pipe.

Overall, however, the Chinese in Peru “had a horrible life,” as archaeologist Marco Valderrama told reporters, according to Collins of NBC News.

The burial location of the 16 laborers hints at the marginalization they experienced. According to Reuters, Chinese workers were typically not allowed to bury their dead in Catholic cemeteries, forcing them to turn to ancient, sacred sites.

Editor's note, August 30, 2017: Due to a mistranslation in aggregated source material, this article has been updated to reflect that in the latter half of the 19th century, 80,000 to 100,000 people—not 80 t0 100 million people—made the journey from China to South America.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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