Gene Savoy plunged into the Peruvian jungle half a century ago in search of the fabled El Dorado, a lost Incan city so wealthy that its king reputedly walked coated in gold dust...
Gene Savoy plunged into the Peruvian jungle half a century ago in search of the fabled El Dorado, a lost Incan city so wealthy that its king reputedly walked coated in gold dust.
For months at a time Savoy tromped through mountain terrain that local Indians were reluctant to enter. He was bitten by snakes, lost in the jungle and once nearly lynched by irate campesinos.
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Now semiretired, Savoy never found El Dorado. But he became the world’s foremost chronicler of a forgotten civilization known as the Chachapoya — and a blight to traditional archaeologists.
Savoy, 79, is among the last of a dying breed — the swashbuckling adventurer whose devil-be-damned expeditions plow through the world’s rain forests in search of lost history.
“I would rather die out there than not explore,” he said from his hillside home overlooking Reno, Nev.
Lean and lanky, with a bandito mustache and a Stetson hat, he looks like a character out of a 1930s adventure movie.
He probably has seen more Chachapoya architecture than anyone, discovering, by his account, more than 40 ancient cities. The Peruvian government gave him a medal, the Order of the Gran Pajaten, for bringing attention to a region once thought archaeologically barren.
People magazine has called him the “real Indiana Jones.”
Real archaeologists agree — and some wouldn’t mind if a rolling boulder chased him through a cave.
“Savoy’s involvement in the Chachapoya saga clouds the scientific issues, attracts a lot of crackpots and scares off serious researchers who don’t want to constantly have to deal with Savoy’s tedious legacy of lost cities/El Dorado fantasies and delusions,” said archaeologist Keith Muscutt of the University of California, Santa Cruz.
For many archaeologists, Savoy’s exploits are the source of endless annoyance. They see him as a charlatan who steals credit from genuine scientists and makes highly publicized forays that damage sites and attract looters.
Archaeologists — a group Savoy often dismisses as “fuddy-duddy academics” — go to a site and carefully document what they find, preserving artifacts and building a theory to explain their discoveries. Explorers, such as Savoy, have a preconceived theory and go smashing through the forest in search of proof.
Most archaeologists spend years working at a site and report their findings in journals and at scientific conferences. Explorers announce their discoveries to the press, then go on to the next expedition.
“Exploring is the key,” Savoy said. “The scientist tells you what you found, but you have to find it in the first place. … Let the scientists come in later.”
The tension between Savoy and the archaeological establishment has unfolded in one of the most forbidding places in the world — a spot in northern Peru known as Ceja de Selva — the Eyebrow of the Jungle.
As much as 150 inches of rain may fall each year. The mountains reach above 10,000 feet, and the jungle grows so thick that ruins only feet away can remain hidden.
“Imagine the Amazon jungle stretched over the Rocky Mountains,” University of Florida archaeologist Michael Moseley said.
For at least 800 years, until the late 15th century, the Chachapoya — called the Cloud People by the Incas — amassed an extensive empire in the high Andes, building large cities, controlling complex trade routes and practicing a little-understood form of shamanism.
The better-known Maya and Incas recognized them as tall, light-skinned, preternaturally fierce warriors.
Nobody knows where the Chachapoya originated, but they began to spread through the Ceja de Selva about 1,300 years ago, reaching a population of about 500,000. They built cities on mountaintops.
The Chachapoya’s downfall began around 1470, when the Incas began a war of conquest against them, resulting in their subjugation. The Spanish soon came and conquered the Incas. Infectious diseases brought by Europeans ultimately killed as many as 98 percent of the Cloud People.
Savoy never had heard of the Chachapoya when he arrived in Peru in 1957. All he saw was a vast, unexplored territory where he thought a bold person with little formal training might make an impact.
His dream, like that of others before him, was to find El Dorado — a city deep in the rain forest that some believed held the Incas’ treasures.
He had been the editor of a small newspaper in suburban Portland, but he spent his spare time studying Asian religions and ancient cultures. When his marriage broke down and the newspaper failed, Savoy, then 31, hopped a plane to Peru.
He supported himself by writing stories for the English-language Peruvian Times. In his spare time, he put his journalistic skills to work delving into the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega and other Spanish missionaries who chronicled the last days of the Chachapoya and Incas. He interviewed Augustinian monks, who showed him records of attempts to convert the natives to Catholicism five centuries earlier.
By 1965, he thought he knew the location of the lost city of Vilcabamba, where Incan ruler Manco Inca and his people fled to escape the Spanish invaders.
He convinced Peruvian government officials and private donors that he knew where to look, and he set off with more than 100 men and several hundred horses and mules.
His expedition walked for 14 days through humid river valleys and dense forests, struggling through tangled greenery and ankle-deep mud.
Finally, as he recalled in his 1970 adventure classic “Antisuyo: The Search for the Lost Cities of the Amazon,” scouts stumbled across a pile of red roof tiles that he immediately recognized as Incan. Workers cleared away the heavy forest, and the outlines of ancient buildings emerged.
The team spent four months clearing and photographing the site, now a tourist attraction.
Before Savoy, even Peruvians didn’t know much about the Cloud People. Today, what is left of their civilization is a prime target for looting and sale on the antiquities market — in part because of Savoy’s much-publicized expeditions.
The most egregious example occurred in April 1997, when authorities discovered that five chulpas — burial caves carved into a cliff 400 feet above the Lake of the Condors — had been ravaged, with more than 200 mummy bundles cut to pieces.
The mummy remains and about 1,000 artifacts were taken to a new museum in Leimebamba, and the event prompted the National Institute of Culture to initiate an emergency survey of tombs and other sites in the region to document them for future protection.
Savoy’s latest forays have been to an area known as Gran Saposoa. Savoy discovered the site in 1999, and he has made two trips back. A fourth, larger trip last summer during which five new sites were found — each on a separate peak — was led by his son, Sean, 35.
The overall site encompasses more than 25 square miles, Sean Savoy said. “This was a metropolis.”
The new discoveries have sparked new criticism. Some archaeologists think the image of the daring explorer discovering lost empires is overblown.
“The simple truth is that finding Chacha archaeological sites in this area … is about as hard as finding elephants in a zoo,” said Muscutt, the UC-Santa Cruz archaeologist. “There are ruins on many, if not most, ridges.”
Many sites “discovered” by Savoy and others already were known to local people, and many had been mapped and explored by Peruvian scientists, said archaeologist Warren Church of Columbus State University.
Savoy “is not the discoverer,” he said, “but simply the first non-Peruvian to publicize anything about it.”
Savoy is used to such complaints.
“Because I wasn’t a scientist, I was rejected,” he said. “But I did it because I was fascinated.”