A Stalled Antonov Bi-plane Evokes the Warm, Get-Rich Romance of the Amazon


By Nicholas Asheshov

Abel Muñiz’s hacienda in the jungles of the lower Cosñipata Valley has been stitched together over the past six or seven centuries.  Today the buildings are a homey mixture of wood, clapboard, stone, cement, palm thatch and corrugated iron.

The hacienda features the same sounds and smells as farmyards the world over —ducks, sheep, cows, horses, pigs, chickens, geese, dogs, cats, rats, bats.  In addition, the pets include a small caiman, a tapir, monkeys and parrots. Greta, Abel’s wife, first thing in the morning, used to go down to the sort-of natural swimming pool that they had made, to clean out any snakes and other fauna that TripAdvisor might make a fuss about.

Feb 15-2013 - Country Notes editA pack of women and children swirls vaguely round the kitchen patio.  The warm air is sliced every second by a thousand full-color and full-throated tropical birds.  The distant rush of water over a set of rapids in the Rio Tono is a grey-noise background to the scritch and hum of a million insects and amphibians.

Muñiz, a portly 60-year-old agronomist who tells a good story, says that the farm, Villa Carmen, belonged to Isabel Chimpuoccllo, a daughter of Inca Huayna Capac and the mother of Garcilaso de la Vega, the most famous of the post-Conquest chroniclers.

Farms in the jungle in those days, as they frequently still do, produced coca.  Today Muñiz keeps cows, has some ponds of carp, and takes tourists up the Rio Piñipiñi, the lowest reaches of which flow through his property after running down a section of the Pantiacolla hills in the Manu National Park.

Lost city mavens will instantly have perked up at the name Pantiacolla. This is a favorite haunt of planners of expeditions to discover Paititi. Italians, Scots, Americans, and French have been there in the past five years, and there once was also talk of a big Russian-US-Spanish effort being planned.

Not much was heard of Cosñipata till the 1960s when Alliance-for-Progress President Belaunde drew a line on the map between Cusco and Rio Branco, capital of the Acre Territory, the nearest town in Brazil, and called it an Intercontinental Highway.

An army road battalion was sent off to Paucartambo, then as now a charming colonial sierra town with a stone bridge. By the early 1970s, when I first knew it, Cosñipata was beginning to bustle with a frontier mixture of loggers, hunters, rice farmers, jeeps, missionaries, their Indians, gold panners and, in this case, the beginnings of the Manu Park.

There is no region on the planet that breeds more illusions than the Amazon. I wish I had a lottery ticket for every exciting, challenging conversation in which I’ve participated about the potential of this jungle plant, that jungle animal and the other jungle valley.

Muñiz is one of these enthusiasts.  One afternoon the other week he took a pick-axe out to the forest near his house and came back with a big, yellow papaya-shaped vegetable that weighed in at 10 kilos.  For supper it tasted like French-fried potatoes.

“It’s a creeper that grows up the trees,” he says.  “You can grow a tremendous cash crop without cutting down a single tree.”

Besides a hundred plants like Muñiz’s wonder-spud, the Amazon has, of course, a pharmacopia that is becoming, they say, better understood and appreciated nowadays.  The best-known to appear in the past two or three decades in Peru is the uña de gato, cat’s claw, which is marketed extensively in Lima and everywhere else as a cure-all.

But the most remarkable thing about the cornucopia character of the upper Amazon is the impressive contrast between the promise, the talk and the dreams, and the mud, the mosquitoes, the heat, and little else besides charm.

Pilcopata, the jungle town a mile away from Villa Carmen, is a lot bigger than when I first saw it three decades ago.  But it’s still a weedy, clapboard dump.

The people are generally quiet, amiably unambitious and unaggressively disorganized.  They know the jungle can’t be beaten, so they join it.

But people like Abel Muñiz don’t.  They lose Round One, Round Two and so on but they’re not going to give up and, damnit! they don’t.

In a field a couple of hundred yards from the hacienda buildings is a remarkable, evocative sight.  Here, in a clearing in the jungle, stands a large bi-plane, yes, a giant Gipsy Moth, quite new-looking.  A tatter here, a bird’s nest there, but the tires are full of air.

Against a backdrop of warm, misty, menacing jungle hills and a powerful river nearby, this is an impossibly romantic sight.  Like most piston aircraft of the old school, the nose is way in the air, with a four-blade propeller.  Inside, the fuselage slopes steeply backwards.  One climbs up towards the cockpit, keeping an eye and an ear open for snakes.

There are some Cyrillic signs in the cockpit and it takes no imagination to picture the pilot and co-pilot in those tight leather helmets and threatening oval goggles familiar from movies involving the Russian air force.

The plane is, Abel Muñiz tells me over a warm beer on his kerosene-lamp-lit veranda, an Antonov Two. They’re apparently still in production in Poland at US$300,000 apiece, and in service there and in Cuba today.

Its single nine-cylinder engine produces 1,000hp. It takes 15 passengers at a top speed of 170 mph, and a stall speed of 55 mph.  Unloaded, it can land in 60 yards, and take off with up to 500 kilos in just 80 yards. With a full 1500 kilos load, it can take off in 450 ms.

Abel tells me —news you can use— that there is another half-dozen of these wonders scattered round the Madre de Dios and the northern jungle.  They are the remnants of a venture only a decade ago when he did a deal with a Russian co-operative.

“Started off pretty well. But what with devaluations and recessions, terrorists and drug people, and no tourists, it flopped.

“My friends and relations thought I’d become a drug baron and insisted that I lend them hundreds of thousands.  Of course, the police and the tax people were the same.

“It’s hard to make anything work in Peru, let alone in the jungle.”

PostScript

It turns out that Abel’s Antonov II, the AN-2, also known as the ‘Annie’, was one of the great aircraft successes of the 20th Century.  I learn this from a fascinating, first-rate article on Wikipedia which tells us that it is “the biggest single-engine bi-plane ever built” and that more of them, 18,000-plus, were built than any other aircraft, and has only just lost this record to the Lockheed C-130 Hercules.

The An-2 started production in 1947 in NovoSibirsk, and was still being produced in Poland in the 1990s.  It was simple to operate, powerful and could fly at incredibly slow speeds, like 30 to 40 mph, thanks to extendable slots on the leading edges of the wings, which functioned with rubber bands!   Pilots learned to fly it so that it could land almost like a parachute and, in a suitable wind, backwards (over the ground). North Korea has a lot of AN-2s, it seems, and China produced thousands with its own modifications. With the breakup of the USSR, during the 1990s the AN-2 was sold, as it was to Abel Muñoz, all over the world for forestry, agriculture, ambulance, mapping, and there are a few in the U.S. which appear in air shows and for parachutists.  For more, search for Antonov 2 biplane on Google.

This article appeared in the Peruvian Times Feb. 15, 2013.

Downtown in The Lost Cities of the Amazon

This article first appeared in March of 2012, in Spanish in Caretas and in English in the Andean Air Mail & PERUVIAN TIMES.
By Nicholas Asheshov
Some weeks ago two events, one of them startling, came together to pin-point the mysterious new conundrum of the Amazon.

The first was the appearance on a busy riverbank in the Madre de Dios of a few dozen members of a previously-isolated group of Indians. They killed someone who had been trying to help them.

The naked Indians, seen on TV screens around the world, were described by anthropologists as descendants of an unbroken line of hunting and gathering savages, living fossils of our neolithic past.

This is, according to new Amazon thinking, incorrect. These Indians are the sad, socially degenerated remnants of nations and tribes that were productive, sophisticated and stable just a few centuries ago.

The other event was an article in The New York Times that reported on the discovery in Acre, only a few hours travel from the Madre de Dios Indians, of extensive, deep straight, or sometimes circular, trenches, ridges and mounds dating back to pre-Columbian times, indicating a large, well-developed society.

This was just the latest evidence that the Amazon, or at least parts of it, was heavily populated by well-organized societies in much the same way as the high Andes were remodelled by the Tiahuanuco, the Chavin, the Chachapoyas, the Huari, and the Incas.

Over the past couple of decades the pre-history of the Americas has been revolutionized, setting off poison-tipped academic and ecological vendettas.

First of all, the Americas were populated much earlier, at least 33-35,000 years ago, double the time previously calculated. That is back to Neanderthal epochs.

Second, there were many more people here when Columbus arrived than was earlier thought. And, most important, the societies and nations of the Americas were much more sophisticated and structured than was previously understood. They were agriculturalists, not the war-whoopers of the movies. Their mode of life and agriculture had massive, long-term effects on the original pre-human forests. Fire was a basic control mechanism.

Today the evidence of genetics, linguistics and archaeology is clear that the Amazon was not just an impenetrable green hell populated by primitive hunters and fishermen eking out an unchanging, culturally marginal existence.

The same applies to North America. Here most of the descriptions of primitive Indians come from 18th and 19th century travelers who were seeing only the sorry leftovers of great nations that had been obliterated by smallpox, viral hepatitis, influenza and other European and African diseases. The Conquest set off the Dark Ages in the Americas.

In the Amazon the same collapse, featuring malaria and yellow fever, was exacerbated by the rubber boom of the late-1800s and early-1900s.

You can check this out in three fine recent books. Two of these are Charles C Mann’s easy-to-read, well-researched 1491 and a sequel, 1493, just out; and in John Hemming’s Tree of Rivers, a masterly description of the Amazon. Hemming, author of the classic The Conquest of the Incas has also written, earlier, three volumes on the peoples of the Amazon.

Charles Mann describes, for instance, how my old friend William Denevan, Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, discovered how the Beni, on the edge of the western Amazon in Bolivia, was a flourishing, well-organized center of islands and causeways on what is today a bleak, sparsely-inhabited combination of dense jungle and flood-plain, inhabited today by sad remnants of Siriono Indians.

Bill worked on the Peruvian Times just before me in the 1960s and his stories on the Beni and similar mounds and trenches around Lake Titicaca in the PT were the first indication of this revolution in South American prehistory.

“Beginning as much as three thousand years ago, this long-ago society,” Mann writes, “created one of the largest, strangest, and most ecologically rich artificial environments on the planet.”

Great stuff.

Mann describes the Amazon as one of the world’s half-dozen agricultural heartlands, where plants were domesticated, the epicenters of civilization. Others were the tropical Andes, Central America, the Fertile Crescent, and China.

The Amazon, including the area where the savage Indians appeared the other day, just north and west of the Beni, was the source of yuca, known elsewhere as manioc or cassava, as well as tobacco, peanuts chili pepper, chocolate, Brazilian broad beans, the peach palm, and Brazil nuts.

It was also the homeland of Hevea Brasiliensis, the rubber tree, which was to be, along with steel and oil, one of the three creators of the 20th century version of civilization.

For the Amazon, including the Indians on the banks the other day of the Madre de Dios, rubber became a disaster, just as gold and silver had been for Peru and Mexico. The malaria and yellow fever, imports from Africa, that it helped to spread turned the Amazon and its western tributaries into what Charles Mann calls “depopulated fever valleys.” Slavery did the rest.

The Amazon as a center of civilization has become the subject of a bitter dispute between two magnificent lady academics, the archaeologists Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution and Anna Roosevelt of the University of Illinois.

Hemming mentions the two warring camps on the issue of whether or not there were tribes with sophisticated, stable, large populations: Dr Meggers says that the Amazon basically had only hunters+gatherers; Dr. Roosevelt says that there were big lively societies all over the place.

Here is a message to me the other day from John Hemming and you will find nowhere else a more precise and appropriately colorful description of the state of play today in Amazon studies.

Broadly, I think that Anna (and her acolytes like Michael Heckenberger) are right to say that there were large chiefdoms on some riverbanks of the main Amazon and its tributaries (although there were also very long stretches of uninhabited river). Those chiefdoms were based on the river and its fish and turtle resources. 

But I think that the Roosevelt school exaggerates the size and sophistication of their beloved chiefdoms, which they compare to the great civilizations of Peru.

They also exaggerate the extent of human manipulation of forests. Remember that it was very laborious indeed for early man to fell trees (other than palms) with their stone axes. And they had no need or desire to do so: they were very happy in pristine forests full of game. Planting the trees they liked near their villages was merely rearranging the deckchairs. It did not alter the Amazon landscape.

Meggers is right about the inability of Amazon terra-firma forest to support villages of more than a thousand people maximum – the surrounding game is exhausted otherwise, and the soils under mature forests are too weak to sustain large-scale farming. So, away from the rivers, early tribes were not much larger than their modern descendants at the time of first contact and before being hit by imported disease.

For many years, John was Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, London, and we can all understand what he means by “rearranging the deckchairs.”

But not everyone agrees. Charles Mann in his just-published 1493, calls the Amazon “the world’s richest garden,” quoting archeobiologists and looking at parts of the Amazon today that are carefully-distributed and well-tended collections of trees, plants and fish and game reserves.

Today there are tourists but it can still be a tough place. Near the Acre ruins noted in The New York Times, settlers are still gunned down by big-money ranchers. I remember John telling me of the day in 1961 when he carried the arrow-filled body of his friend Richard Mason back to camp. A decade later, in 1970, I myself was searching the jungles of the Pantiacolla in the Upper Madre de Dios for my friend Robert Nichols, chief reporter of the Peruvian Times of which I was then the editor, who had set out to find Paititi, a version of El Dorado. It transpired that he, and two French companions, had been stoned to death by the Machiguengas.

Unlike John, I am not prejudiced by knowing what I am talking about and I unreservedly plump for the Roosevelt school’s bumptious Amazonian super-civilizations and I am supported by no less than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Their latest movie, due out this year, is The Lost City of Z, where Brad plays Colonel Percy Fawcett, the English explorer, searching in 1925 for El Dorado in the Amazon. Let’s hope that Brad has better luck than Percy, who never returned.

————–

Notes.
Colonel Percy Fawcett said: “The answer to the enigma of Ancient South America – and perhaps that of the entire prehistoric world – will be found when the old South American cities are located and opened up to scientific research. These cities exist, and I will prove that they exist.”
————-
Tony Morrison, the wildlife photographer and author, on a recent trip to the Beni:
“Setting out from Trinidad in the Beni we hopped on a 35b bus in the plaza and headed to the great mound at Eviata where the entire village is built above the floodplain. I went there to see the last of the Siriono tribe, as they have a base around the old mission church. What a bedraggled lot they were and the mound is now topped by a huge ENTEL satellite dish — not a bad place to site it as it should be above the annual flood.”
——
Vera Tulyneva charlie.quispe@yahoo.com . Ms Tulyneva is completing a thesis on “Paititi” at the Universidad Catolica, Lima. Commenting on The New York Times story on ancient remains in the Acre:

“The earth constructions of Acre have been in the news for the past five years. The first one to speak of them was Martti Pärssinen, an historian from Finland who had been working in the region for many years. In fact, they are not “geoglyphs,” i.e. earth figurative drawings of apparent religious/ritual function, but rather utilitarian earthworks, like drainage trenches. Acre, Mojos, Beni, Xingu and many other Amazonic regions are full of them.”
————–
Michael Heckenberger website on Xingu: The Xingu Ethnoarchaeological Project
————–
An article on Acre: Pre-columbian geometric earthworks
and Geometric Earthworks in the Upper Purus

————–
The New York Times: The Nazca Lines of the Acre jungle – Land Carvings Attest to Lost World
______________________________________

Nick Asheshov is a veteran journalist, noted explorer and entrepreneur. He was editor of the Peruvian times from 1969 to 1990.

——————————————————————

In response to this article, Dr. Jennifer Watling responded: (See her paper on the subject: Watling et al 2017 + SI)

For you to state the following: ‘These Indians are the sad, socially degenerated remnants of nations and tribes that were productive, sophisticated and stable just a few centuries ago’ for me shows a great disrespect and lack of knowledge about indigenous Amazonians and their ancestors, I’m afraid.

Best,

Jenny

Dr. Jennifer Watling
Post-doctorate Fellow,
Laboratório de Arqueologia dos Trópicos, Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia,
Laboratório de Micropaleontologia, Instituto de Geosciências,
Universidade de São Paulo
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jennifer_Watling2/info

The people who ran the Sun

By Nicholas Asheshov

The Incas, living as they did at 3,000m a.s.l., focused on the Sun’s capacity to provide more than warmth for their fertile, glacier-fed tropical valleys. They and their predecessors grasped, like the Egyptians and others, that the movements of the Sun, moon, and stars could predict rain and temperatures.

Informatica, then as now, was power. But the study and understanding of the sun and the stars gave the Andean peoples much more than a weather channel. They were able to reflect the orderliness and mathematical precision of the heavens into their own world. The unequalled exactitude of Inca stonework and their careful, magnificently engineered, imaginative landscaping of their mountain world was a statement of philosophical power on a Shakespearean scale. They would control the uncontrollable: the earthquakes, enemies, famine, and disease. Under the Inca there would be no apocalypse.

The Incas took it a logical step further. They would control the Sun itself. At Machu Picchu, Choquequirao, Pisac, and a score of other centres, they placed carefully-engineered granite blocks and windows so finely that at the solstices —June 21 and December 21— needles of light would hit exactly at such-and-such a marker.

The Incas, like politicians through the ages, spun the Sun story. It was they who were family with the Sun, sons no less of the Sun. Running the universe had become a family business. The sun’s rays would change direction on the orders of the Inca every 187.5 days.

At the winter solstice, the Inti Raymi, visitors to Ollantaytambo today can climb high up to the other, western, escarpment of the Rio Vilcanota and at 7:00 a.m. on and around June 21 can look down across the river half a kilometer away and watch a sudden sharp spotlight, then, moments later a couple of hundred yards away, another and then another, appear on an Inca throne-room the size of a tennis court.

If this is a stirring experience today it is not difficult to imagine the awe,, the grateful weeping, the roars of enthusiasm with which tens of thousands of Inca faithful would watch this mystic magic five, six and more centuries ago. They would see their Inca and his family re-born, the unchallengeable nexus of this world with the past and the future.

Accurate knowledge of how to interpret and predict stellar movement was a vital part of the management of a heavily populated agricultural society for which control of irrigation water and of the rivers was essential in both drenching monsoons and periodic drought.

The Incas upgraded the Tiahuanaco and Huari terrace systems and roads into one of the world’s safest and most productive polities, as we can see today from a million terraces in great flights of ingenious engineering of one of the planets most spectacular sculpted landscapes. The renovations included unequalled mountain hydrologic and civil construction, together with agricultural and genetic research.

The magnificent interconnected terraces in the Colca, the Urubamba, the Pisac and a score of other Andean valleys needed sophisticated agricultural techniques and engineering controlling water, heat, and experienced biological genetic experimentation. These terrace systems were so delicate that most of them are today unused because no one is sufficiently knowledgeable and well-organised to use them.

The Inca Empire, stretching thousands of miles along the Andes from Colombia to Argentina, was joined by perhaps 15,000 miles of stone all-weather roads with A, B and C grades of size for lateral valleys of better quality and deeper penetration than any land communications system anywhere in the world until the advent of the railways in the 19th century. Legal, census and production records were kept on the decimal-based khipu knotted strings.

Warehouse complexes stored food and clothing. The Andes were more cohesive, more productive than anywhere in contemporary Europe, on a par with Ming Dynasty China.

Today energy not the Sun, has become the new god. It is energy, starting just two and a half centuries ago with the invention, in England, of the steam engine, which has created a different universe. Before 1750 no one moved faster than a horse, a running man, or a sail-driven galleon. Wood fires became coal, electricity, petroleum and nuclear.

A Bank of England economist calculated the other day that if we look at the 50,000 years of the existence of modern homo sapiens and call it 24 hours, 99% of the progress will have taken place in the last 20 seconds. It’s a nice notion though it might be seen to give short shrift to the Acropolis, to Leonardo and Bach. But it makes the point that few among the seven billion of us can understand the world today and for sure no one can control it. It is built to change. Intrinsically unstable. It must, faster and faster, keep on the move.

By contrast, anyone can see, at Machu Picchu and at Sacsayhuaman that the people who built these achievements did indeed understand their universe. They had done it themselves, stone by careful stone. It was built never to change, to last forever. Maybe it will. FIN

First published in Spanish in Caretas in March, 2015

El Dorado (Paititi) The Mysteriously persistent pre-Columbian Utopia

No one has got rich by finding a lost city but there’s a dream hidden there in the mind of all of us.

By Nicholas Asheshov

Clearly, the important thing about lost cities is that they’re lost. Once they’re found, the archaeologists take over, and the tour guides won’t be far behind. Another handful of expeditions is setting off this season, as there will be every year forever. There is more chance of hitting the New York State lottery than of finding El Dorado or Paititi but every expeditionary would rather find The City than win the lottery. To discover the unknown past is as good as, and more believable and possible than, seeing and touching a UFO. Show us the man who can prove that El Dorado and UFOs don’t exist!

Peru has been supplying genuine lost cities not just way back when, like Turkey or China, but this century -Machu Picchu to begin with and more recently Pajaten and Espiritu Pampa in the mid-60s and Gran Vilaya just 10 years ago.

From the 1980s, too, came Sipan, the startling, rich pyramid, which for these purposes qualifies as a city, hidden not behind the Andes in impenetrable jungle as required by lost city lore but out in the open desert not far from the Pan-American Highway. But coastal sites like Sipan are mostly produced by archaeologists, in this case Walter Alva, a dedicated, persistent scientist who thoroughly deserved his success.

But archaeologists are trained to keep their noses to the ground, preferably below ground. Their grasp of the nitty-gritty doesn’t allow them to see the wood for the trees. So they rarely find the genuine Lost Cities out in the bush and actually they hardly even go looking for them. It wouldn’t be scientific. The real thing is invariably searched for and found by people who act like, and sometimes even look like Harrison Ford. They include, in the case of Peru this century, Senator Hiram Bingham, Colonel Percy Fawcett, Gene Savoy and Robert Nichols. A handful of others, including Vincent Lee, Robert Randall and Yoshiharu Sekino have also been prominent in looking hard, scratching the surface of the Amazonian flanks of the Andes.

Bingham and Savoy both survived their adventures and went on to become well-known and established in their own country, the United States. Savoy is alive and well in Reno, Nevada, though he is just about to set out on yet another sea-faring trans-Pacific adventure in a 20 meter mahogany catamaran with two Mochica dragons as prows. That’s the kind of style lost city discoverers like to travel in no cut-rate economy class for them.

Nichols, Fawcett and Randall are dead. Nichols was killed by Indians 25 years ago as he searched for Paititi, a fate suffered by Col. Fawcett half a century earlier. Randall, based for years in Ollantaytambo, died five years ago after being bitten by a dog.

40 kms from Cuzco, in Pusharo, in the jungles of Madre de Dios, there were found petroglyphs covering 14 meters of a massive rock wall, apparently part of a religious complex, thought by some to indicate the existence of a lost city with the characteristics of Paititi.

Up-and-comers include Vincent Lee, a Wyoming architect, who is apparently about to produce a book on Vilcabamba. I myself spent part of my early years in Peru looking either for lost cities or for people who had got lost looking for one it’s basically the same thing and I own a hotel in the Sacred Valley which is riddled with ancient cities and an integral part, for sure, of the greatest lost city territory left on Earth.

Savoy, now in his sixties, has always look more like Buffalo Bill than Harrison Ford, but he has the same outlook. Why is he going to sea rather than looking for lost cities? “Living among the gamblers in Reno, you learn to quit when you’re ahead.” Savoy says today. “I was getting like an old gunfighter. It was too easy. That’s dangerous.”

Savoy also helps to explain why it is explorers and not archaeologists who find the lost cities. “Getting into archaeology would have stopped me dead.” he says. “Digging into a pit, messing around with carbon 14 and the other bits and pieces. History, not archaeology, is the key.” Listen carefully, explorers. Savoy is the only man alive who has won the lost city lottery. Three big, big ones, and a score of lesser, excellent finds. At that level we are talking not of gamblers, but of the fellow who owns the casino.

Two on my list set off to find El Dorado but never returned. The first was Colonel Fawcett, an eccentric English army officer, a qualified surveyor who among other things fixed a big part of the Bolivia-Peru frontier, and did it so well that it has never been disputed.

Colonel Fawcett was doing this at the same time, 1910-11, as Bingham was marching down the Sacred Valley finding Machu Picchu and Rosaspata. Inspired by Bingham’s success, he returned from England in the mid-1920s at the head of an expedition but this time heading, via Rio de Janeiro, for the north-western corner of the Mato Grosso, near the Bolivian frontier.

I can’t recall what the logic of his search was, though it was certainly based on stories from locals and Indians he had encountered on his previous travels and surveying. But he disappeared forever and set off a whole school of lost city excitement in England for two or three generations of adventurers who would set off to find both Col. Fawcett and the Lost City that he had presumably found and where he and his son Jack were being held captive in incredible luxury. (Another son, Brian Fawcett, lived for years in Peru and was the foremost authority on steam trains in the Andes).

In fact Percy Fawcett was killed by Indians in 1925, as proved more or less conclusively by the Villas-Boas brothers, the Brazilian Indian specialists, in the 1950s.

The same fate was suffered by my friend Bob Nichols, a tough, unassuming traveler from Oregon. Bob was in his thirties during the 1960s when he spend several years in the Convencion valley, below Cuzco and then in the Alto Madre de Dios jungles at the bottom of the Q’ospipata valley. It’s a tough place today even though a few tourists pass by in powered canoes but it was a really tough place in those days.

Bob was an unusually fine writer and got a job with me as a reporter on the Peruvian Times. After a year he told me he wanted to go and find Paititi. His time down in the Madre de Dios had provided him with the inside story, the clues from the indians, whatever. For Bob this last piece of the legend turned out to be unbelievably, tragically true. He, two French friends and half a dozen Mashco Indians set off up the Rio Palatoa from the Dominican mission at Shintuya. They passed the Shinkikibeni petroglyphs. The guides returned, having refused to go on, Bob and the two Frenchmen pressed on. They never reappeared. Many left for El Dorado and never returned.

One doesn’t ask questions. Among lost city fans Paititi is the name for a kind of Inca or pre-Inca lost city-state which, in most versions, is still functioning. It is, at least, zealously guarded by impenetrable jungle and impassable ravines as well as by 20-ft bushmasters (shushupes), jaguars and, of course, deadly Indian-guardians.

This was 1970. I spent six months  looking with no success and no further indication of a Paititi. But two years later a quiet young Japanese law student went in alone and with splendid persistence and courage found, photographed and chatted with three Machiguenga Indians who told him how they had killed the three explorers. They gave him enough bits of paper and other objects to show, beyond doubt, that their story was to be believed.

Yoshiharu went back more than once, armed with satellite photographs which showed for this area a series of “dots” apparently in some triangulate alignment. He found nothing but went on to other parts of Peru and produced a super collection of photographs of Peru’s jungle and mountain peoples. Dr. Carlos Neuenschwander, an Arequipa physician, subsequently persuaded the air force to fly into this area, the Pantiacolla range of hills, with a helicopter but found nothing. “Everybody always wants them but you never find anything with helicopters,” says Renato Marin, a Cosquero naturalist and explorer who knows this part of the world better than anyone else. Mr. Marin thinks that there’s a good chance of finding a genuine big city up in the hills behind his former hacienda, Amaybamba, in La Convencion, just downriver form Machu Picchu itself.

Two main areas of the mountains and the jungle in Peru are the most consistent producers of ancient cities and fortresses.

The classic area is to the north of Cuzco anywhere in an arc from Ausangate to the south and east around through Quincemil and across to the Alto Madre de Dios and Alto Manu and then up towards Atalaya, then back up the western flank of the Apurimac basin towards Ayacucho. Actually, I’d include most of the area north of a line between Cuzco and the northern shores of Lake Titicaca, including the Bolivian frontier region.

I’d say that half the world’s lost city people will continue, in my view rightly, to comb this often difficult, outstandingly beautiful, powerfully evocative area with its fine track record. This place smells of lost cities and, why not? lost tribes. Inca roads dive off the highlands into impenetrable jungle and other essentials, including risky, difficult-to-locate Indian groups. Two or three of these have been found within helicopter distance of Cuzco in the past three or four decades. They’ve even attacked oil exploration parties (they didn’t get ’em).

The other area is in the North, around Chachapoyas and the great fortress at Kuelap. It’s in this region that Gene Savoy found Gran Pajaten and, later, Vilaya. Savoy also found dozens of other remarkable sites in this area. It was Savoy, too, who located and correctly identified Espiritu Pampa, in the Vilcabamba as the last refuge of Manco Capac and Tupac Amaru.

If you think that you will be popular and meet interesting people once you have found a lost city you may be in for a surprise. You might think that your efforts, which undoubtedly provide work for needy archaeologists, would make you respected by them. Not at all. They dislike Savoy intensely and they hated Bingham, the finder of Machu Picchu, Rosaspata and a handful of other world-class ancient remains. Both of them were accused formally of being grave-robbers and huaqueros (people who illegally dig up artifacts and sell them at Sothebys). I myself had to dig Savoy, at that time a reporter for the Peruvian Times, out of clink in Lima on one occasion a quarter of a century ago.

This is pure jealously on the part of archaeologists and locals who didn’t have the persistence and perception to get there and stand up and say “I found it!”. Neither Bingham nor Savoy claimed any special academic knowledge. What both of them did was to do a lot of homework, reading the chronicles carefully. They also listened carefully to their guides and travel companions.

“Do your research, period,” Savoy says. “History is the key. If someone was there and left a record, find it. Also, local people know. Ask, and listen to their answers.”

What Savoy is saying sounds obvious but actually almost no one follows this advice. This is a mistake not made by another branch of lost citying, looking for lost treasure galleons. The winners there comb the records religiously before setting out.

This is not at all the style for most lost city searchers. What they all do, I did it myself, is to look at the map and say to themselves and their chums. “This looks like a likely spot. There are no roads, the approaches are dreadful, my friend X’s father’s peon said there is an Inca road that goes straight off that away and he found a golden amulet. Also, it’s not been properly mapped.” (This statement applies to almost all of the area north of Cuzco and the Sacred Valley).

A few travelers tales from missionaries easily the most unreliable sources and farmers and hunters rounds out the picture and before long we’re out shopping for Brazilian snake-bite serum, asking how much helicopters cost (too much) and ordering zip-lock plastic bags from Miami.

Lost cities and fortresses not found on maps remain invisible to air photography

The main basis for thinking that Paititi is off the map is because the Incas are supposed to have thought that the Spaniards were after their last gold hoard and that they ran off with this into the jungle.

Victor Angles, an amiable Cuzco historian who has written extensively on Incas and their ilk, says that this is hogwash. “The Incas thought the Spaniards were gods and handed over ever bit of gold to them. There’s nothing left. There’s no Paititi.”

There may be historical logic to Mr. Angles’s thinking. But it’s not going to cut much ice with the lost city crowd.

He himself puts a big “But…” into his own thesis after he describes how the Count of Castelar sent the King of Spain documents, which indicated that the ‘Empire of Paititi’ was at the confluence of the Beni and Mamore Rivers more or less where Percy Fawcett was heading.

Mr. Angles continues, “When more complete ethnological studies are carried out on the native tribes in Peru’s southern jungles, we’ll have more light shed on Paititi.”

Those are our marching orders. We must shake the moths out of our mosquito nets!

If you though Terra Incognita was only on ye olde maps, take a look at the latest satellite-based charts produced by the Department of Defense (DoD), Washington and the excellent Instituto Geografico Militar, Lima. The DoD (the Pentagon) are the people who can put an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile into the kitchen in the Kremlin, but they haven’t got round to backland Peru. Big slabs of maps within a day’s march of Machu Picchu are blank, with the lame excuse “Not Covered by Aero photographs.” And this is the satellite age.

Lost city people, take note and take heart. The DoD people, lost city men for sure, are keeping something back.

Kura Ocllo, a Peruvian heroine

By Nicholas Asheshov

As Franacisco, Gonzalo, Hernando and Juan Pizarro entered Cuzco in 1533 they were met by a deputation presenting to them the 17-year-old Manco Inca.

The Pizarros, who had just garotted Atahualpa, Manco’s half-brother, in Cajamarca and they were happy to set up young Manco as a front man.

It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway but a new tragedy unfolded that has coloured Peru ever since. Gonzalo Pizarro, a tough, tall, ferociously brave bully, conceived a passion for Manco’s young wife and half-sister, the beautiful, clever, loyal Kura Ocllo.

Gonzalo persisted. The Inca court gave him all the girls he could want. They even gave him another pretty half-sister and dolled her up to look like Kura. But after a few nights Gonzalo soused her out and kicked the sister out.

Gonzalo and a gang of his thugs simply sequestered and raped Kura and kept her. Manco, furious and desperate, left Cuzco. The rape by Gonzalo of Kura Ocllo set off a 40-year rebellion that blocked any possibility of a meeting of the minds between Conquistadores and Incas.

Kura escaped back to Manco and they both retreated to the mountain-jungle fastness of Vilcabamba, beyond Machu Picchu. From here they waged a partly-successful war against the Spaniards.

In one incident it was Kura Ocllo herself, now 20, who spotted a detachment of Spaniards creeping up a steep path to Oncoy, above the Apurimac, to capture Manco. She organized the womenfolk to impersonate Inca troops to frighten the Spaniards while Manco himself led the charge on the Spaniards, killing all 30 of them, a tremendous victory that ought to be celebrated by an annual national holiday.

Gonzalo himself then led a military expedition into the Vilcabamba. With him went two of Manco’s half-brothers, full brothers to Kura Ocllo. These went ahead to try to negotiate with Manco who, however, had them immediately beheaded –in front of Kura Ocllo. As Gonzalo and his men closed in Manco escaped, but alone. The horrified Kura Ocllo paralysed with shock refused to desert the bodies of her brothers.

Gonzalo threw Kura to his men. On the way back to Ollantaytambo, she tried to protect herself by covering herself in her own excrement.

In the plaza of Ollantaytambo, where today hundreds of tourists park their buses every day, Francisco and Gonzalo Pizarro ordered her stripped naked, tied to a stake and whipped while Cañari mercenaries stoned her and shot darts into her.

She refused to cry out, the chroniclers report, until just before dying, she shouted out, “Cowards!”

Manco, like his wife-sister, was clearly a noble, brave, devastatingly young leader. He was assassinated in Vilcabamba a few years later by the same renegade Spaniards who earlier had killed Francisco Pizarro himself down in Lima.

Gonzalo rebelled against the Crown, killed the Viceroy and 300 royalist Spaniards and was later executed in Cuzco by a new Virrey.

Manco and Kura Ocllo, youthful, dashing, are the stunning heroes in one of the epic moments of world history.

Here is Othello and Romeo & Juliet all in one, a crueler, nobler Helen of Troy-Paris-Achilles. But how many Peruvian children, or their parents, know this story? Two of my children did their early-ays schooling within a couple of miles of the scene of her outrageous death. But I’ve asked them, and other Urubamba kids, and they know her not.

Nor did I, of course. I have extracted and summarized the Kura Occlo story from Kim MacQuarrie’s excellent “The Last Days of the Incas” due to be published shortly in Spanish in Lima, in time for the Bingham-Machu Picchu fandango in July.

Kura Occlo and Manco are just two of a great cast of characters in a gigantic confrontation, the collision of two of the great traditions of humankind.

In France, Joan of Arc, burned at the stake by the English in 14xx, is a much-loved heroine, a registered saint and indeed us English treat her memory with equal affection. The English are also proud of Boadicea, the Celtic queen who was, with her daughters, publicly tortured, gang-raped and killed by the Romans two millennia ago. Kura Ocllo deserves, surely, to be remembered with similar pride by Peruvian schoolchildren. Manco, likewise.

MacQuarrie’s sources for the Kura Oclloa story are the account dictated by Manco’s son, Titu Cusi, the last-but-one Inca, to Cristobal de Molina, and a letter by a Spaniard explaining to the King of Spain how Gonzalo stole Manco’s wife.

MacQuarrie’s The Last Days of the Incas tells the stupendous story of the Conquista better than anyone so far. It is deliberately dramatic “…blood dripped from Pizarro’s sword…” etc. But it is also carefully researched and runs parallel to John Hemmings’ classic The Conquest of the Incas which appeared in 1970 and updated and translated into Spanish in 1995, a gripping must-read.

But Kim MacQuarrie’s “Last Days” brings the cruelty, the civilizing savagery, the wealth that was to transform the economy of Europe and above all the characters to immediate life. The five Pizarro brothers, unbelievably tough and courageous, impossibly wealthy, low-born and ambitious,

The backdrop was a society, the last, sadly, of a score of great cultures produced here over many millennia, which functioned much better than any contemporary in Europe, and incomparably better than any that has struggled to succeed in Peru or anywhere else in South America.

Perhaps MacQuarrie’s “Last Days” will inspire teachers in schools all over Peru, high and low, to take a new, proud look at their own world-class predecessors.

Published in Caretas Country Notes in Spanish

Indian girls + machetes = Christians

By Nicholas Asheshov

Just downriver from Machu Picchu at this time of the year there used to be a slave market where Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominican priests from Cuzco would buy Indian women and children in exchange for machetes and other trade goods.

It was known as the Feria de Santa Rosa. Earlier it had been known too as the Feria del Carmen because it took place in July as well. The women and children were Machiguengas who had been pirated from their homes deep in the jungle by tough Piro Indians from the lower Rio Urubamba.

The Piros, great traders and travellers all over the western Amazon, would paddle up the Urubamba, past what is today the Camisea gas fields, a multi-billion-dollar industrial complex, in raiding-trading parties of dozens of war canoes, through the still-ferocious rapids of the Pongo de Mainique.

The Piros were such powerful paddlers that in their canoes they ressembled, according to one missionary, “centaurs as one with their horses.”

They would come to a site called Cocabambilla near the present-day towns of Quillabamba and Echarate where the railway line would later end; this was wiped out by a huge avalanche in 1998.

The women and children, acquired from Machiguenga curacas or simply snatched from their homes, would be exchanged, along with salted fish and other deep-jungle goods, for Cuzco mountain produce as well as knives and, later, guns provided by the rubber barons.

The Incas would have been impressed to see how their descendents, today’s comuneros from the highlands of Cusco and Puno, have taken over the eastern jungles. In the old days, 600 years ago, the Chunchos, or Antis (Antisuyos) were much feared by the rulers of the greatest empire of the 15th century.

No longer. Today’s jungle Indians are all but exterminated. They stood up to the Incas and then the Spaniards though by the early 20th century they had been badly hit by the rubber barons. But the invasion by sierra campesinos in the past few decades, plus lumbermen and oil and gas men from Texas, have just about done for them.

The Incas conquered the mountains with a wonderful system of tens of thousands of miles of roads. The Amazon was dominated by the canoe on the world’s greatest network of rivers. It may be that a couple of thousand years ago, say, there were great cultures in the Amazon as there were along the pre-Conquest Mississippi.

Some scholars, including my old chum Gene Savoy, the great Andean explorer, maintain that the Amazon is the original source of all the Andean cultures.

Until a hundred years ago the jungle indians, like the Piros and Campas, were the aggressive ones. The chroniclers record forays by the Chunchos into the Cuzco region, including one where a jungle princess went off with Inca Prince Copacabana and “large quantities” of women and children.

The Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans wanted the women and children, we should assume, to convert them to Christianity.

Whatever, there were occasional more refreshing side-effects. One of the Machiguenga boys, Martin Mentiani, arrived in Lima during the guano boom in the service of the gay Dominican provost of the Santa Rosa Convent.

Martin escaped and hid out on a French merchant ship during the Chilean occupation, turned up in Antwerp and became butler to Paul Gauguin’s art dealer. He returned to Lima during the 1900 centenary celebrations, and returned to Cusco and the jungles of the Alto Urubamba.

This and other tall jungle stories were told to me this week by Alejandro Camino, Peru’s distinguished and much-travelled anthropologist. He has just returned from Madagascar and has spent years in places like Nepal. He and Mrs. Camino serve the best Hindu food this side of Darjeeling at their home in Miraflores.

The Santa Rosa/Carmen slave market came to an end only three or four generations ago, in the early years of the last century.

I was reminded of it by a visit, also this past week, to the annual barter market at Tiobamba, Maras, just above Urubamba, where truckloads of people arrive from Pucara and other parts of the Puno altiplano with thousands of clay chombas which they exchange for maize from the Urubamba Valley. Most of the deals are still straight barter and all the chatter is in Quechua. The metre-high ones for making chicha make fine pots for plants, though I admit that I paid coin of the realm, not maize, for the chombas –S/25-30 for big ones, the same as the cost of a machete.

Published in Caretas Magazine

 

Don’t believe all you hear about lost cities. But then again, why not?

By Nicholas Asheshov

Sra. Nelly, who helps out on busy weekends, told me the other day when she heard me talking about a valley below Machu Picchu: “My cousin Alfredo knows where there’s this really big ruin. It’s on his own place, above Sta. Teresa.”

Nick's adventure as captured by Peruvian artist Carlos Christian Castellanos Casanova

I should have a double Scotch for every time someone has told me where to find buried treasure and secret ruins.

Nelly went on, looking round to see that no one else was listening. “It’s got these three lines of great walls, near the top of a hill. There’s a waterfall…”.

With lost cities and buried treasure there’s some common characteristics to the stories. One is that they are always second-hand.

The most consistently unreliable stories come from priests and protestant missionaries, invariably imprecise and gullible; perhaps it goes with the territory. The most famous in our area was a Padre Polentini, active for decades in the Lares Valley over a cold bare pass from Calca. According to everyone you meet in this attractive but little-visited area, Padre Polentini spent all his time -this would be the ’70s and ’80s– looking for lost cities and of course he built up, the same stories say, a hoard of gold and silver objects which one of the Cuzco archbishops sent off to the Vatican.

To add substance to the foggy world of lost cities and buried treasure, there’s a private museum in Lima crammed full of spectacular gold and silver objects that are all grave-robbed. It is much better than the tourist-trap Gold Museum, which is full of fakes.

A late-breaking version of the secret hoard syndrome is the story, first published in Caretas’ Country Notes in March this year, that Machu Picchu itself was looted in the 1880s by a German, August R. Berns, and all the huacos were sent off to the Berlin Museum.

The discoverer of this gem of lost city-ology, Paolo Greer, is much smarter and more persistent than the professional archaeologists and historians. One of Paolo’s specialties is locating old gold and silver mines, some of which are in production again over on the eastern slopes of the Carabaya between Cuzco and Puno. Today this is one of Peru’s toughest no-go regions, controlled by drug gangs and illegal gold panners.

Paolo has also been working on what he calls “Portuguese” silver mines to the East of Machu Picchu. He tried to get up there a few months ago but got turned back by impassable cliffs.

Others, led by Gary Ziegler, of Colorado, and Vince Lee, a couple of months ago held a symposium hosted by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of The Explorers Club. I’ve been out many times with Gary in the Vilcabamba beyond Machu Picchu and he thoughtfully combines GPS technology with ensuring that one of the mules is assigned to carry three crates of Stolychnaya with a few bottles of Martini for the women.

Technology doesn’t seem to have made the slightest difference to the rate of discovery of lost cities in the Andes.

The Instituto Geografico 100:000 maps, produced arm-in-arm with the Pentagon, are still dodgy, because they don’t do much footwork to back up the clever satellites.

However, things are a lot easier in the field today with the ferocious accuracy and handy cheapness of GPS machines the size of a telephone. This means that you can draw your own maps, as detailed or as sketchy as you like with spot-on accuracy.

But clear thinking is much more important than technology.

A few years ago a priest down in the Apurimac told me about a treasure-trove of dollars, quantities of camping equipment, a massive cache of canned food, a light bulldozer and shotguns up in the northern Vilcabamba. He added: “There’s a dozen late-model parachutes.”

I instantly realized he was talking about my own National Geographic expedition in 1963 Perú by Parachute – NGS 1964 (link to pdf of article) where, true, I’d had to abandon a couple of torn ‘chutes, a broken 16-bore shotgun and a pile of empty Coke bottles. I explained it all to the priest.

He didn’t believe a word of it.

Now I must get on with organizing a trip before the rains start to check on Sra. Nelly’s cousin Alfredo’s lost city above Sta. Teresa. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of Sept. 12, 2008