The 'real Indiana Jones' defends his deeds

Science & Research

December 10, 2004|By Thomas H. Maugh | Thomas H. Maugh,Los Angeles Times

Gene Savoy plunged into the Peruvian jungle half a century ago in search of the fabled El Dorado, a lost Inca 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.

Now semiretired, Savoy never found El Dorado. But along the way, 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," Savoy 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 has probably seen more Chachapoya architecture than any man alive, discovering, by his own 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 he were chased through a cave by a rolling boulder.

"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 that Savoy often dismisses as "fuddy-duddy academics" -- go to a site and carefully document what they find, preserving artifacts and eventually 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 defiantly. "The scientist tells you what you found, but you have to find it in the first place. ... Let the scientists come in later."

The Cloud People

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 just feet away can remain hidden.

"Imagine the Amazon jungle stretched over the Rocky Mountains," said University of Florida archaeologist Michael Moseley.

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 trading 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 came from, but starting about 1,300 years ago, they began to spread through the Ceja de Selva, reaching a population of about 500,000. They built their cities on mountaintops.

The Chachapoya's downfall began around 1470, when the Inca began a war of conquest against them, resulting in their subjugation. Soon after, the Spanish conquered the Inca. Ultimately, infectious diseases brought by the Europeans killed as many as 98 percent of the Cloud People.

Savoy had never 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 other explorers before him, was to find El Dorado -- a city deep in the rain forest that some believed held the Inca's treasures.

He had been the editor of a small newspaper in suburban Portland, Ore., 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.

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