The Treasure Hunter
- Chapter8 - Coaque, The Golden City
"It is said that the chief Indian gave Francisco Pizzaro an emerald as big as a pigeon’s egg used for grinding wheat, in exchange for seventeen Indian women"
FERNANDO DE HERRERA,
- Chapter8 - Coaque, The Golden City
If you ask almost anyone, even most Ecuadorians, how to get to Coaque, you will probably receive a blank look for your trouble. As I had pointed out to Robin, if you study most current maps, even the most expensive, highly detailed ones, I doubt that you will find Coaque pinpointed.
I myself was forced to refer to Marshall H. Saville’s 1910 map to find the present city and river of Coaque. That map was drawn as a result of the George G. Heye Expedition, which was one of the most elaborate of several early twentieth century explorations of the west coast of Latin America. Finding Marshall Saville’s name led me to a highly informative article by him in Contributions to South American Archaeology. Everything sounds so simple when I say: "I found a map" or "It led me to an article." Let me state right now, productive research on lost treasures is damned hard work. One must dig through dusty archives for long hours, which grow into days, and often into weeks.
In the stacks of the British Museum and the Royal Geographical Society, I built a picture of the great Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. The story of his march along the west coast of South America was chronicled by his cousin, Pedro Pizarro, whose journal refers to Coaque, the City of Gold. Pizarro was born in the 1470’s and was with Balboa in 1513 when he discovered the Pacific Ocean. In 1532 he encountered the fa mous Inca leader, Atahualpa, high in the Andes. Pizarro first professed friendship; then, after kidnapping and holding the Indian emperor-god for ransom, Pizarro had him killed.
But before Pizarro even dreamed of the wealth he would find in Peru, he ventured into what is now known as Ecuador. His ship’s pilot had first seen Coaque in 1526, during their second voyage down the west coast of South America. Subsequently, in January 1531, Pizarro sailed out of Panama on a voyage of thirteen days, landing most of his men and horses at the mouth of the Esmeraldas River. There he began a march southward along the shoreline with his ships kept close in for supply and support.
Pedro Pizarro’s journal relates that the highlight of the adventure was the sacking of the town of Coaque. He wrote that the town was near large and high mountains, and that the neighboring farm land was extensively cultivated. The plunder taken from the Indians was mainly in gold, silver, and emeralds. Diarists seem to disagree on the actual amount of booty taken, but Pizarro placed the value at 200,000 castellanos. Considering the recent rise in the value of gold and allowing for inflation, that figure would convert to somewhere between $4 million and $6 million in raw gold value today. That is not taking into account the unique value of antiquities, which can run ten to fifteen times the value of the gold they contain.
Another record keeper, a secretary named Xerez, stated:
"They marched along the shore, finding all the inhabitants in arms against them. They continued their march until they reached the village called Coaque which they entered, for the inhabitants had not risen as in the other villages."
Pizarro, true to form, finding the local people non-hostile, proceeded to take their wealth. He shipped out the loot on three of his ships to Panama and Nicaragua, then ordered more troops. Two of the ships came back with 26 horsemen and 30 foot soldiers.
Pizarro then headed southward toward Peru and history, but the records contend that the plunder of Coaque was his greatest up to that time. And if that were true, there had to be some gold left in the burial mounds. The area around Coaque was ripe. I needed to know more.
Many of the accounts I had found kept referring to documents located in Spanish archives I decided to go to Seville to see the actual records.
The Spaniards who conquered Latin America not only kept most of the gold they found, they also kept astonishingly complete records The Archivos des Indios in Seville are overwhelming. In my travels, I .had so improved my Spanish that I was able to perform most of my preliminary research alone in the dusty rooms filled with huge, incredibly neat records and diaries and reports. Among the discoveries was a vivid account by the Spanish poet Fernando de Herrera, who, three hundred years ago, apparently wrote on mundane historical subjects before turning to sonnets. Here is the crude translation I obtained:
"One morning they reached Quaque, a town surrounded by big mountains, and there they created panic among the Indians. Indians could have encountered and resisted them, but they didn’t because they thought that by doing no harm to those men, they were not going to receive injuries from them also, but they, the Indians, were wrong. The Indians only ran into the woods taking weights of gold, silver, and emeralds, little emeralds that in those days were considered precious, but many of those emeralds were lost. According to the priest Reginaldo de Pedraça, Order of Saint Domonique, "Those emeralds were said to be even harder than iron, and that nothing could break them. Trying to prove this, many emeralds were destroyed by hammer." Some did say that the priest lied, and that he himself was hiding the emeralds somewhere. A few others did hide some emeralds.
The treasures were gathered for the King’s Treasure, some of which was to be distributed among them. If somebody kept some part of the treasures hidden, he had to pay with his life for such a treason. This order was kept all along the journey. The Indians were afraid.They were astonished looking at the horses. They even believed that the Spaniards were immortals. One of the Indians returned from the woods and took refuge in his own house. He was taken in front of Don Francisco Pizarro, and the Indian said to him: "I was hidden in my own house, not in someone else’s house, and you, against our own will came to our land to frighten us. My people left because they were afraid." D. Francisco Pizarro answered: "Tell your people to come back, my intention is not to harm them, you are wrong, you should have come to make peace instead of running away as you did." The Indians (children, women and men) came back from the woods, but soon afterwards, seeing that they were not considered but only treated as servants, they decided to return to the woods, where they could not easily be found.
With the gold and precious stones, Don Francisco Pizarro decided to send two ships to Panama and a third one to Nicaragua. Bartolemé de Aguilar was in charge of them. Those ships also carried passengers, horses, and letters to his friends on which he wrote about the richness of the land, and also that it only was governed by one man, from whom he could expect a lot of good. Those who remained in Quarte, land on the Equinoccial Line (Equator), had to suffer several diseases during those seven months. Some went to bed and woke up with swollen members; others with contracted members; others never woke up, and some others with inflammations that took twenty days to cure, and warts on their eyes, all over their bodies, and great pains that did not allow them to walk, and made them look like monsters. Those who cured that very infectious disease, tried to cut off those warts they had, but most who did, bled themselves to death. Some of them had minor symptoms, and they thought that the reason of the disease was that they had eaten a poisonous fish given to them by the Indians, so they ate fruits, corns and roots and did not touch meat or fish. The were all longing for the return of the ships... Diseases continued, food started to become scarce, so they decided to move to another land. Just about to move, they met another ship with supplies on which were travelling Alfonso Riquelme, Treasurer; Garcia de Sancedo, merchant; Antonio Navarro,accountant; Geronimo de Aliago; Gonzalo de Farfan; Melchor de Verdugo; Pedro Diaz, and many others. They informed D. Francisco Pizarro that due to his rapid departure from Seville, some officials who were left behind asked in a Requisition presented to the authorities in Panama, to have his journey stopped, but that the King, in spite of (Pizarro’s) having left behind Royal Officials, was not prepared to stop his voyage, but granted him (Pizarro) the Right to choose officials among his crew while the Royal Officials did not reach him...
Indians by then had changed their mind about the Castilians. Their opinion was not quite the same they had before. They thought that Castilians were cruel, thieves of lands, able to do harm to those who were not causing them any, and that they had big horses that flew as the wind, long spears and sharp swords which cut anything they touched... News of all this reached the Inca governors at Cuzco.
They arrived to another town named Paffao, and there, the peace maker Don Francisco Pizarro said: "Our people won’t offend those who abide by the King of Castilla, we offer true Peace, a peace that comes from our will, not a false one." It was then that Indians started serving the Castilians to their best, because indeed they were used to serve their masters well. It is said that the chief Indian gave D. Francisco Pizarro an emerald as big as a pigeon’s egg used for grinding wheat, in exchange for seventeen Indian women they had from other towns. The chief Indian did not know it was a valuable stone, he thought that it was worthless. After that they left Paffao, in very good harmony with the Indians."
After several days of intensive digging in the archives, I headed back to London to wrap up my affairs before Jane and I headed off for Coaque.
This was to be no small jaunt. We were searching out one of the great treasure areas of the world. Coaque was once inhabited by Indians who kept domesticated animals, wove wool and cotton, and were accomplished artists in gold and silver. They had developed agricultural tools of copper and other metals, had tended advanced gardens, and had planned city streets. Marshall Saville, writing of his 1908 expedition, said: "... it is not at all improbable that [burial] mounds marking the sites of ancient cities lie buried in the jungle." He also observed that ". ..in ancient times this beautiful region contained one of the most important and populous cities of the entire north- west coast of South America. Many of the flat-topped hills appear to have been artificially leveled and this spot is undoubtedly the site of ancient Coaque. All along the southern banks of the river we find innumerable traces of ancient remains. Along the beach from the mouth of the river to Pedernales Point, a distance of little over a mile, we saw potsherds strewn along the shore."
On October 25, 1971, Jane and I left London to begin our search. Our first stop was Miami, my regular jumping-off point in treasure hunting. Even then, I was still wary of the Batres brothers from Peru, so we made our Miami stop as short as possible. I went shopping for a couple of .38 caliber revolvers, a .30.30 rifle, and sufficient ammunition to sustain us for an extended jungle trip. Then I outfitted Jane with jeans, heavy shirts, rain gear, and good, stout boots to protect her legs from snakebites.
Back in Quito, we purchased our major provisions-hammocks, machetes, tinned foods, coffee, whisky, and the like-and after two hectic days of negotiations, I rented a Land Rover. Car- hire agencies want an Inca king's ransom when you are asking for a vehicle for two months, and after all that haggling I still ended up leaving a deposit of $1,000.
Finally, one morning we drove west out to Quito in the direction of Bahia de Caraquez, which is 300 miles away on the Pacific Coast. We had our equipment and supplies, and we had brand-new detection paraphernalia that would help me wrestle some of that gold away from the earthen vaults of Coaque's burial mounds- I hoped.
The first two hundred miles of the road west were reasonably easy, but as we came down the mountains toward the coastline, the going got perilous at times. Occasionally, we would hear the roar of a landslide in front or in back of us. I was skirting one such pile of rubble when Jane asked, "How far below this road is that valley, Howard?"
I gave a quick glance out her window and replied, " About a thousand feet, more or less."
"That's what I thought," she said with a twinge of nervousness in her voice. The wheels of the car were only a foot away from a nonstop plunge to the bottom.
"If it worries you, I'll go faster 'til we pass this landslide," I suggested cheerfully.
Her silence was deafening.
Ninety miles south of our target, we hit the coastline at Bahia de Cariquez and discovered that a Land Rover is excellent transport on a beach at low tide. Dry riverbeds are also easy, and there were more than twenty rivers and streams to cross before we arrived at the Coaque River. In a few weeks those dry riverbeds would be so swollen that crossing them would be impossible.
Our Land Rover purred along on the hard-packed sand, but at several points on our journey north to the equator we were forced to travel inland to avoid rocky stretches of coastline. Many of the inland trails were mountainous. Going down one steep incline, we began to pick up too much speed. I pumped the brakes. My stomach knotted as the vehicle kept going. I pumped harder and faster, but still no braking action. After a jolting, heart-in-throat roller coaster ride down and along a sheer precipice, we finally slowed to a stop at the bottom of the hill.
When I jumped out and raised the hood, I found that the master cylinder was leaking-we were out of brakes. To make the 350-mile trek back to Quito was out of the question. The delay would put us right into the middle of the rainy season. For the rest of the trip, downhill runs were made with the car in low gear and my heart in my mouth.
Late the next afternoon, after a harrowing nonstop day of driving, we came over the brow of a hill and looked down into the magnificent valley of the Coaque River, a wide fertile expanse with the broad, swift-flowing river cutting through the jungle. We were exhausted, but we stood perfectly still, taking in one of the most awesome views I have seen in all of my travels. The huge, molten-red ball of the sun floated on the rim of the Pacific Ocean, and on our right the jagged peaks of the Coaque Mountains rose 20 miles away above the dense, green, vine-snarled jungle. We were precisely on the equator.
We pitched a temporary camp and settled in for our first night in Coaque. We slept deeply, too tired to hear the screeching pumas, wild turkeys, monkeys, and birds. In the morning, we trailblazed along the river and came to an Indian village, also called Coaque, which we hoped was near the site of the ancient Coaque.
There were about twenty huts of thatch and bamboo, which should have been filled with naked children, squawking chickens, and barking dogs, but everything that was live disappeared magically when we arrived. Chocolate bars finally restored the children to visibility, and soon after, the grown-ups began to appear. It was a poor-looking village, but the inhabitants had an abundance of natural food: bananas, papaya, citrus fruits, and many types of game and fish.
The Indians were delighted to learn that I was looking for workers and was planning to pay cash. My labor force signed up for the equivalent of forty cents per man per day.
The village women were shy, and too busy to ogle the new visitors anyway. As in most Indian cultures, the men do the fighting and hunting and the women do the work. (We learned that it required eight hours of hard labor for one woman to husk sufficient rice for ten people.) And the Indians marry early. One man who worked for us was twenty-four, his wife, twenty, and they had six children with another on the way. The wife would probably live to be twenty-six or twenty-seven, and then die in childbirth or of dysentery.
Yet the people were friendly and kind, and they shared some of their odd but tasty meals with us. (We were careful never to ask what exactly it was we were eating.) Jane hit it off quickly with the women. She served them a special lunch of tinned food, which astounded them, and she gave them colored scarves and plastic hair clips.
The village was at sea level, with the hills towering about it on all sides. Here, according to Marshall Saville's assumption, was the probable site of Coaque, the ancient Inca city. We set up a camp on the south bank near the mouth of the river, then reconnoitered the valley and hills on horses hired from the Indians. It was Jane who first spotted the potsherds that were being washed out of the river nearly a mile from its mouth, a certain sign that many people had once lived here. We tethered the horses to examine the pottery. Most fragments were very poor in quality and of crude workmanship.
But Jane was enthusiastic. "We're very lucky to have found evidence so quickly, don't you think, Howard?"
I hated to disillusion her, especially since she had spotted the pottery fragments first. "It was a very good find," I assured her. "But the people who lived here were fishermen, workers, probably in the service of the more sophisticated hierarchy living up there." I pointed to the hills east of the river. "There I think we'll find finer pottery."
"Then let's go there," she said.
For five days we hacked our way through the dense vegetation, paralleling the river's south bank and heading east. We looked for man-made mounds and stopped to make excavations in likely places, but found nothing. Using my meager Spanish, gestures, and drawings, I described to our Indian workmen the kind of mounds I was looking for. One of the Indians said he could take us to such a mound further up river, but when we arrived there I saw it was high and irregular, a natural hill and not a classical South American tola.
However, I could see, further to the east, a high, flat area between two hills. It was so level that it seemed unnatural, and there appeared to be several large depressions in a straight line on apart of the ridge leading up to the leveled area.
"Do you think that's Coaque?" Jane asked, after surveying the area with the binoculars.
"No, we're too far up river, but I've got a strong hunch it's the site of another town."
"Let's go," she said.
We found nine depressions, equally spaced in a straight line, each one about 18 feet in diameter and 3 feet deep, resembling filled-in wells. Then I made our second discovery. Really excited, I grabbed Jane's arm and pointed to a flat area of about two hundred acres nestled between two hills. As we hurried up to it, we could see that the ground was littered with highly polished polychrome pottery fragments. These were made by true artists, with excellent craftsmanship. All our disappointment dissolved. An ancient city was buried beneath our feet.
I chose a central depression for our excavation, staked the outline of a trench for our initial dig, and ordered the Indians to dig. To a depth of several feet the earth and rock fill was quite loose. It was getting late in the day, so I sent the Indians to carry supplies from the Land Rover and walked Jane back to the new campsite. We had a snack from the small food supply we carried in our saddlebags, and then I headed back to the trench to dig.
It wasn't more than ten minutes before my trowel struck a hard object. Because I was scooping the earth away carefully, it was another five minutes before I could grip the object and cautiously pull it free; but as I brushed the clinging dirt from it, in the fading light I saw a glint of gold.
I shouted for Jane to come, holding the object aloft. It was a magnificent solid gold ornamental headdress. We were filled with excitement.
A Single Day's Treasure
At a depth of 8 feet in the depression, we encountered a floor of unfired clay, slightly domed in shape, which continued to a vertical wall. What we had found was a chamber cut into solid limestone rock which, perhaps a thousand years ago, had been plastered with the layer of clay. Digging under the dome of clay to a depth of ten feet we found the first remains of a body, a grey powdery material with a few scattered human teeth and a fragment of jawbone. Jane and I, with our gardening trowels, dug under the body remains and found the first group of artifacts: bowls, several pottery lamps, two small pottery figures (one painted, whose vivid colors had lasted all these centuries), a bird-shaped whistle that still worked, human and animal figures, and many smooth green serpentine beads.
We completed the excavation of the burial chamber in two more days, preserving as much as possible the clay-lined and covered chamber walls. It turned out to be a huge bowl hollowed out of the solid rock to a depth of 12 feet. I knew we had not yet found Coaque- we were too far upstream- but the quality of everything we had found proved that the people who had lived here were wealthy and highly artistic.
Early the next morning we were enveloped in the low clouds, which often cover the hills in the area. As we were drinking our morning coffee, Jane suddenly said, "Howard, why do I have the feeling we're being watched?"
At almost the same moment, I caught a quick movement in the trees in back of Jane. Quietly I said, "Sit still. There is something or somebody in the trees in back of you." I had my gun ready. I stood up and called, "Hey, amigo?"
An Indian looked out from behind a tree. I motioned to him and he approached, smiling.
"Coma se llama?" I called. "Anestro," he replied. (I've spelled it phonetically, since he can neither read nor write.)
We talked, after our fashion, and I learned that, as a hunter, Anestro knew the hills and mountains on either side of the Coaque River from its mouth on the Pacific to as far east as the Coaque Mountains. I invited him to join us as a guide and laborer, and he accepted. He was the only Indian we met who seemed to have some awareness of the importance of the artificial mounds he had seen. None of the other Indians had any knowledge of their ancestry or of the Indian Empire that once claimed this land. But Anestro seemed to have an interest in antiquity.
Over the years, as he hunted game to feed his family, Anestro had seen other locations where there were depressions similar to these we were working. Some, he said, were on a long, flat place high in the hills north of where the Coaque River entered the sea. I was delighted. Perhaps this, at last, was the site of ancient Coaque.
We had already dug up several valuable pieces of gold, but this trip was to be exploratory, in preparation for a large, well-manned expedition after the rainy season. The gold had been there for centuries; it could remain a few more months. But I was still anxious to pinpoint the City of Gold. After a discussion with Jane, we decided to take a look at Anestro's suggested site.
The next morning we found a place to cross to the north bank of the Coaque River. With our Indian laborers following and Anestro leading the way, we worked our way north and up into the hills.
As we pushed along the gently rising ridge, I suddenly realized we were traveling on an ancient road. It must have required a huge work force in those forgotten times to accomplish the shaping and filling which provided the even, wide surface to the top of the hill ahead of us.
We climbed higher and entered onto along, well-formed section of level ground. It had obviously been leveled by man. We rode our horses the half mile to the end of the plateau, which was about the width of a football field, and stared out at the soul-stirring sight of the mouth of the Coaque River, a thousand feet below, pouring its waters into the blue vastness of the Pacific. We stood looking at the sea, as many an Indian chieftain must have centuries ago.
Jane broke the silence. "What happened to the city, Howard? Did the people just die out and the buildings rot away?"
"It was destroyed by the Indians themselves," I answered.
"They tried to ruin it so Pizarro couldn't use it. Then they abandoned it and fled, probably to Quito."
"Senseless," she said, half to herself. "Pizarro destroyed an entire culture, a civilization, just for gold."
It was mid-afternoon when we dismounted and began walking around. Sticking out of the eroded soil, and just under its surface, were all manner of ancient objects, obviously from a sophisticated civilization.
We frequently bent over to pick up and examine beautifully made pots, some painted and intact, others broken. Perhaps the most fascinating ancient works in pottery are the Indian whistles resembling one- to four-note ocarinas. These ancestors of our modern-day "sweet potato" were made in the form of birds and all sorts of human and animal figures. I picked up a jaguar, and brushing the dirt off it, located the blow hole in the pottery animal's rear end and two finger holes, one on each flank. When it was thoroughly cleaned, I would have a two-note whistle at least half a millennium old.
Had I really found it? The City of Gold, first seen by Francisco Pizarro and lost for nearly five hundred years? A few days of digging would tell the story, I hoped.
"Howard," Jane said, "Shouldn't we make camp first and then explore this place in the morning?"
Reluctantly I agreed. It is no fun to make camp in the dark. But with an hour or two of daylight left, I couldn't bring myself to leave this burial ground. "You supervise the Indians. I'm going to start probing right here."
Jane left with the Indians, and I walked over to the first of the depressions Anestro had pointed out to me earlier. It was about three feet deep and fifteen to twenty feet across. I stepped down into it, pulled the rifle strap off my shoulder, and laid the gun down. Then I began searching with my metal probe.
Marshall Saville had written that Coaque was on the southern bank of the river. I was about to prove that undisputed authority on pre-Columbian Indian culture to be in error. The mercenary lust for gold was still boiling inside of me, but the thrill of discovery was almost as strong.
I felt the point of my probe make contact with something solid. I pulled the probe out of the dirt and set it on the ground by my side. Then I reached for my spade and started digging. It was late afternoon, but the heat was still intense, even at this altitude.
In an hour I had carefully removed the dirt down to four feet, where the point of my probe had made contact. I was evidently into a grave; I could tell by the color of the dirt, which was a moldering grey instead of the yellowish texture of the surface soil.
I reached down into the shallow excavation and my fingers wriggled through the dirt and touched metal. I found the edge of the piece of metal and gently pulled it from the earth. Getting to my feet I shook the thin object, and as the dirt of centuries dropped from it, I saw that I was holding a pre-Columbian death mask. The gold gleamed in the setting sun as brilliantly as the day some Indian artisan had pounded the face into the sheet of yellow metal.
Gold Artifacts from Coaque
The months of planning, the jungle hardships, the researches and theories all fell away. Alone, I stood on what had to be the outskirts of ancient Coaque, clutching the golden mask and looking out over the blue Pacific Ocean.
My thoughts were interrupted when Jane came up behind me, let out a shriek of delight, and snatched the death mask out of my hand.
"I didn't even bother to break out the metal detector," I said, turning from the ocean. "Found it with the probe."
"What a strange-looking face," she said in a hushed voice.
"They actually made these masks look like the face of a dead person."
"Did they put them over the face of the corpse?"
"I've never uncovered a grave and found one over the skull. Usually you find the mask buried on the chest." I took the shining gold mask back from her, turning it to catch the rays of the setting sun. "This could be a thousand years old."
"What did they actually do with those things?" Jane asked.
"No authority has been able to answer that question definitively." I tapped a small hole at the top of the mask. "Most of them have this hole at the top. The theory is that they were worn around the neck on some sort of a cord."
"I don't think I'd like to wear a mask that was supposed to look like somebody's dead face."
I looked at the death mask again. Then, reluctantly, I said, "Let's get back to the camp. It will be dark in minutes. There's no twilight on the equator."
Jane and the Indians had done a good job of making camp. Our hammocks were strung beside each other, the plastic sheets suspended above them to keep off the unpredictable rain. The Indians had chosen a site a hundred yards or more away from ours. They had even gone down to the river below and brought back water buckets for our use.
I stripped off my hot, sweat-soaked clothes and poured a bucket of water over myself. Then I lay down on the bedding roll in my hammock, and instantly plunged into a deep sleep.
Dawn erupts violently on the equator. A big red ball of energy bounces into the sky with such vitality that it is easy to understand why the Incas considered it a deity. To them, the sun was an agent of the creator-god, Viracocha, and because the sun was so important, it was deemed that all Inca rulers were descended from the sun and therefore could do no wrong. And that's the feeling I had as I rolled out of my hammock: Today I could do no wrong.
Pizarro had come to the new world shortly after the death of the Great Inca, Huayna Capac, who was believed to be the direct descendant of the sun. Huayna Capac had left a legacy of confusion, and his empire was torn between his sons. One was Huascar; the other was the man who was destined to be the victim of Pizarro's most ignoble act, Atahualpa, the ruler who provided a ransom of a room filled with gold as high as he could reach, and who was rewarded with death. As Jane and I sipped our morning coffee, I wondered how many of the ancient man-gods of the Incas had ever walked on this exact spot.
I pressed the work crew to the digs by six-thirty in the morning. We went directly to the depression in which I had found the gold death mask. I wasn't sure just what these depressions were, but they were surely some kind of a tomb. I walked over the site with my metal detector but found no signal. This had to mean that the gold, if more was there, was beyond the ten- foot effective range of the instrument. I then directed the Indians to start an excavation, and took Jane for a walk.
As we walked, we talked again of that lurid time in the early 1500's when Pizarro and his 188 men and 26 horses had conquered this land. The Indians never had seen men on horses and for a time believed the men and mounts to be one animal, a horrifying apparition. The Spaniards had firearms, the Incas had only spears. But I think the most fatal aspect of the confrontation was the Inca philosophy of war. Gold had a ceremonial significance to them, but because it was in such abundance, they placed a low value on it. To the Inca and most other pre-Co1umbian Indians, real wealth was measured in slaves. So when war was conducted and battles fought, killing the opponent was simply throwing away wealth-preferably the enemy was to be captured and enslaved.. The Inca had never perfected the art of slaughter. The Spanish had.
"It isn't fair," Jane said.
"No, but it made Spain the wealthiest Country in the world at that time." Yet even So, a wealth of artifacts were lost to Pizarro because they were buried.
Most of the Inca statues, pectorals, and toomies that were found were melted down by the Spanish. The statues and pectorals were graven images, which were condemned by the ever- present priest-explorers Who accompanied all expeditions. And the toomies, the crescent-shaped ceremonial knives, were used in sacrificial ceremonies, a gross violation of New Testament beliefs. Even if an explorer such as Pizarro wanted to keep a relic intact, he was faced with the wrath of the clerics, Who represented themselves as the voice of both God and the King of Spain. It is a sad fact that only three codices of the historic picture writing of pre-Co1umbian Indians exist today. Once there were thousands, but they were ordered burned by the priests, Who looked upon the material as part of pagan Worship. I have stood for hours looking at the beautiful Codex of the Mixtex, or Cloud People, in the British Museum. It tells the story of Chief Eight-Deer Ocelot-Claw, of the trials and tribulations and joys of his 52-year life. Every time I dig, I move gently, hoping that I might uncover one of those picture- writing books. That would really be a treasure to bestow on mankind.
We continued to dig and soon uncovered another ancient grave. It had housed a person who was not of great wealth, but I was far from discouraged. The population of the Coaque valley in ancient times was reported in tens of thousands over a period of eight or nine hundred years; therefore, we were in an area that had to contain well over half a million graves, based on the short lifespan of the early Indians. Gold would be there, in great quantities.
A Deep Excavation
After four days of hard labor in the 90° temperatures, we completed digging out two of the depressions to which Anestro had led us. We found them constructed in the same manner as those upstream, and we dug down eight to ten feet, terracing steps to the bottom as we dug. My opinion was reinforced as we worked. These strange tombs could represent only a small part of the burial ground for a city as large as Coaque. But I was more than ever convinced we were on the site; the entire top of the 1,000 foot high ridge had been completely flattened off for half a mile and was about a hundred yards wide, too large an area for an ordinary Indian village.
In the first depression, at a depth of seven feet, we began to encounter the grey-colored earth, and from then on we dug cautiously as I probed the dirt below us. I was increasingly amazed that I had found the death mask a mere four feet below the surface. Perhaps it had been put that far above the actual grave as a sort 0£ curse, or to stop a superstitious pillager from digging any further.
Below the seven-foot level, Jane found a gold headdress once worn by some Indian prince, or wealthy citizen. At the same depth, we found a second and a third body, curled on their sides in the fetal position. They were equally well-endowed for the afterlife-buried with them were necklaces, bracelets, tiny statuettes, and medallions which were gold. I soon began to realize that my original hopes were being confirmed. But the potentially enormous size of the dig at Coaque was going to require greater organization and a concentrated search for the main burial ground, for here were only a few of the well-like tombs. Jane and I were faced with the impending rainy season, which would either isolate us from civilization or force us to take a long tortuous route inland- and neither prospect seemed attractive to us. Besides, I was eager to put together a major expedition. We had made the initial location of the area; we would leave and come back in June with a full crew of diggers.
But there were two local legends that nagged at me, and I was determined to seek out the foundations of the stories. Through the years, Indians had related a tale of a city, which stood atop one of the two high peaks of the Coaque Mountains; Pizarro gave brief mention to it in his journal. The other legend was of an old Indian who had stumbled on more than eighty pounds of gold artifacts. The old man was supposed to have lived on the Conquista River, which runs through the Coaque Mountains.
I found these tales irresistible. With the plan to return firmly established in my mind, I decided we could invest at least a few days in trying to find the city in the mountains. It turned out to be more of a chore than I had anticipated.
Mount Pata de Pajaro is only 2,000 feet high, but it is the highest mountain on the coast between Panama and Peru, and a nearly constant low cloud cover obscures the top from general view. I soon discovered that no one, not even the curious Indians, ever made an attempt to scale the peak. There are reports of ferocious animals on the approaches up the side of Mount Pata de Pajaro, but the Indians were more afraid of the blue lights they claimed to have seen shining at night. This was a sign of ghostly activity. I figured I could handle the animals with my rifle, and I reasoned that the blue lights were probably St. Elmo's fire, a harmless phenomenon caused by buildups of static electricity.
Finding native help who would believe me was another matter. In the end, I had to buy the valor of one little brown Indian named Maximo for $1.60 a day, four times the usual daily rate, in the small village of Atahualpa at the foot of the mountain. (The name of this village- plus one workman with the same name - is the only evidence I have that the Incas were ever in this area.)
Early one morning, we struck out to climb to the city. We carried food and equipment for only three days, plus my revolver and the rifle.
By late afternoon, Jane, Maximo, and I reached an abandoned hunter's hut part way up the mountain. Jane prepared a hot meal with an awesome skill. She turned canned sardines, tuna, carrots, and potatoes into a remarkable combination, which we topped off with tinned cherry cake and coffee.
We had cleaned up our plates and secured our cooking gear just as night and a heavy rainfall slammed down on us. Our evening was spent dodging rain and worrying about the possibility of an early rainy season. The water dripping on us was an ominous reminder that flooding rivers could strand us for several months.
After a hurried breakfast the next morning, we began climbing on foot, hacking out a path with our machetes. Water captured on bushes and trees drenched us, and the wet ground made the going difficult. We reached a small, flat plateau about midway to the top by eleven o'clock. At first I thought this might be the site of a town, but a close inspection provided none of the classic signs of ancient inhabitation. No potsherds, no traces of land leveled by man, no unusual mounds or depressions. Above us, the mountain still loomed, lost into a cloud of mist. Momentarily we were tempted to abandon the rest of the climb.
"If we give up here, we'll always regret not knowing what's at the top," I said, and Jane agreed.
Luckily, the vegetation began to thin out, and we slogged upward with a little less physical difficulty, though the mist of the cloud limited our visibility. At one spot we had to penetrate some heavy, dank vegetation, thick with tree branches. Maximo was leading, Jane second, and I following. The trees hung low, and I spotted a snake just as it uncoiled from a branch. As I yelled a warning, Maximo's machete flashed, and the snake's head was sheared off. It was an enormous monster, as thick as a fat man's thigh and eighteen feet long. It was an anaconda, a sort of Latin American python that can crush the bones of a man's body.
Our nerves were shaken, but pressed by the urgency to complete this exploration and head back to civilization, we continued our climb, fighting to gain three feet only to slide back two on the slippery grass and undergrowth. Three hours later we crested the last obstacle of slimy, moss-covered rocks and reached the summit.
The mountaintop was flat, but only measured about 30 by 75 feet-hardly the site for a city.
Jane said, "Well, at least we've killed a legend. What do we do now, climb the other peak?"
While Jane struggled with a sputtering cook fire, I examined the mountaintop. There was no pottery, but at a depth of eighteen inches the earth was nearly blood-red in color. As a geologist, I recognized the possibility that the soil might contain a valuable mineral, and if so, we were standing on a mountain of it. I took samples in a plastic bag for later analysis.
Jane had produced another miracle: tuna fish and spaghetti with onions, peppers, and hot sauce. It was marvelous, although I suspect that with the bottle of homemade white rum that Anestro had given us before departing, anything would have tasted good.
Next morning, as the first glimmer of dawn lightened the misty cloud enveloping us, we started the descent. Emerging from that blinding cloud halfway down was a great relief. We hurried toward the hut for the warm dry clothes we had left there the day before. The hut was in sight, near a large out- cropping of rocks, when we heard the growl from a crevice between two boulders. We froze. Without further warning, a huge jaguar sprang out. It stared at us for a moment, then with to quick steps leaped at us. My rifle came up by reflex and I fired, hitting the cat in mid-air. When it hit the ground, within three feet of us, it was dead.
Maximo examined the big cat. Then he lifted a back leg."Mujer," he added.
He had his knife out, looking at me. "Yo quiero?" he asked.
"Is he mad, Howard? Why does he want it?" Jane asked, moving closer to me.
"She's in her prime and her hide will bring a good price. But they usually don't attack people. Unless-."
There was a faint mewing, and a mini-copy of the big cat came out of the cave on uncertain feet. It was very young, looking for its mother. In an instant, Jane had it in her hands, stroking it. "I'll be your mother," she said softly. And she was, faithfully.
I made a crude nipple from a finger of a rubber glove that Jane produced from her duffle, and stretched it over a bottle full of milk and sugar. The kitten thrived. In a day it followed Jane everywhere, convinced she was its mother. Before we left it had progressed to raw meat and had grown alarmingly. It is now in Miami with friends who already have several unusual animals.
We changed to dry clothes while Maximo finished skinning the big cat, which we estimated to weigh three hundred pounds. It had been a difficult trip up and down the mountain, but at least Maximo had come out ahead. Besides the jaguar skin, he had the skin from the huge snake to take with him to market. All Jane and I had to show for the trip was a plastic bag of red dirt, which later analysis revealed to be only low-grade aluminum ore.
Back in the mountainside village of Atahualpa, the Indians told me of several mounds in the area. They said they were not far, and they were right. Within five miles I saw nine mounds, all large and man-made, and I filed them away mentally for the major expedition which we would mount after the rains.
The downpours had subsided somewhat, but I estimated we had only a few days before we would be trapped. Nevertheless, I decided to let Maximo take us to see if we could find the old man who was supposed to have stumbled upon eighty pounds of gold. Even back in 1971, when gold in the U.S. was only $35 an ounce, that would have amounted to over fifty thousand bucks. The gold might have been washed from graves during the river's flood stages, or a massive earthquake, which supposedly had sheared off the sides of mountains twenty years before, could have ruptured graves and spilled out treasure.
We went looking for the man, who was called Moifus Conforme. Fortunately, we were able to use the Land Rover for a part of the distance. There was a rough trail southeast of the Conquista River, but after three hours of bone-rattling driving, the trail ended at an Indian's house in a narrow valley. The setting was beautiful and peaceful; grassy slopes, grazing cattle, and a sparkling stream.
We left the car and bartered for horses and mules from the Indian. We loaded the metal detection gear and supplies on two mules. The going was still slow and rough. The horses stumbled over logs and boulders hidden in the thick bush. I began to have serious doubts about the sanity of this side trip, but I was determined to find out all I could about the area.
The sun was setting, and I had just about decided to make camp in the next clearing, when we broke out of the jungle and saw not only the Conquista River, but the rude house of Moifus Conforme. It was made of bamboo and thatch like all the others we had seen, though much larger, to accommodate the fourteen children and the innumerable grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and in-laws who were all living a peaceful simple life out here beyond the reach of civilization.
Moifus Conforme was seventy-four years old, which is incredibly old for an Indian, but he was as active as a man of thirty- five. His face was creased with wrinkles and had the fine, soft, leathery look of well-kept, expensive boots. He was mystified but rather pleased at having such strange guests, and he insisted we stay at his house. He was a simple man, trusting and patient. The flock of children obviously loved and respected him.
I told Moifus the stories we had heard about the "river of gold." He left us, returning two minutes later with a four-inch figure of a man and a two-headed, entwined snake bracelet. Both pieces were solid gold and beautifully made, but I was not really surprised- I had noticed that food was being prepared and served in polychrome pottery that would enhance any museum's pre-Columbian collection.
Moifus told me that he had collected many gold objects in the Conquista River over the years and sold them to a dealer in the city of Chone, forty miles over the mountains to the southeast. When he proudly related that the dealer had paid full value in cash on the basis of weight, I did not have the heart to tell the old man that he had been cheated out of the much greater antiquity value.
As he described his finds, the earthquake theory grew more and more plausible to me. Soil erosion by rains and flooding waters alone should not have produced the artifacts in the locations he related. Innocently, Moifus had never given much thought to Inca burial mounds. He had simply found gold, which provided a slightly higher standard of living for his huge family. He was quite aware that many people had inhabited the valley in ancient times, but the custom of burial mounds had vanished with the early Indian cultures. The "cooking pots decorated with colored pictures" meant nothing to him other than a kitchen utensil. We went to bed with a soft rain falling, a reminder that our time was running out quickly.
Early the next morning, with Moifus as guide, we set out on the journey up the Conquista River to pinpoint the places where the old man had found his gold. With us were Maximo and two of Moifus' sons, who were old men in their own right. Our horses took us part of the way, but the rest of the trip was on foot through the densest jungle we had ever traveled. Huge elephant leaves blocked out the sun, turning the jungle into a streaming, perpetual twilight. Cruel vines and lianas wound around our legs and seemed to be trying to capture us. We sank into bucket-sized holes under the rotting vegetation, and we tripped over fallen tree trunks infested with stinging ants and spiders. It was impossible to stand up straight and see anything more than a foot away. We had to slash and chop our way with machetes.
As we moved slowly through the jungle, monkeys and a noisy variety of birds passed derogatory comments on our presence. From time to time, old Moifus pointed out a spot where he had found gold, but still he urged us on. When we finally arrived at the main location, I was dismayed. The site was at the base of hills that rose four or five hundred feet from the valley.
"Look at that maze of bush," I lamented. "We can't sink a spade in that dense growth, and it will take days to clear the land well enough even to work the detection equipment." I shook my head in despair. Here was a site that could yield a fortune, but we'd have to leave it as we found it.
Jane said, " All right, we'll just hire a work force two or three times the size we've been working with."
I looked at her in amazement. "They still couldn't clear it in time to allow us to get back to Quito by using the Land Rover. We'd have to travel over a hundred miles on horseback, fording rivers by hanging onto horse tails. You wouldn't like that."
She wouldn't give up. "Then there's only one other solution. We'll stay and work right through the rains and to hell with it."
Jane had a family and friends in England. Christmas time was approaching. She was being irrational. I was determined to leave and plan a proper expedition of the size justified by our findings, but I saw I wasn't getting through to her, so I let the subject drop.
As a diversion, I took the men and began searching a dry riverbed. I was looking for pottery that had not been moved downstream, pieces with sharp edges rather than those which were rounded by the eroding process of movement along a riverbed. We spotted one such area, and I guessed there was a burial ground not far up in the hills. Along, thin strip of hammered gold gave credence to my theory. Possibly it had been part of a necklace or bracelet.
As we moved from the riverbed and up the side of the hill, old Moifus came up beside me with excitement in his voice. This was the area in which he had found the heaviest gold pieces. We reached a plateau he had described, and it was everything he had indicated it would be. The area was littered with more potsherds than we had ever seen- plain ones, painted ones, even some completely intact. I stubbed my toe on a gold medallion which was sticking up out of the earth, and immediately performed a superficial sweep of the area with my electronic gear. I was overwhelmed with signals. Before nightfall, I had picked up a copper axe head, a gold nose ring, and a small gold disk, which were all only a few inches under the surface. It was easy to locate building sites by the raised rectangular shapes of earth.
As the size of the site became clear, and as I considered the sophistication of the pottery and other artifacts, I became convinced that this might well be the most important town site I had discovered to date-perhaps even larger and richer than Coaque. It seemed incredible that I could be standing on the ruins of a once-enormous settlement of which no record seemed to exist. However, the entire area is relatively unknown to archaeologists and historians. Since Pizarro's time, only Marshall Saville's 1908 expedition had explored the area, and that party stuck close to the coastline, twenty miles to the west of the Conquista River. The entire province of Manabi was apparently heavily populated by sophisticated cultures in pre-Columbian times, yet little or nothing is known of these civilizations.
We pitched a temporary camp, and the next day I had the men bush a small area. We found more treasure, but my joy of discovery was dampened by the realization that we must leave- the cloud formations indicated that the rains were almost upon us.
While we were working, old Moifus told me about an incident that had occurred about a year before. A treasure hunter from Colombia had discovered a large burial mound about seven miles south of the village of Santa Rosa, a town on our route back to Bahia de Caraquez. The Colombian had located a great deal of gold, but he had run into bad luck. One of his young Indian diggers had been killed when the soft earth of the mound slid into the deep hole in which he was digging. The local Indians were so incensed that they delivered the Colombian to the authorities, and his treasure was confiscated before he was thrown into jail for manslaughter. I decided I would have to check that site on the way out.
One of the hardest things I have ever done in my life was to begin the hike out from old Moifus' site that afternoon. We had found gold easily, and had left many signals undug; we had only covered a small portion of the area. Only the thought of returning in June allowed me to place one foot in front of the other.
To make the trip out worse, Jane had begun to sulk. She had wanted to stay, and she was angry when I ignored her pleas. We hadn't been getting along well for weeks, and I was beginning to think it might be time for us to part company.
After a mildly hair-raising trip on trails now wet from the nightly showers, we reached Santa Rosa by late morning the next day. Santa Rosa is a small, primitive village of not more than twenty crude shacks, built on about eighty acres of land, which had obviously been leveled by man. It was apparent that a much larger city had been there centuries before. Within the center of the present village we saw several burial mounds, and the local people reported that there were many more in the surrounding jungle.
Just as we had been told, we found a partially dug mound alongside a small trail seven miles south of Santa Rosa. We could see where the unfortunate Colombian excavator had worked. He had dug out about one-third of the mound, which was 100 feet long, 30 feet wide, and about 12 feet high. We set up a camp and began to explore. Within forty minutes our detector led us to a beautiful piece of gold, a five-inch-long hammered sheet stylized into a human figure. The small hole in the top indicated it was a pectoral, worn from a string around the neck.
By the end of the second day we had found seven important gold artifacts and several minor ones. The productivity of the site was prompting me to think about hiring a local crew and working right through the rainy season, but that night I gave up the idea.
It wasn't really that hard to give up. Jane and I had one hell of a battle after dinner. Our relationship had been growing more strained day by day, partly because of simple clashes of temperament resulting from the pressures of such close teamwork, and partly for deeper problems I needn't go into. In any case, a storm had been brewing for some time, and that night it broke, violently.
Nasty comments were followed by nastier comments, and before I realized it she was yelling, "Oh, you bloody bastard!" and lunging for a folding campstool. She whipped it at me like a cricket bat. As I reached out to fend off the blow, my finger caught in the folding mechanism of the chair. I let out a yelp of pain, and then looked down to find that the third finger of my left hand was bent at a very odd angle indeed, obviously broken. Half a bottle of whisky and the first-aid kit supplied the anesthetic and equipment required to set and splint the break. But I suspected that nothing could repair the damage that had been done to our personal relationship.
We packed out the next morning and drove all day, fording nine rapidly rising rivers, and we reached Bahia by sundown. In two more days we had driven to Quito and checked into the Hotel Intercontinental Quito, adjusting to civilization and protecting our hoard of gold. Our tempers had calmed enough for us to enjoy the hotel's swimming pool, bars, and casino. The next week seemed almost indecently luxurious to us after the past two months in the bush.
A couple of days before heading back to London, I decided to lay some groundwork for my return trip. I set up an appointment with Ecuador's Minister of Culture, Dr. Jorge Gomez.
The ministry building in Quito is one of those modern-day civil-servant structures designed to leech on the life of a civilization long since dead. The reception area is filled with displays of the national wealth while dozens of spoils-system flunkies collect unearned paychecks without giving one damn about the priceless treasures around them. I was ushered into Doctor Gomez's office, and I shook hands with the short, rather pleasant little man behind the large desk.
During one of my earlier ventures, I had persuaded a Miami printer to run off a bunch of business cards identifying me as a director of archaeology for a nonexistent Texas museum. Business cards always seem to impress Latin American bureaucrats. At the opening of the meeting with Gomez, I explained that I had been exploring the ruins of ancient Indian cultures. Then, after presenting my phony credentials, I gave him a photocopy of a map that Jane and I had drawn showing the location of ancient Coaque. I carefully avoided all mention of digging, and emphasized that we had been on an exploratory mission. The doctor nodded and seemed only politely interested in the map.
I explained that I wanted permission to return next June, after the rainy season, so that I could continue my explorations with the help of others interested in the history and culture of Inca civilizations. He continued nodding in a bored manner. Before he could fall asleep, I got to the point.
"I know that your ministry goes largely unappreciated," I said. "You must have many expenses for which you are not reimbursed by the government. As a token of my appreciation for the cultural aspects of your historic country, I would like to make a contribution to the work of your ministry." With that I handed him a stack of ten $50 bills, and suddenly he was not bored. His smile broadened, and the money vanished into a desk drawer.
"Senor, give me your address. I will mail you the necessary documents for your valuable exploration work."
We chatted for a few more minutes. He reconfirmed that he would expedite the necessary papers, and he also made it clear that it would be possible for me to make an even larger contribution if I really wanted to. I encouraged the impression that I would do so when I returned.
Jane and I carefully hid our gold in suit bags and arrived without incident in London on the morning of Christmas Eve.
We hustled around the city, trying to catch up on the spirit of the holiday, and that night we had a dozen or so friends in for a party. Jane had bought a small Christmas tree and set it up in my flat. She decorated it with $45,000 worth of pre-Columbian gold ornaments.
Just before New Year's Day, after Jane and I had had our inevitable final battle, I took off with the gold for Germany and sold our trove to a collector in Cologne. I sent Jane her share and tried to lose myself for a while. We had been together for six years, but too many things had come between us.
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 5 - Gold of the Andes
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 6 - Paulaya, River of Gold
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 8 - Coaque, The Golden City
The Treasure Hunter - Chapter 9 - Coaque, Revisited