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Science Is Eating His Dust

Gene Savoy plunged into the Peruvian jungle half a century ago in search of the fabled El Dorado, a lost Incan city so wealthy that its king reputedly walked coated in gold dust.

For months at a time, Savoy tromped through mountain terrain that local Indians were reluctant to enter. He was bitten by snakes, lost in the jungle and once nearly lynched by irate campesinos.

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 archeologists.

Savoy, 79, is among the last of a dying breed -- the swashbuckling adventurer whose 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.

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 archeologically barren.

People magazine has called him the "real Indiana Jones."

Real archeologists 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 archeologist Keith Muscutt of UC Santa Cruz.

For many archeologists, 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.

Archeologists -- 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 archeologists spend years working at a site and report their findings in journals and at scientific conferences. Explorers announce their discoveries to the media, 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."

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The tension between Savoy and the archeological 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 archeologist Michael Moseley.

Even Savoy, who now makes his home in the dry climate of Nevada, shakes his head at the terrain: "I hate the danged jungle."

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 came and conquered the Inca. Ultimately, infectious diseases brought by the Europeans killed as many as 98% 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.

He supported himself by writing stories for the English-language Peruvian Times.

In his spare time, he put his journalistic skills to work delving into the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega and other Spanish missionaries who chronicled the last days of the Chachapoya and Incas. He interviewed Augustinian monks, who showed him records of attempts to convert the natives to Catholicism five centuries earlier.

By 1965, he was convinced he knew the location of the lost city of Vilcabamba, where Inca ruler Manco Inca and his people fled to escape the Spanish invaders.

He was able to convince Peruvian government officials and private donors that he knew where to look, and he set off with more than 100 men and several hundred horses and mules.

His expedition walked for 14 days through humid river valleys and dense forests, hacking their way through tangled greenery and ankle-deep mud.

Finally, as he recalled in his 1970 adventure classic "Antisuyo: The Search for the Lost Cities of the Amazon," scouts stumbled across a pile of red roof tiles that he immediately recognized as Incan. Workers cleared away the heavy forest, and the outlines of ancient buildings emerged.

The team spent four months clearing and photographing the site, now a major tourist attraction.

A year after finding Vilcabamba, Savoy organized a smaller expedition into unexplored territory farther north that might harbor El Dorado.

"There were tales of great kingdoms in the north," he said, but most people dismissed them as myth. Historians and archeologists thought the jungle was too impenetrable for any significant civilization.

After clearing vegetation for several weeks, Savoy found a sizable fort decorated with intricate ornamental stonework. He called it Gran Pajaten.

His pursuit of the Chachapoya began in earnest and, over the next six years, he uncovered more than 24,000 buildings, hundreds of tombs and countless mummies.

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For archeologists and Peruvian preservationists, such discoveries are a double-edged sword. Long-lost worlds are brought back into the light. At the same time, the protective veil of obscurity that has kept them safe for many centuries disappears.

Before Savoy, even Peruvians didn't know much about the Cloud People. Today, what is left of their civilization is a prime target for looting and sale on the antiquities market -- in part, because of Savoy's much- publicized expeditions.

The most egregious example occurred in April 1997, when authorities discovered that five chulpas -- burial caves carved into a cliff 400 feet above the Lake of the Condors -- had been ravaged, with more than 200 mummy bundles cut to pieces and scattered.

The mummy remains and about a thousand artifacts were taken to a new museum in Leimebamba, and the event prompted the National Institute of Culture to initiate an emergency survey of tombs and other sites in the region to document them for future protection.

Savoy's latest forays have been to an area known as Gran Saposoa. The site was discovered by Savoy in 1999, and he has made two trips back. A fourth, larger trip last summer during which they found five new sites -- each on a separate peak -- was led by his son, Sean, 35.

The overall site encompasses more than 25 square miles, Sean Savoy said. "This was a metropolis."

The new discoveries -- announced at a Savoy news conference last summer that made headlines around the world -- have again sparked criticism.

To begin with, some archeologists think the image of the daring explorer discovering lost empires is overblown.

"The simple truth is that finding Chacha archeological sites in this area ... is about as hard as finding elephants in a zoo," said Muscutt. "There are ruins on many, if not most, ridges."

Many of the sites "discovered" by Savoy and others were already known to local people, and many had been mapped and explored by Peruvian scientists, said archeologist Warren B. Church of Columbus State University.

Savoy "is not the discoverer," he said, "but simply the first non-Peruvian to publicize anything about it."

That's nonsense, Savoy said. "Did they report these things before I found them?"

A native might see a wall covered with bush, he said. "We spend months and years exploring a wide territory to uncover a lost metropolis. Who in their right mind is going to say that the Indian is the discoverer?"

Each discovery inevitably attracts tourists and adventurers, and Church said even modest work could be damaging.

Although the Savoys were only allowed to clear brush from around the Chachapoya ruins, Church said that removing vegetation let in light, "and light promotes the growth of secondary vegetation, which is usually low, brushy stuff ... with voluminous root systems that can explode monument walls."

"Opening up these sites can be terribly destructive in the long run," he said.

Savoy is used to such complaints. Over the years, he has learned to ignore most of them and scoff at the rest.

"Because I wasn't a scientist, I was rejected," he said. "But I did it because I was fascinated."

His name is irrevocably tied to ancient Peru, along with other explorers such as Hiram Bingham, who discovered the Incan citadel Machu Picchu in 1911.

Now, suffering from a heart condition that limits his activities at the high altitudes of the Chachapoya cities, Savoy is turning over the reins of his organization to his sons Sean and Gene Jr.

"I didn't get to go" on last summer's expedition, he said. "I feel half-alive. The biggest disappointment I have ever had is growing older."

These days he spends most of his time at his Reno home, writing a book about his later years exploring the Andes.

Muscutt gives Savoy some credit for his work. "The sites themselves are important, and the Chachapoya remain a largely unwritten chapter in Peru's prehistory. So it's probably good that Savoy's organization is now funding work by reputable Peruvian professionals."

But he also laments the fact that Savoy's sons are following in their father's footsteps.

"The fact that this is becoming a second-generation El Dorado business is depressing," he said.

The Savoys have no intention of giving up their search. Sean is now organizing a new expedition to Gran Saposoa.

"Peru is in my blood," he said. "Peruvians themselves don't understand the Chachapoya, and I want to change that."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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