By Jasper Copping
It sounds like a plot from an Indiana Jones film, but explorers claim to have found ruins hidden deep in a dense Ecuadorian Amazonian jungle that could solve many of South America’s mysteries — and lead to one of the world’s most sought-after treasures.
They have already unearthed a 260 ft. tall by 26 0ft. wide structure, made up of hundreds of two-ton stone blocks, and believe there could be more, similar constructions over an area of about a square mile.
Investigations of the site, in the Andes mountain range, are at an early stage and theories as to what it contains vary.
Some of those involved believe it could be the mausoleum of Atahualpa, the last Incan emperor who was captured by the conquering Spaniards, or hold the Treasure of the Llanganates, a vast haul of gold and other riches amassed by his followers to pay for his release.
In exchange for his freedom, Atahualpa is said to have offered to fill a room with gold. His followers complied but the Spanish broke the agreement and executed Atahualpa 1533.
His body is said to have been exhumed, mummified and later hidden by his followers in the region in which the new site has been found. According to legend, great treasures — which had been amassed for the ransom but not turned over to the Spanish — were either buried with him, or separately.
The search for the tomb and the riches has been one of the world’s greatest historical treasure hunts, inspiring many, thus far unsuccessful, expeditions.
Others believe the newly discovered site dates back far earlier, to unknown, pre-Inca cultures from before 500 BC, citing what appear to be rudimentary tools found there.
Local legend has it that the area was once populated by a civilization of exceptionally tall people and the apparently outsized nature of some of the approximately 30 artifacts found have led some to describe the area as the Lost City of The Giants.
The site, in the Llanganates National Park, is being investigated by a team of British, French, America and Ecuadorean explorers.
Among them is Bruce Fenton, an Ecuador-based Briton and researcher into the region’s indigenous cultures, who has been involved in the project for about three months, after he heard of recent discoveries made by local trekkers. He is planning two visits to the site before the end of the October. Also involved is Benoit Duverneuil, a French-American archaeologist, who undertook an expedition there earlier this year.
The Ecuadorean government has been told of the discovery and an official expedition by archaeologists and paleontologists is expected to take place. The site is already attracting groups interested in recovering artifacts.
It is only about 20 miles from the town of Banos de Agua Santa, but it takes about eight hours to trek to it through swampy and mountainous jungle. The site is about 8,500 ft. above sea level and in cloud forest, where it rains most of the time. One route to it is known for the risks posed by attacks of Africanized — “killer” — bees. The precise extent of the structure and the possible wider development has not yet been gauged. The vast structure is a wall, sloping at a 60 degree angle, with a flat area at the top where many of the artifacts have been found. The team believes the summit was used for some form of human activities, possibly sacrifices. Some have suggested that it could have been the venue for human sacrifices, with the incline deliberately engineered to allow a head to roll down the side.
It is not clear if the structure is a pyramid, as the area is affected by regular landslides and much of it is covered by mud and vegetation.
There are several other large mounds within a square mile, which the explorers think could be more man-made structures, as well as what appears to be a road.
The team believes the structure already discovered could contain rooms and Mr. Duverneuil, who undertook an expedition to the site in April and May, believes it could be Atahualpa’s mausoleum.
“This could be one of the biggest archaeological discoveries ever,” he said. “It would be huge. We just don’t have structures of this type and size in this part of the world. But we are some way from declaring that yet.
“It looks like a paved wall, an ancient street or plaza with a 60 degrees angle, perhaps the roof of a larger structure. Many of the stones were perfectly aligned, have sharp edges and seemed to have been sculpted by human hands. But there is still a chance that this could be a very unusual natural rock formation.”
He has also not ruled out a connection to either the Panzaleo culture, which was established around 600 BC and saw the construction of large temples dedicated to its gods, or the Cañari people, who were rivals of the Incas and joined forces with the Spanish during the conquest.
But Mr. Fenton suspects it may date back earlier than any of these groups. He believes the site once held a city, built there to capitalize on the gold found in the region’s rivers, and could be the size of Machu Picchu, the Inca city in southern Peru.
“This is a very inhospitable area and is still considered very dangerous because of the landscape,” he said. “The only thing around there of any value would have been gold. It seems artifacts are spread over a wide area of inhospitable jungle and this only makes sense if a long-lost settlement is present.”
Unlike in Peru, where much attention goes to Inca sites such as Machu Picchu, Ecuador’s archaeological ruins attract a limited number of tourists and government spending is limited.
Although the Incan empire was centered in Peru, current-day Ecuador was a center of activity during the empire’s last century. At one point, the Inca had a large presence in Quito and later, in the empire’s final years, construction was underway on a northern Incan capital in Cuenca.
The last unopposed Incan king, Huayna Capac, was born in Cuenca.
Credit: The Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk (updated)