Lost emeralds of the Inca: Treasure hunters pursue a legend deep into Ecuador’s jungles

Mar 27, 2016 | 3 comments

By Anthony Franklin

November, 1970

Neil Persinger craned his neck to better view the blood-red river winding its way through the Ecuadorian jungle below the twin engine Dornier aircraft.

Ecuador's Amazonian jungle.

Ecuador’s Amazonian jungle.

Pure luck had placed him aboard the plane piloted by a former Luftwaffe officer tasked to bring back to Quito a prisoner from a remote village. Persinger struggled to contain his growing excitement. Rising from the carpet of green near the river emerged a series of dark gray cliffs. On the western horizon rose three snow-capped mountains. He was ecstatic. Somewhere below him lay the source of the lost emeralds of the Inca.

Chasing the legendary lost emerald mine, Neil had come to Ecuador seeking adventure and fortune. Now, providence had put him in the right place at the right time. He had discovered the legendary “markers” of treasure hunter Stewart Connelly. Yet, in the years to come Neil was to discover that the Inca and Connelly would not easily give up their secret.

Oro Verde (Green Gold)

Per carat, emeralds are more valuable than diamonds. Their green fire has captivated the imagination of man for millennia. The world’s finest and most expensive emeralds come from the Muzo mining region northeast of Bogota, Colombia (click here). Muzo is a national treasure and has been jealously protected by private investors and the Colombian government since the 19th century.

Emeralds in a 17th century Spanish cross.

Emeralds in a 17th century Spanish cross.

An Ecuadorian source for high quality emeralds has tantalized adventurers for hundreds of years. Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro himself valued emeralds above gold and relentlessly pursued the gems. Conquistadors in the New World seized and sent to Spain emeralds by the sack full. At the time of the Spanish conquest rumors swirled around Quito of rivers to the northeast littered with emeralds. Unquestionably, the Incas not only valued emeralds, but had a source. The question was, “Where?”

Again and again, conquistadors set out to claim the legendary riches only to return, if at all, empty handed and barely alive. Over the course of 400 years many adventurers braved the jungles of northern Ecuador seeking the Inca’s mine. However, discovery of a Muzo quality deposit in Ecuador eluded all seekers. The Inca kept their secret — until the 20th century.

Breathing New Life into an Old Legend

What links the conquistador legend of the 16th century to the 20th? The connection is the story of Stewart Connelly as told by a female adventure writer named Jane Dollinger. Until 1955 no one outside of Ecuador ever heard of Stewart Connelly. Then, Jane Dollinger published Inca Gold. Jane was a highly photogenic storyteller who did a great job of promoting herself to pulp periodicals during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Her books of South American adventure include Inca Gold, The Jaguar Princess, and Keepers of the Green Flame. One of the chapters in Inca Gold retold a story she heard during time spent in Quito — the four hundred year old legend of the lost Inca emerald mine and its more recent link, Stewart Connelly.

According to Dollinger, who spent significant time in Ecuador and simply retold the existing legend, the modern installment of the story began in 1924 with the arrival of Stewart Connelly in Quito. An American WWI veteran, Connelly, like many other “gringos,” sought Inca emeralds and was inspired by the original conquistador legends.

With little provision or preparation save that of buying a flute (as the story goes), he strode northeast out of Quito and into the unknown. Weeks turned into months. He failed to return and was forgotten in Quito. Nine months later padres at the mission of Ahuana on the Rio Napo witnessed a naked and bearded white man desperately swimming across the river; it was Connelly. Fetching him out of the water the padres brought the delirious and emaciated “gringo” to the mission and nursed him back to health. Weeks later Connelly left Ahuana, but not before expressing his gratitude by gifting a large emerald to the padres.

A page from Connely's diary.

A page from Stewart Connelly’s diary.

Upon his return to Quito Connelly told an amazing story of survival and discovery — of encountering a tribe of cannibals, bedding beautiful native women, battling a witch doctor, and surviving crocodile attack. And, with the help of a native friend, finding a rich high quality emerald deposit — the legendary Inca mine.

Connelly’s first priority was establishing his concession, or claim. His biggest problem? He had little idea as to its location. However, he did have clear knowledge of the general area and of terrain markers surrounding the deposit; mountains, stream junctions, a “river of blood”, and black cliffs. The Ministry of Mines granted him a large concession swath with the expectation of a second expedition and subsequent pinpointing of the exact location. All of this was based upon Connelly’s descriptions and gems in hand. Unfortunately, such things are hard to keep secret.

Connelly found himself a magnet of unwanted attention. Under increasing pressure and besieged by adventurers, Connelly finally organized a well-armed expedition and in 1925 set out to secure his prize. This time the jungle’s response was terminal. The entire expedition disappeared and no trace of its fate has ever surfaced.

The “modern” installment of the Inca emerald legend as told by Dollinger in 1955 — the one which sent Neil Persinger to South America in 1970 — was born.

Enter Neil Persinger

Neil Persinger read Inca Gold and was intrigued by Dollinger’s story about Connelly. In 1968 he began researching the legend in earnest. He enlisted the help of former Special Forces buddies and between 1970 and 1975 his team embarked upon a series of expeditions into the Oriente (jungle) northeast of Quito in search of Connelly’s lost deposit. During a survey flight in late 1970 Persinger’s plane, a Dornier STOL piloted by a former Luftwaffe pilot, emerged out of a tropical rain storm. Suddenly, out of the mists below a river of red revealed itself — by pure coincidence Persinger had discovered Connelly’s “river of blood” marker, the Rio Numba.

Following Persinger’s direction, the pilot dropped lower and followed the river. Then, gray-black cliffs appeared jutting from the endless green of the jungle. Persinger was incredulous. Another Connelly marker? However, other cliffs were in immediate view; which wall of black was Connelly’s? Regardless, he knew one more box needed to be checked. He asked the pilot to pull up and above the mists. Westward in the distance at the edge of an endless crumpled blanket of jungle he saw them, Connelly’s final markers, three snowcapped mountains. The team were jubilant. They had found the immediate location of Connelly’s lost emerald deposit. Legend had transformed into reality. Preparations ramped up. A company was formed.

Neil Persenger, right, with Army Special Forces buddy Fred.

Neil Persinger, right, with Special Forces buddy Fred.

In late 1971, Persinger and his team and a local guide set out with several porters from a base camp at the headwaters of the Rio Numba. Indigenous Cofan were persuaded to help the group. For two weeks the expedition trekked the jungle in search of Connelly’s cliff facings (deposits) without success. Then, one of the team came down with a serious intestinal infection. Due to lack of progress and their compatriot’s illness, they chose to raft downriver to civilization. Within days they were in Quito with their man on his way to recovery. The trek resulted in two interesting developments; first, the team learned that Cofan oral tradition told of white men who came before and died revealing little more, and second, the Cofan traded local emeralds to Persinger.

In early 1972, the team returned to the U.S. for a much deserved rest. During this time the Gem Institute of America (GIA) analyzed the Cofan gems; light green in color, 10.4 carats in weight, and, reportedly, containing inclusions unlike Colombian emeralds.

After 1972, a series of financial setbacks centered in Ecuador hit the team’s efforts hard. Eventually, $125,000 was sunk into the project. The situation was tenuous. However, a final push was made in 1975 with a new team. It met with bitter disappointment. Setting out during the rainy season the attempt ended after only ten days. It became the group’s final expedition. Family commitments, external obligations, and financial pressures factored heavily in the decision to suspend the search.

In the years that followed, with the exception of Persinger and two others (one of whom simply disappeared), original team members passed away in rapid succession. Persinger made one last trip to Ecuador in 1978 on behalf of his father regarding unrelated business.

Emeralds from the jungle.

Emeralds from the jungle.

Debating the Legend

Adventurers still debate the legend. Various theories have been proposed as to its true roots. One of the more intriguing is that of a merchant seaman engaged in smuggling emeralds out of Colombia through Ecuador during the same period — a very risky business. His descendants hold “heirloom” emeralds as evidence of his exploits.

Another theory is that Connelly plundered graves (a lucrative source of emeralds in those days). Both theories beg questions, some of which cannot be answered. One other factor weighs heavy: while quality emeralds have been found in quantity, especially in association with the Coaque culture of western Ecuador, no Muzo quality deposit has ever been discovered in the country. Plus government geologists question the existence of emerald deposits in Ecuador. Doubters are quick to point out such facts. However, primary documentation of Dollinger’s story does exist — at least it did as of 1960. Despite challengers, the evidence is almost incontrovertible; Connelly existed, he went into the jungle, returned, filed a claim, set out again and disappeared.

Today

Neil was almost 70 years old and retired in Florida when, in 2005, he decided to share some of his data with a well-known expat adventurer and resident of Ecuador, Stan Grist (stangrist.com).

Persinger hoped that a new expedition might be organized. However, nothing of substance happened until early 2015 when this writer took up the task and working in close collaboration with Neil began to shake things loose. Progress was made and additional primary documentation was discovered and publicizing Neil’s story through a Travel Channel program seemed to be in the works. Unfortunately, after months of work the TC option failed to materialize. For a few months activity was on hold.

However, in late 2015 Eric Koppen (ekgoldmining.com), a German expat with deep experience in mining, treasure hunting, and adventuring joined the effort. His knowledge, experience, and connections to the indigenous of Ecuador made him the ideal candidate to lead a new expedition on the ground. Besides trips into the Llanganate Mountains, Oriente, and other remote and demanding areas of Ecuador, Eric has made three expeditions in the region of Connelly’s find. A new team of four had been tentatively formed — one that understood “playing the gringo bull in the Ecuadorian china shop” would be a nonstarter, and that time is relative here and, most importantly, that understood Ecuador.

Persinger with

Eric Koppen with Persinger.

An understanding of today’s Ecuador, particularly its politics, is a critical factor in any mining proposition. In the nearly forty years since Neil’s last expedition much has changed in the country. Today, pulling money and a competent team together, then easily mounting an expedition is extremely difficult. The complexities are deep and the dangers very real. Connelly’s emerald deposit lay near the Ecuador – Colombia border region. Beyond rigors of terrain and climate, it is considered dangerous; in addition to kidnappers, drug traffickers, FARC guerrillas, local and provincial law enforcement agencies and the Ecuadorian Army and Special Forces operate there.

It is rumored that illegal miners are also present in the jungle. The history of indigenous people of the region also play a major role. Oil exploration and exploitation targeted the area starting in the 1960’s. The impact upon environment and local culture has been horrendous. The indigenous of the region have acted to protect themselves and their rainforests. The cultural pain of petroleum exploitation runs deep.

Another factor is legal status; large portions of the region are defined as indigenous territorial lands or nature preserves. Technically, without permission these areas are off limits for anything akin to an expedition, let alone a treasure hunt. There are also government interests and socio-economics factors at work.

Where does all this leave the lost emeralds of the Inca? Exactly where Connelly found them in 1924. They await rediscovery by a team that possesses the tenacity and wisdom to navigate the complexities of today’s Ecuador.

Sadly, Neil Persinger will not be there to see it. He passed away at age 79 in January, 2016. His story is now part of the legend. The emeralds of the Inca await another of the likes of Neil. Hopefully, his wish that the discovery of emeralds will first benefit the indigenous of the region — as well as treasure hunters — will someday become a reality.

The author welcomes inquiries at mfranklin.ekgoldmining@gmail.com

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Anthony Franklin is a Cuenca expat.

 

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