The U of Colorado Calls One of Its Own Indiana Jones, but Gene Savoy Is the Real Mccoy

updated 03/04/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/04/1985 01:00AM

To be fair, it was probably more hype than hoax—less a case of conscious duplicity than, to quote one of the main players in the drama, an instance of "witless puffery." The whole bloated business spun out of a January 31 press conference in Boulder, where then University of Colorado President Arnold Weber and Acting Vice President Hunter Rawlings apparently gave way to their wildest archaeological fantasies. They spoke of a major pre-Incan find, of a prehistoric city that had been stumbled across in 1963 by Peruvian farmers and promptly abandoned. They spoke most particularly of a trio of local archaeological buffs and of university faculty member Tom Lennon, 39, plunging into the depths of the Peruvian jungle in "a hair-raising expedition," of their escaping such "pitfalls" as "jaguars" and "giant condors" en route "à la Indiana Jones" to their discovery of—a little drum roll, please—Gran Pajaten, one of the "lost cities" of the Andes and an archaeological marvel.

Naturally, with all that hot air, the press got a little bit giddy. If anything, the media were more breathless in their treatment of the story than Messrs. Weber and Rawlings themselves. Said Newsweek: "Archaeologists have long suspected that there were many more 'lost cities' of the Andes than the fabled Machu Picchu, but until recently they have been more the stuff of legend than of science. Now the mist may be lifting."

The mist was lifting indeed. Enter Gene Savoy, 57, of Reno, Nev., an explorer-writer and president of the Andean Explorers Club, who was equal parts miffed and mystified by what he'd heard on the evening news. Savoy called the Associated Press to say that he first spotted Gran Pajaten from the air in 1962, that he had first explored the ruins in 1963 and in 1970 had published a book on the find, Antisuyo: The Search for the Lost Cities of the Amazon. What's more, both CBS-TV and the BBC screened documentaries acclaiming his discovery.

By this time half the talent in explorerdom was gloving up for the fray. Especially bent out of shape by the U of Colorado's advertisements for itself were the folks at the South American Explorers Club, located in Lima and Denver. The explorers announced formation of a hoax-busters division, promising to award their Hoax of the Millennium trophy to Lennon and his associates. "The club has a lot of scientists as members," explained Don Montague, the president. "And we've been receiving a considerable number of concerned telephone calls asking us to clarify this lost city stuff. The fact is, it's not so lost. It's right up here on the map, and it's in the last five issues of the South American Handbook." Montague pointed out that Peruvian archaeologists have worked through the years on the site and in 1966 even established a helicopter pad so that visitors could chopper directly into Gran Pajaten. He conceded that "you can't pick up a McDonald's hamburger there," not yet anyway. But, he added, "There's not a Peruvian alive today who can read who has not heard of the city of Gran Pajaten and known about it for years."

Meanwhile, Lennon, the archaeologist under fire, is vaguely apologetic but sticking to his guns. He says that he "froze" at the press conference—"it was not my element"—and thus allowed the university's mandarins to rain down all that hype on the gullible newsmen. As for his failing to credit Gene Savoy's practical knowledge of archaeology, Lennon explains, "Antisuyo is a trade book. It's not scientific literature. As a professional archaeologist you can't stop with discovery. You have to have an explanation or else you're dead in the water." Lennon says he was not in any way trying to conceal the achievements of his predecessors. He says he was prepared to discuss the history of the site, but nobody in the press seemed to be interested. He is disappointed by the reaction of the assorted explorers' groups, especially considering that the university has struck a long-term agreement with the Peruvian government to excavate Gran Pajaten, and it is likely to be someone's life's work. "They show no good will to the project," says Lennon of the South American Explorers Club. "I question their integrity. I'm going to be left for a lifetime with the crap they have said."

Restless for new discoveries, adventurer Gene Savoy long ago moved on from the ruins of Gran Pajaten. Since his last visit in 1970, Savoy says he has been making richer finds in more forbidding territory between 20 and 80 miles to the north. "Pajaten is listed by travel agencies and has been for years," he explains. "What they don't know is that ruins in the north are bigger and better." The University of Colorado scholars may find themselves following "Indiana" Savoy's tracks across Peru for quite some time.

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