By Searching Old Photos for Inca Blots, Reinaldo Chohfi Found An Ancient City in Peru

updated 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

UCLA graduate student Reinaldo E. Chohfi figured he had just the thing last March for a term paper on aerial photo analysis—some 30-year-old pictures taken over Machu Picchu, Peru's famed Incan ruins. Chohfi, 31, had spent four months studying the photographs and had noticed "a series of trees growing in linear fashion" a mile and a half from the Machu Picchu site. He thought they might be signs of another, long hidden ancient Incan settlement.

"Good interpretation worth following up," his professor wrote on the paper. Good advice, it turns out. Chohfi's discovery of the predicted ruins—following a trek through the Peruvian jungle last September—is now being hailed as the most important Peruvian archaeological find since Machu Picchu itself in 1911. Although Peruvian officials were shocked by his feat, Chohfi says he was not surprised. "There are no geometrical forms or straight lines in vegetation unless it is planted like that or is growing over a structure that is man-made," he explains. "I had spent months studying my photographs. I knew exactly where to go."

In fact Chohfi had been there before. Or at least he had come close during four previous visits to Machu Picchu while gathering material for his master's thesis in archaeology. Because there was so little arable land near the ancient city, he began to speculate that other Incan settlements may have provided the food for its inhabitants. Back at UCLA and armed with the 1956 photographs he bought at the Servicio Aerofotogràfico Nacional in Lima, Peru, he enrolled in an aerial photo analysis course. "The Peruvians have the same photos in the cultural institute," he notes, "but they don't have the specific training necessary to examine them. They weren't able to see the things I saw." After getting plane fare from his girlfriend's father, a Los Angeles physician, Chohfi set out to prove his point. Together with Octavio Fernandez, a Peruvian archaeologist he had met on his earlier visits, he journeyed by train to Machu Picchu and then set out on foot through the jungle. Battling mosquitoes, snakes and underbrush, the pair finally made their way to a gentle slope high in the Andes. Their first sign of success: a stone mortar used by the Incas to grind grain. "We kept walking and we found stone walls everywhere, covered with dense vegetation," reports Chohfi. "We hacked some of it away with our machetes and found this really massive wall about 1,000 feet long, eight feet high and six feet thick. We didn't have the time or the equipment to start excavating. Big black snakes were everywhere. I didn't even want to imagine what kind they were."

Chohfi and Fernandez named the ruins Maranpampa, meaning "plain with grinding stones" in Quechua, the language of the Incas. After informing Peruvian officials of his discovery ("Their reaction was, 'Oh, my God!' "), he headed for São Paulo, Brazil and a reunion with his mother, brother and two sisters. (A native Brazilian—his late father was a sugar industrialist—Chohfi had moved to the U.S. in 1976 to begin his college studies.) After a two-week visit he returned to the U.S., only to learn that news of his findings had already leaked out of Peru. "Here I was, all excited to tell everyone," he says, "and they already knew."

Since then TV producers from Japan and Brazil have approached Chohfi hoping to enlist his aid in filming documentaries on Maranpampa. Excavation of the site, which he now thinks may be twice the size of Machu Picchu, will begin next year, and Chohfi says he'd like to be on hand for the initial dig. Until then he will remain at UCLA working toward his archaeology degree plus a second master's in architecture and urban design. It was on the campus two years ago that he met girlfriend Gaila Kenneally, 20, and he and the UCLA coed now share an apartment on 33 acres owned by her parents in nearby Canyon Country.

In the apartment's sunny, brightly colored living room, Chohfi keeps the photographic slides, the pottery shards and a soil sample that he brought back from Maranpampa. It is a meager collection of trophies, but one that seems destined to grow. "I want to go back and verify other historic Incan sites in the area," says Chohfi. "There are other areas on my photographs with the same signatures that led me to Maranpampa."

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