A small well-hidden canyon between our Rio Zunac reserve and the Banos-Puyo highway has caught the attention of the world press over the last month. For example a UK tabloid, the Telegraph, wrote:
Explorers hot on the trail of Atahualpa and the Treasure of the Llanganates
It sounds like a plot from an Indiana Jones film, but explorers claim to have found ruins hidden deep in a dense and dangerous Amazonian jungle that could solve many of South America’s mysteries – and lead to one of the world’s most sought-after treasures.
The multinational team, including Britons, has located the site in a remote region in central Ecuador which it believes could represent one of the great archaeological discoveries.
They have already unearthed a 260ft tall by 260ft 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…
“This could be one of the biggest archaeological discoveries ever,” he [Benoit Duverneuil] 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.”
National Ecuadorian TV stations were quickly drawn to the discovery:
and now the world is buzzing about it.
This attention was inspired by some videos of the site uploaded to YouTube by local residents:
So, how much of this is real? Is it man-made or natural? And is it connected to the lost treasure of Atahualpa? Odd questions for a botanist like me to try to answer, but botany and botanists have been strangely intertwined with this story for more than two centuries.
The story begins when Atahualpa, the last ruler of the Incas, was kidnapped by Spanish conquistadors under Pizarro, and held for ransom in Cajamarca, Peru. As ransom the Spaniards demanded that the Incas fill rooms with gold and silver, in return for Atahualpa’s life. The Incas began bringing gold from across the empire, including what is now Quito. The Incas complied with the Spanish demands, but the Spaniards killed Atahualpa anyway. When word spread of his murder, Incas en route to Cajamarca with gold from Quito supposedly decided to hide it in the Llanganates mountains here, just north of Banos.
This story might have remained just one more silly South American buried treasure legend, if not for the Scottish botanist Richard Spruce. Spruce, one of my idols, crossed South America from Atlantic coast of Brazil to the Pacific coast of Ecuador on a voyage of botanical discovery from 1849 to 1864. He constantly risked his life in search of plants, and had many hair-raising adventures. He was South America’s first ethnobotanist, describing for the first time the plants used by various Amazonian tribes, such as the hallucinogenic species used by shamans, and the toxic species used as ingredients in poisons. He also recorded the vocabularies of 21 indigenous Amazonian languages. He discovered large numbers of new species of plants, including 400 species of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts, which were his specialty).
In 1857 he spent six months living in my town, Banos, exploring the surrounding mountains. Some of the plants he discovered here had not been seen since his time, and over the years my friends and I have worked to rediscover these lost species, sometimes successfully. That’s a tangent to this story, though. Some day I’ll write a separate series of posts about tracking down Spruce’s lost plants, but for now let’s stick to the treasure legend.
While Spruce was here in Banos, he heard constant rumors that the lost treasure of the northern Inca empire — hundreds of tons of gold figures and ornaments — was buried in the Llanganates mountains north of Banos. He dug deeper into these rumors, and eventually discovered a remarkable document which had been sent to Ecuador from the king of Spain. This document carefully described the location of the Inca treasure. According to Spruce and information on the document, it was written by a Spaniard named Valverde. Valverde had lived in Ecuador and supposedly learned the treasure’s location from his Indian wife’s family. Valverde eventually returned to Spain. On his deathbed he wrote the directions to the treasure and sent it to the king. The king supposedly sent it to Ecuador along with two officials (an administrator, Sr. Pastor, and a priest, Padre Longo), with orders that they should look for it. They followed the instructions, but as they closed in on the treasure location, Padre Longo died under mysterious circumstances, the expedition was abandoned, and Valverde’s guide was deposited in the public archives of Latacunga (a large city northwest of Banos).
Spruce was convinced the document was genuine, and botanical evidence unknown to Spruce confirms his confidence in it. At one point, the description of the route to the treasure speaks of a conspicuous patch of “white-leaved trees” called sangurimas in Quichua (the Inca language). Spruce wrote that he did not know what this tree could be, though he was able to identify the other plant species mentioned in the document. He speculated that the white-leaved tree was a high-elevation Cecropia. However, the Cecropia has a different local name (“guarumo”), and is not a conspicuous element of the high Llanganates flora. Nowadays anyone can look on the internet to learn what “sangurima” means and solve Spruce’s dilemma. According to the Dictionary of Trees, Vol. 2, p. 234, the only Ecuadorian tree known as “sangurima” is Espeletia pycnophylla ssp. llanganatensis, a tall tree-like member of the daisy family with bright white leaves which grows only in a few large colonies in certain very remote parts of the Llanganates. This plant was only discovered in the Llanganates (by Luciano Andrade Marin, a treasure hunter following the Valverde guide) in 1939! Previous to 1939, it was believed that this genus Espeletia occurred only in extreme northern Ecuador. This botanical prescience doesn’t prove that there was a treasure, but it does confirm that Valverde was intimately familiar (either personally or by word-of-mouth) with the deepest parts of the Llanganates, including places that are very difficult to reach even today.
While Spruce was in Banos he heard about another botanist who had lived in the area many years before, and who had spent much time looking for Valverde’s treasure. Spruce was able to identify the botanist as Anastacio (also spelled Atanasio) Guzman, a contemporary of the great South American explorers Alexander von Humboldt and Aimee Bonpland. Humboldt admired the more than one thousand eight hundred botanical drawings Guzman presented to him, so Carl Kunth, the famous botanist who described Humboldt and Bonpland’s thousands of new plant discoveries, named one of the most striking Ecuadorian paramo flowers after Guzman: Ranunculus guzmanii. A genus of bromeliads, Guzmania, was also named after him by Spanish botanists Ruiz and Pavon. Spruce discovered a map of the Llanganates made by this botanist Guzman, with marked locations related to Valverde’s guide. For example, the map marks the place in the mountains where the priest sent from Spain is supposed to have died, and also marks many old mines in the Llanganates. Spruce published the map of Guzman along with Valverde’s guide to the treasure in the journal of the Royal Geographic Society in 1861 (Vol 31: 163-184).
The co-discoverer of the theory of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, compiled and edited Spruce’s papers and diaries, publishing them in 1908 as Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and the Andes. Wallace’s Table of Contents gives the flavor of Spruce’s death-defying adventures: “The Indian Chumbi bitten on the wrist by a poisonous snake–terrible effects”, “Canoe in a whirlpool, dog driven mad, had to be shot”, “A dangerous flood”, “On to the Topo–Perilous crossing”, “Effects of Sandstorms” “A severe earthquake” “Revolution” “Troubles from the war” etc. But for the present story, the most interesting chapter is XXVII, “A hidden treasure of the Incas”, based on Spruce’s Royal Geographic Society paper. Wallace writes in the introduction to the chapter “The following narrative forms one of the most curious pieces of genuine history in connection with the never-ceasing search for buried treasure in the land of the Incas…” That’s an understatement!
People from around the world have been looking for the treasure ever since. I’ve encountered many of them, in the Llanganates, in Quito discotecas, in taxis, and on the streets of Banos. Some meetings are accidental. Once I was in the Llanganates training a group of Ecuadorian Special Forces cadets when, in the middle of this vast wilderness, we ran into Roland Glaser, a German immigrant who has spent most of his life hunting for the treasure. Once a woman in a bar told me she had been married to a well-known Canadian Llanganates treasure hunter, and said they had once found was a small golden piece of jewelry in a lake there. Other times I’ve been contacted by aficionados of the treasure story because of my Spruce research. In the late 1990s I was invited to participate in a US television documentary (Bill Kurtis’ New Explorers series on A&E)on the treasure. The crew had brought an airplane fitted with ground-penetrating radar to help look for it! My job was to talk about Spruce, and through this I met Diego Arias, who had made 40 expeditions to the Llanganates to look for the treasure. He told me that the only thing he ever found was a random gold figure lying on the surface when he went to take a piss in the bushes.
Most of these life-long treasure hunters, including Roland, Diego, and even the ex-wife of the Canadian, had developed a deep love for the Llanganates, with or without its treasure. Diego had even begun to seriously study the flora, discovering a dramatic new orchid, Epidendrum ariasii, which I recently found also on our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. Diego’s Fundacion Llanganati had been one of the first to push for government protection of these mountains (which are now a national park). Unfortunately Diego, after all his risky escapades in the Llanganates, was killed in a car accident two weeks after we filmed the documentary. To honor his passion for the Llanganates, I named another new Llanganates orchid after him, Lepanthes (now Neooreophilus) ariasiana.
With all this historical background, it is easy to see why Banos residents and international adventurers alike would get excited by new archaeological findings like the ones reported in last month’s Telegraph article. However, even that sensational article did mention that there was a chance the rocks were a natural formation. Are they?
Contrary to the Telegraph story, the site had actually been known to a few people since at least 1997. In that year my friend Olivier Currat, co-owner of the Luna Runtun Hotel in Banos, visited and photographed the site with a local guide. In about 2003 he showed me the photographs. They looked amazing! Olivier and I tried to re-find the site (the original guide had emigrated to Spain) but we could not. I had just finished helping a British author, Mark Honigsbaum, with his research on Spruce and the Llanganates treasure, so with Olivier’s permission I sent the photos to Honigsbaum for publication in his book, Valverde’s Gold (2004), as a potentially relevant part of the story. Mark did include one photo in the book. I also sent the photos to my geologist friend Mark Thurber, and asked his opinion about it. Thurber told me that though he could not be sure from the pictures, it seemed like a natural rock formation to him. With that, I put it out of my mind.
Then a few months ago came all these new stories about the site. Finally last week I was able to visit it, guided by Manuel Barriga. Our group included government archaeologists and geologists, sent by the President of Ecuador to determine the nature of the site. To be honest, I was not sure what to think about what I saw. It does not look like closely-fitting Inca stonework. It is an odd-looking canyon wall, not in any sense a “pyramid” as some of the news reports have called it. Similar rectangularly-fractured rocks are found on the opposite side of the canyon, and in the nearby river. Particularly informative for me was the little set of fractured rocks in the following photo. This was below the wall, near a streambed. The fractures create the same sort of pattern seen on a larger scale in the wall, but here we can see that it is a single rock on the right, splitting into fragments on the left. This implies the formation is natural in spite of appearances. The two government geologists also were sure that the site was natural.
To my untrained eye, the rocks in the upper third of the structure do seem too regular to be natural, but I am not a geologist. There do seem to be purposely-carved handholds and footholds on the wall (already noticed by Olivier Currat in his 1997 trip). There are also many Inca and pre-Inca artifacts in the immediate area, including finely made stone axe heads, and ceramic pottery.
There is even what appears to be a stone Inca road, recently uncovered by my friends Robert and Daisy Kunstaetter about 2 km from the site. Note added later: they took me to it and it proved to be a recently-made stone road segment about 50 years old, built in conjunction with clandestine alcohol stills.
So is it man-made? Perhaps this is not an either-or question. Even if it were completely natural, I would think the Incas would be as impressed with it, and as puzzled by it, as we are today. I can easily imagine they might treat it as a sacred site, or even a tourist attraction, perhaps thinking it was made by their ancestors, or by their gods. They might have carved handholds in it. I did not look closely enough at these to make any judgement about them. In any case, its connection to the treasure legend is entirely speculative.
We had very little time to spend at the site, as the rivers we had to cross were rapidly rising due to rain. I’ll go back soon for a more careful look, and I look forward to hearing the official report from the government scientists.
Note added Jan 15: I have heard second-hand that the government archaeologists who also visited the site with us agree with the geologists that it is a natural rock formation.
Note added Dec 2014: The government report has been out for some time. It can be read at
It concludes the the formation is natural. Thanks to Oscar Valenzuela for bringing this report to my attention.
In addition Paul Heinrich, a geologist associated with the Louisiana State University, wrote me to explain this type of formation, which is an example of “tessellated pavement”. I can send the technical papers to anyone who requests them. It may be hard to believe, but these kinds of perfectly rectangular rock formations are a product of stresses in rock, and can be reproduced in models. If anyone doubts that these formations (including the “mortar”) are natural, just look up “tessellated pavement” in Google and view the images that appear.
Also, farther downstream in the Rio Tigre, it is possible to see all sorts of transitional formations between the regular rectangular ones and deformed, irregular rock formations, making it very clear that these are natural.
Some additional resources for the Llanganates treasure story: