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The open chamber near the first descent in the Tayu Jee branch of the Tayos Caves.

Who Stole the Gold? The Smoke Clears Around the Tayos Caves in Ecuador

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The Tayos Caves ( Cuevas de los Tayos in Spanish) in Ecuador are a subterranean complex that forms part of the incredible Napo System of Caves stretching from Venezuela to Chile. The Tayos Caves have long been a site of controversy, and various theorists and enthusiasts have claimed that they contain evidence for extraterrestrials, ancient civilizations, heroic human migrations, and/or lost languages. A careful examination of the evidence hardly supports any of these claims. However, there is a true mystery regarding the Tayos Caves, and that mystery revolves around gold. In truth, the Tayos Caves were a source of pure, prestigious, and lustrous golden ore!

This investigation lays a foundation for addressing the question, “Where is the gold now?” In order to arrive at an answer, investigators have to follow the convoluted trail of a motley band of rivals, a religious, scientific, and military gang of ingenious deceivers, thieves, smooth operators, and their victims, all in hot pursuit of the loot: the world’s most precious metal. They must also grasp the backdrop to the story: the situation of the native peoples in the gold-bearing regions of Ecuador, and the history of gold extraction in that area.

The Tayos Caves: A Geological and Archaeological Treasure House

The Tayos Caves are a series of interconnected, underground chambers found on the eastern foothills of the Andes that stretches into Ecuador’s Amazon region, spanning the provinces of Morona Santiago and Pastaza. The caves have multiple entrances and reach a depth of up to 800 meters (2625 ft). The interior of the caves are filled with fascinating geological formations, including stalactites and stalagmites, open chambers, narrow fissures, and lustrous, smooth rock walls carved by eons of flowing water. They are also a source of gold.

Geological formations within the Tayos Caves at Tayu Jee. Photo credits: the author (2016).

Geological formations within the Tayos Caves at Tayu Jee. Photo credits: the author (2016).

Gold in the Amazonian Foothills

The eastern slope of the Andes mountains in Ecuador that leads down to the Amazon basin is the site of the Zamora Belt, one of South America’s smaller, but still significant, gold deposits. The gold was deposited during the Jurassic Period, and its gold deposit purity is rated as 22(1) contained Au (placer Au) in million ounces. The area is still a valuable source of gold. In September 2018, Canada’s Lundin Gold recently signed a contract with the Ecuadorian government worth 800 million dollars for a new mining project in this region. Historically, gold has been extracted from this area in three ways: river panning, mining, and, unfortunately, archaeological looting.

Gold panning continues today along rivers that flow down from the Andes. Storms high in the Andean sierra fill Amazonian rivers with gold-laden sediments. On the Amazonian side of the cordillera, gold panning occurs along the Pastaza, Napo, Santiago, Amarillo, and Morona Rivers in the southeast, as well as along many of their smaller tributaries.

Historically, the city of Macas, the capital of Morona Santiago Province, was a flourishing center of gold mining in Ecuador. However, violence led to the deterioration and later abandonment of gold extraction in this area. Gold mining then focused on the richer Nambija, Chinapintza, Portovelo, and Guayzimi districts along the Zamora Belt in Zamora Chinchipe Province. The World Gold Council has confirmed the presence of at least 15 gold-bearing veins in southeast Ecuador. Some of the veins are shallow; other deeper veins are over a kilometer (0.62 miles) in length. When gold prices rose in the 1980s, Ecuador was exporting 2.4 tons of gold per year (1987). As noted above, gold mining continues in this region today, as determined by its profitability on the international market. For example, the current expected yield for the Lundin mining project is 4.6 million ounces of gold over a 15 year mine life.

Old woman mining gold in the Amazon river in Ecuador. (Peter van der Sluijs/CC BY SA 3.0)

Old woman mining gold in the Amazon river in Ecuador. (Peter van der Sluijs/CC BY SA 3.0)

The fever for artifacts made of gold has troubled Ecuador since the Spanish invasion. The legendary Juan Valverde supposedly bequeathed a derrotero (textual treasure map) to the Spanish king that indicated the location of Incan King Atahualpa’s hidden golden hoard in a bog and tunnel entrance in the Llanganates mountains in Ecuador. As well as golden artifacts, this trove also allegedly included handfuls of emeralds and diamonds. An unattributed text called the “Lost Treasure of Ecuador” links this mythological hoard with “the land of the headhunters, the Jivaro tribe, in the virtually unknown region between the Napo and Pastaza Rivers, [where] much virgin gold and many diamonds can be found.”

Regardless of whether this legendary golden treasure exists or not, the legend is symptomatic of the problem of archaeological looting in Ecuador. Until very recently, many groups and individuals have engaged in the unauthorized extraction of precious artifacts from ancient indigenous tombs and monuments. Ernesto Salazar, anthropology professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE), reports that the “Ecuadorian state has maintained an ambiguous position on cultural resources” and that management is erratic. He notes that, “it is very common for private land owners to refrain from reporting an archaeological site for fear that their property will be expropriated, or they fail to report the looting of a site to avoid becoming involved in a lawsuit.” In 2018, the government of Ecuador formally requested that the U.S. government impose import restrictions on valuable goods or objects entering the USA, noting that “Looting [of archaeological sites] takes place in the Amazonian provinces of Zamora Chinchipe and Morona Santiago.”

Sign marking the entrance to the Tayu Jee branch of the Tayos Caves. Photo credit: the author (2016)

Sign marking the entrance to the Tayu Jee branch of the Tayos Caves. Photo credit: the author (2016)

Since this activity is clandestine, it is difficult to measure the wealth of the deposits involved. However, the historical record can give us an idea of what is at stake. In 1924, Marshall H. Saville published a study titled “The Gold Treasure of Sigsig” for the Museum of the American Indian. Sigsig is a canton located in Azuay Province, which borders on Morona Santiago. Saville writes that:

“The ancient peoples of Ecuador were among the most proficient workers of gold in South America. From the very beginning of the Spanish conquest up to the present time an incalculable amount of gold treasure has been discovered in the tombs and graves in different parts of the country.”

Saville attributes the gold work to the Cañaris, a technologically advanced nation that predates the Incas. Once the Spanish began looting the gold, indigenous people began to conceal their treasures in caves and other remote places. However, Saville continues, “Through mining operations … enormous quantities of gold, fashioned in a multitude of forms, have been discovered.” To impress us with the incredible value and quantity of objects unearthed, he records that:

“One tomb in Sigsig contained forty-four pounds of gold, another more than two hundred pounds. . .  The forms of the objects include discs, plain or decorated, ear-rings, nose-rings, bracelets, bells, crowns called llautos, thick shields without wooden backs, musical instruments such as pan-pipes and flageolets, circular rings of massive gold sometimes weighing as much as three pounds, and semi-globular vessels and vases of different sizes and in great numbers.”

Gold crown from Sigsig. Photo credit: R. Cronav for the Museum of the American Indian

Gold crown from Sigsig. Photo credit: R. Cronav for the Museum of the American Indian

During the period when Saville is writing, illegal archaeological activity in the region was fierce. Saville repeats a report from researcher Max Uhle, who notes that in 1992, a new discovery was made in Cerro Narrio. As a result:

“Practically the entire population of the immediate neighborhood, augmented by others from towns far away, flocked to the spot … at one time about four hundred people were busily engaged in the despoliation of the cemetery, the hill appearing like an ant-heap.”

It is clear that archaeological looting was common in southeastern Ecuador at this time, due to the fact that valuable, even precious, archaeological objects were relatively abundant.

The Ancestral Peoples of the Southeastern Ecuadorian Cordillera and Amazon

This southeastern region of Ecuador is populated by two important indigenous groups, The Shuar (formerly known as the Jivaro) and the Kichua. The Shuar nation, including the Achuars and the Shiwiars, includes about 120,000 individuals who are all linguistically related. According to preliminary studies by Max Uhle, archaeological evidence suggests that the Shuar are direct descendants of ancestral peoples who arrived in this area at least 3,000 years ago. The Kichua are recent arrivals. As their name suggests, they are the descendants of Incan colonizers who spoke Kichua.

The Shuar occupy around 500 community centers scattered around the province of Morona  Santiago (65%), as well as Zamora Chinchipe, Pastaza, and Napo Provinces (35%). These communities are organized into the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers (FICSH) and the Interprovincial Federation of the Shuar People of Ecuador (FIPSE), as well as the FINE, OSHE, FENASHP, and CISAE. The Shuar have occupied this territory for centuries; neither the Inca in 1490, nor the Spanish invaders in 1549, were able to dislodge them. However, modern mining and petroleum operations, which have gained “concessions” from the Ecuadorian government, are now encroaching on traditional Shuar lands. The Shuar people are actively protesting these invasions. In regards to this investigation, most of the Tayos Caves fall within the Shuar territory, known as the Territory of the Shuar Arutam People, legally recognized by the Ecuadorian government under a CODEMPE (Development Council of the Peoples and Nationalities of Ecuador) agreement in 2006. This includes 90% of the Cordillera del Cóndor, an area central to this story and the location where this investigation begins.

Going to the Heart of the Tayos Mystery

If we view the Tayos mystery through the lens of this background information, several striking features begin to reveal themselves. But they are only clues. To secure corroborating evidence, I traveled to the Caves of the Tayos in August, 2016 with a tourist club called Viajes Despierta. I decided that I would question the people living at the epicenter of the Tayos Caves mystery, that is, the Shuar people themselves. Most examinations of the Tayos mystery swirl around the famous explorers, Juan Móricz (or János Móricz Opos) and Stanley Hall, and point to the Salesian priest Father Paolo Crespi - more about them later. However, it is obvious that the Shuar have their own authoritative contribution to add, since they have been preserving their ancestral lands for hundreds of years.

Kitchen and mess hall in the Shuar community of Tayu Jee in Pastaza Province, Ecuador. Photo credit: the author (2016).

Kitchen and mess hall in the Shuar community of Tayu Jee in Pastaza Province, Ecuador. Photo credit: the author (2016).

The Shuar community of Tayu Jee is located in Pastaza Province. It is reached from the Puyo-Macas highway after a two-hour tramp through the Amazonian forest down to the Pastaza River. This Shuar community is in charge of an autonomous territory along the river that contains several of the entrances to the Tayos Caves complex. I stayed in this community for two days, and was able to interview Tayu Jee’s community leaders, Don Luis Canillas and his son, Don Antonio Canillas. Together, they both corroborated many of my suspicions, and added another layer of complexity to the puzzle.

Tayu Jee  community leaders, Don  Luis Canillas (left, bookended by other community members) and Don Antonio Canillas (right). Photo credits: the author (2016).

Tayu Jee  community leaders, Don  Luis Canillas (left, bookended by other community members) and Don Antonio Canillas (right). Photo credits: the author (2016).

As a basis for this investigation, Don Luis confirmed that their Tayu Jee section of the Tayos Caves in Pastaza Province is connected to the Tayos complex in Morona Santiago Province. Facilitating this connectivity is the fact that the Caves descend 800 meters below ground. They affirmed that the explorer Juan Móricz entered both branches of the Caves. Second, they asserted that the Tayos  Caves contained gold in the form of raw ore (but no gems). Third, both Don Luis and Don Antonio clearly and definitely stated that there has never been an ancient library of inscribed metallic plates in the Tayos Caves. There was no ancient civilization there, and the Shuar have no memory of any ancient peoples that inhabited the caves. Fourth, and most astonishing, they vehemently accused Padre Carlo Crespi of the María Auxiliadora congregation in Cuenca, the capital of Azuay Province, of being a thief. Don Luis told me that Padre Crespi knew Móricz. Crespi came and took out the gold ore with a helicopter. The gold was later delivered to the Vatican. For his services, Crespi was appointed Archbishop of Cuenca. However, on further investigation, Don Luis’ understanding on this point turns out to be wrong. A fact check reveals that Crespi never became Archbishop, or even Bishop, of Cuenca. When Crespi died in 1982, Monsignor Vicente Cisneros was Archbishop of Cuenca. However, Crespi did not die without laudatory honors. It was Cisneros who began the beatification process for Crespi. Finally, Don Antonio added that “the metal tablets in Crespi’s “library” were fashioned by locals in Cuenca to earn money and to satisfy Crespi’s greed.” He also said that the tablets served as a story to cover up the gold theft.

As for Juan Móricz, according to Don Luis, Móricz payed $4,000 for a mining concession in the Tayos Caves. He thinks that Móricz found gold ore in the Caves, but “whatever he found, he left there.” To paraphrase, the Shuar have a good opinion of Juan Móricz.

The Lineup of Likely Suspects

What can the reader make of this amazing testimony? Based on evidence that I will present below, I can say that with their on-the-ground perspective, the Shuar have come closer to the truth than other investigators have managed to come. At the same time, the Shuar may be off target in some of their details because of the operative secrecy maintained by those involved in the theft. By reviewing other original documents related to the Tayos Caves, this investigation shines a more illuminating light on this golden affair of theft and deception.

Based on the tantalizing evidence given below, three broadly outlined suspects for the theft rise to the surface of this murky, underground story. The first is obviously Padre Carlo Crespi. As the reader will see, there is evidence corroborating the denunciation made by the Shuar. We will consider his case first. Furthermore, we should note that Crespi was probably not acting as an individual, but in his office as an ordained missionary for the Vatican—the emphasis here being on the word mission. The second are the explorers who actually entered the Tayos Caves. Since they collaborated on exploring the Caves at some period in their careers, we will consider them together. Finally, there is some secondary evidence that points to a third party that assisted in the theft and may have benefited from it. This third participant we can loosely identify as the Ecuadorian government itself acting through its military branch, the Ecuadorian armed forces, as a distribution arm for museums, universities, banks, and/or private collectors.

Top Image: The open chamber near the first descent in the Tayu Jee branch of the Tayos Caves. Source: The author (2016).

By Heidi Schultz

Heidi Schultz's picture


Heidi Schultz is hot on the path of lifelong learning. She holds a master's degree from Harvard University in Spanish. Synthesizing those analytical skills with meditation practices, she is in pursuit of the truth. She aspires to take an extended... Read More

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