Gene Savoy, Andean Explorer, Obituary

Douglas Eugene “Gene” Savoy (May 11, 1927-September 11, 2007)

Gene Savoy was perhaps the most successful South American explorer of his generation and certainly the most controversial.

His discovery of ‘Old Vilcabamba’ at Espíritu Pampa in 1964 was the most important find of an Inca site since Hiram Bingham stumbled on Machu Picchu in 1911.

For Savoy surmised and other historians have since validated that the site at Espíritu Pampa was the great lost city of the Incas, the so-called ‘Old Vilcabamba’ deep in the jungle where they retreated in their final days after the Spanish Conquest.  It was the site Hiram Bingham himself had been looking for when he stumbled inadvertently on Machu Picchu instead.  In locating it, Savoy built directly on Hiram Bingham’s earlier exploration.  Ironically, Bingham had found a small Inca settlement in almost precisely the same place fifty years earlier and dismissed it as being too insubstantial for the lost city of Old Vilcabamba he was searching for – and so not looked any further. 

If ever there was an example of how explorers can never overcome their own preconceptions, this was it.  The site Bingham found didn’t fit with his romantic vision of what such a lost city should look like.  Machu Picchu on the other hand could have been designed by a Hollywood art director, albeit one with exceptional talent.  So Bingham twisted himself into intellectual contortions to try to prove, against all the evidence, that Machu Picchu itself must have been Old Vilcabamba, the ‘Last City of the Incas’, simply because it looked better.

Savoy pressed further into the surrounding jungle beyond Bingham’s initial discovery and found out quite how extensive the site really was, despite being bitten by a bushmaster snake and receiving a denuncia, a formal indictment, from the local community for presumed grave-robbing. 

Espíritu Pampa was just the first of Savoy’s extraordinary finds.  He went on to explore further in the Chachapoyas area to the north of Peru.  Here he found first Gran Pajatén in 1965 and then, much later, Gran Vilaya in 1985, two equally remarkable sites.  Gran Pajatén was an impressive citadel, while Gran Vilaya was a complex of thousands of buildings which Savoy could claim with some justification as being the capital of the Chachapoyan empire.

Yet along with this dizzying series of discoveries, unmatched since the time of Hiram Bingham himself, came a taste for publicity and diffusionist claims which led the archaeological world to disown him.

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Douglas Eugene “Gene” Savoy  was born on May 11 1927 in Bellingham, Washington.  In his autobiography, Antisuyo, he says:  ‘Men dream of adventure and I am no exception.  I cannot remember not wanting to be an explorer.  I hated school when I was a boy.’ So after the failure of both his first marriage and business, he moved to Peru in the 1960s where he quickly attracted attention for his buccaneering charm and ability to attract wealthy sponsors for his increasingly ambitious expeditions.

In 1962 he moved with a new wife to Yungay, a town in Northern Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.  Tragedy struck.  It was an area prone to landslides and a bad one engulfed the town:  Savoy and his family survived the earthquake but his young son, Jamil, died in the epidemic that followed.

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By now Savoy had fallen under the influence of the Peruvian archaeologist, Julio Tello, who had promoted a site called Chavín de Huántar as the centre of the earliest Peruvian culture then known, that of the Chavín (c 1200 – 200 BC).  What intrigued Savoy about Tello’s theories was the idea that the Chavín (and by implication all the later Andean cultures) had their origins in the East, in the jungle.  Tello had based this idea on the images of jaguars and serpents he saw carved on a great stelae at Chavín.  The assumption of most archaeologists, swayed perhaps by the Incas’ own creation myths, had always been to assume a mountain origin for both them and their Andean predecessors.

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The central driving idea behind all Savoy’s exploring in the succeeding years was to show that the jungle was not on the fringes of Peruvian culture but at its very centre.  It was what led him later to his obsessive search into the Chachapoyas, which he saw as essentially another jungle culture overlooked by academics more concerned with the mountains (the area of Chachapoyas lies between the two).  When he travelled down towards Espíritu Pampa from the Andes it was not, as Bingham had done, with a sense of mild regret at what the Incas might finally have come to – instead he saw Manco Inca as having proudly led his troops down to Old Vilcabamba as a ‘symbolic’ return to the ancestral homeland.  Savoy postulated: ‘Was his [Manco’s] cry, “back to the place of origin from whence we will re-build and re-conquer”?’  Savoy, unlike Bingham, actually wanted to find the ‘last city of the Incas’ in the jungle.

As if being both the most successful Andean explorer since the war was not enough for one man, Savoy also evolved a parallel career as a high-profile yachtsman.  After sailing reed-boats across Lake Titicaca in the 1960s, he later set out on another sea-faring adventure around the world, this time in a seventy foot mahogany catamaran with two carved Mochica dragons as prows.  On the stern of the boat were a pair of Cadillac fins. 

There was a reason for these ocean voyages.  Savoy had decided, like Thor Heyerdahl before him (and Heyerdahl had also lived in Northern Peru), that the answer to questions of cultural origin lay in possible transoceanic crossings between civilisations and that the only way to really prove this was to do it yourself. 

Archaeologists like to tar Savoy with the diffusionist brush  (the idea that the advanced ancient cultures of each continent must have influenced each other, or at least evolved from some lost meta-culture, Atlantis being the usual contender).  But Savoy’s main point was not about trans-Atlantic crossings – rather he thought it inconceivable that there had been no commercial connection between the highly consumerist pre-Columbian civilisations of the South, around present-day Peru, and those of Central America such as the Nahuatl (the Aztecs) and the Maya. 

 In 1969 Savoy tried to demonstrate the contact between these two areas of civilisation by setting off from the coast of Peru in a historically accurate tortora reed raft he called ‘The Feathered Serpent’ and heading north towards Mexico.  The raft capsized off Panama.

By now Savoy had an uneasy relationship with the academic archaeologist community who deplored his swashbuckling ways while building on his discoveries for their own research.

I once asked Savoy about the controversy some of his views had caused.  ‘I’m not  a maverick, not a rebel’ he told me, a little unconvincingly.  But his views on archaeologists were trenchant:  ‘You’ve got to be a member of their club, like a golf-club or something…What’s an archaeologist?  Someone who puts their head down a hole for forty years – but doesn’t have much of an idea of what’s outside the hole. They’re so specialist they lose the plot.  And they presume that anyone who doesn’t have a bit of paper stuck on the wall as a diploma can’t be intelligent.   Look what they’ve said about us [ie explorers], about people like our wonderful Bingham, about Schliemann who’s been criticised by pygmies who wouldn’t even reach up to his boots.’

But he emphasised that he continually returned to historical sources in order to find clues for his searches.  ‘No sensible man goes down into the jungle unless he’s got something to follow.  I see explorers as people with open minds who can scan many different sources for information, unconfined by an academic discipline, just like computers scan the internet.  We’ve all learnt that the great thing is to follow the roads.  Roads lead to ruins.’

As his close friend and associate Nicholas Asheshov has commented, ‘Savoy always looked more like Buffalo Bill than Harrison Ford:   he didn’t naturally inspire confidence in authority, let alone in the archaeologists.’

Savoy died at his Reno, Nevada home on September 11, 2007 of natural causes.  In his final years he founded a cult, the International Community of Christ, which taught its members that the secret to immortality lay in staring directly at the sun and thereby absorbing God as raw energy.  He claimed that this secret had been revealed to him in the jungles of Peru.

Like his great hero Hemingway, Gene Savoy was a mythomane determined to ignore the more banal details of his life story and instead create a heroic curve.  In that, he was largely successful.

A shortened version of this obituary appeared in the Independent, along with an appreciation by Vince Lee

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