Gene Savoy

Swashbuckling explorer who discovered the lost Inca city of Vilcabamba and founded his own church


Douglas Eugene Savoy, explorer and writer: born Bellingham, Washington 11 May 1927; three times married (four sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Reno, Nevada 11 September 2007.

Gene Savoy was one of the most colourful controversial pioneers in the world of Andean exploration. Once dubbed the "real" Indiana Jones by People magazine, he discovered scores of ruins in the jungles of Peru. In addition to his lifelong interest in Andean exploration and archaeology, he was deeply religious and eventually founded and became pastor of the International Community of Christ, Church of the Second Advent, which had its headquarters in his hometown of Reno, Nevada.

Born in Bellingham, Washington in 1927, Savoy went to the University of Portland but dropped out after two years to join the navy, serving as a gunner in the Second World War. Shortly thereafter he went into journalism, working in and around Portland, Oregan and dabbling in amateur archaeology in his spare time. Ten years later, in 1957, after a failed marriage and various financial setbacks, he found himself free to embark on a new and far more adventurous course, one which he was to pursue for the rest of his l ife.

His latent interest in pre-Columbian America had been stimulated by the then recent publications of two bestsellers: Hiram Bingham's Lost City of the Incas (1952), the story of the discovery of Machu Picchu, and Thor Heyerdahl's chronicle of his Kon-Tiki raft expedition across the South Pacific, published in English in 1957. For Savoy, the message was clear: fame and fortune awaited an explorer, and most especially one who knew how to bring the story of his adventures to the attention of the public. He was soon off to Lima, Peru, where he landed a reporting job with the Peruvian Times, created the Andean Explorers Club with himself as its chief (and only) explorer, and married a wealthy Peruvian lady who soon bore him a son, Jamil.

He settled his family in Yungay, a town in the shadow of the spectacular Cordillera Blanca mountains and began to embrace a radical new theory of Andean origins. He believed that the highland cultures of Peru had migrated there not from the Pacific coastal deserts, as current wisdom had it, but up from the Amazonian jungles to the east. At the same time, he began pursuing equally unorthodox religious ideas, even forming a proto-New Age Christian church, with himself as minister. All went well until the Pico Huascará* landslide of 1962, which devastated the entire region, killing thousands. Among those who died in the aftermath was three-year-old Jamil. In his grief, Savoy came to believe that his son's birth had actually been the second coming of Christ, a concept that ever afterwards formed the core of his numerous religious books, writings and church doctrines.

Beyond the circle of his family, friends and religious followers, however, Savoy will most likely be remembered for his Andean exploits, and for a simple reason: he was a tireless and skilled publicist. Ironically, his penchant for headlines was both a blessing and a curse. It brought him a desired measure of fame, but distanced him from fellow explorers and professional archaeologists.

His accomplishments were substantial, but often exaggerated in the press. He was not above taking occasional credit for work done by others and his writings were long on adventure and speculation, but short on science and specific detail. He felt ignored by the archaeological establishment due, he thought, to his lack of formal credentials. But it wasn't that. He just didn't make his findings available to colleagues in any useful way.

All that aside, Savoy covered a lot of ground. In 1964, he revisited and correctly identified Vilcabamba, the site of the Incas' final redoubt at the Plain of Ghosts in the Amazonian rain forest. Several years later, he was one of the first people to visit the remote Chachapoya site of Gran Pajaté* in northern Peru. His claims of "discoveries" in both cases were later disputed by other explorers. His 1970 book, Antisuyo: the search for the lost cities of the Amazon, became a cult classic among aspirant amateur explorers, inspiring many, like myself, to head off into the jungle.

Savoy returned to the United States in 1971 and took up residence in Reno, Nevada, where he married for a third time and founded the Andean Explorers Foundation & Ocean Sailing Club. As suggested by the organisation's name, and in a completely different vein from his earlier work, he often went to sea between 1977 and 1982 on a 60-foot schooner and attempted various Kon-Tiki-like sea adventures on rafts of Andean design. Like Heyerdahl before him, he was pursuing a strong belief in oceanic diffusion among the pre-Columbian cultures of the Pacific coast. His 1974 book On the Trail of the Feathered Serpent recounted some of these voyages.

In later life, Savoy refocused on Peru and renewed his efforts in the jungles of Chachapoyas, where he reported numerous sites, many new, some not-so-new, but all related, he thought, to his theory of Amazonian origins. There were rumblings that his claimed discoveries of Gran Vilaya and Gran Saposoa, each composed of literally thousands of ruins, included many sites previously recorded by himself and others, and that they were not, as he presented them to the press, startling new finds. Nevertheless, the Peruvian government belatedly recognised his long years of exploration with several medals in the late 1980s and the city of Reno proclaimed "Gene Savoy Day " in October 1996.

Vincent R. Lee

Gene Savoy's discovery of Vilcabamba at Espíritu Pampa in 1964 was the most important find of an Inca site since Hiram Bingham stumbled on Machu Picchu in 1911, writes Hugh Thomson. 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 Bingham's earlier exploration. For ironically Bingham had found a small Inca settlement in almost precisely the same place 50 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. 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.

The central driving idea behind all Savoy's exploring 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. 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.

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 40 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 [i.e. 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.

Like his great hero Ernest 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.

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