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Frontispiece: Lago Mucubaji in the Eastern
Mérida Andes is a typical glacial lake impounded by moraines
dating from the last glaciation. The main transverse ridge in the
middle ground is a recessional moraine deposited by receding ice
which moved up-valley and off to the left at the end of the last
ice age. The cirque (glacial amphitheater) in the background once
housed a small feeder glacier that fed into the main ice stream.
The view here is similar in size and scope to lakes and deposits
in the Coromoto Valley, the main artery leading to the Humboldt
Massif at ~5000 meters elevation. Located about 45-km to the south
on the high spine of the Andes, the valley below the Humboldt Glacier
is the type locality of fictional gold and platinum placer deposits,
which form the center of gravity of this story as it unfolds.
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Surely few natural historians have travelled as far
and learned as much as Alexander von Humboldt. His explorations,
together with Aimé Bonpland in the Americas in the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries, stand as one of the pillars of scientific
achievement, breaking new ground in every field of physical and
biological thought. Von Humboldt’s gold-platinum find, if
it did exist, would have changed the course of human history, just
as his Explorations and Kosmos changed the course of exploration
and scientific thought.
The inspiration for this book came from several years
of studying glaciers, especially the limits of glaciation and glacial
dynamics, in the Andes of Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina. During
this time, I wondered what it must have taken to drive explorers
extraordinaire, like Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland,
to seek out, describe and study the high Andean Mountains, a five-year
project. Their only prospect of success would be the publication
of a natural history of one of the largest and most imposing mountain
chains on earth.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
travel and communications in the northern Andes would have been
slow. With a primitive road system, and movement restricted to horse
and carriage or cart, movement in the countryside was restricted.
Travel in the mountains meant penetrating the dense cloud forest
between 1500 and 3000 meters above sea level, to reach the páramo
or South American alpine, the high Andean landscape complete with
raw-edged tussock grasses and Espeletia (Frailejón). In the
Andes, the Frailejón blooms as a long-leafed tall plant with
an almost iridescent green hue, very similar in form to the Senecio
of the East African mountains.
Had von Humboldt and Bonpland attempted to explore
the cloud forest they would have had to break off their lowland
explorations and trek through the scrub semi-deciduous woodland
adjacent to the giant inland Maracaibo Lake. In von Humboldt’s
time this lower vegetation zone was inhabited by the Motilone, a
tribe of blowgun carrying natives known for their fierce protective
and warlike nature, which they had developed from contact with Spanish
invaders. Had they attempted to explore the high mountains, Von
Humboldt and Bonpland would have had, first to penetrate this formidable
native barrier, and then make their way through the cloud forest
to reach the glaciers of the high páramo. In reality, they
bypassed the Venezuelan Andes to explore much of the Amazon Basin
and later the high mountains of Ecuador.
The cloud forest, one of the densest on earth, is
every bit the equal of the bamboo-Podocarpus forests of East Africa,
where, at best, one can see a distance of two or three meters. With
little sunlight passing through the thick foliage, direction is
only possible with a compass.
Gold in placer deposits and platinum veins in bedrock
in the Mérida Andes are strictly fictional. Till, the sediment
emplaced by glaciers, is often studied for its heavy mineral content
(including gold), and much gold is dropped or emplaced as placers
around the margin of glaciation. In the story, von Humboldt and
Bonpland find gold and platinum, but keep the location secret to
avoid a gold rush. The find remains a secret until the logs and
notes made by von Humboldt turn up later on in Europe.
German agents discover von Humboldt’s notes
and samples in a European museum, a prime bit of military intelligence
that adds momentum to the Third Reich’s expanding war machine.
Since the platinum contains iridium, a platinum based metal important
in the manufacture of aircraft carburettors, the presence of this
strategic material leads to a major raid on the Andes to recover
Iridium, a hard, lustrous silver-colored metal, stable
in both air and water, and inert to all acids is the principal component
of special alloys used in aircraft internal combustion engines.
Its high boiling point, low thermal expansion and rare occurrence
make it an extremely valuable and strategic material. In 1939, the
major source of this metal was in Alaska, and the ore mined at Goodnews
Bay was sold directly to Britain for use in the new Spitfire, which
would soon replace the Hurricane as the operational fighter aircraft
of the RAF.
Herein is the crux of the plot: the ultimate struggle
of two ideologies, both believing they are on the side of right,
backed by rex and regula of their individual nations, to recover
the Andean gold-platinum. Once recovered, the precious ore would
provide their governments with the added financial and military
might to win the forthcoming world struggle.
IN 1804, WHILE EXPLORING THE HIGH
ANDES OF VENEZUELA, ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT DISCOVERS A MAJOR LODE
OF GOLD AND PLATINUM. HIS LOGS OF THE DISCOVERY LAY UNDISTURBED
IN AN ESTONIAN MUSEUM UNTIL THEY ARE REDISCOVERED BY A VENEZUELAN
GEOLOGIST IN 1939.
GOLD AND PLATINUM, SOUGHT
AFTER TO SHORE UP THE GERMAN CENTRAL BANK AND TO BUILD HIGH PERFORMANCE
CARBURETORS FOR THE MESSERSCHMITT, BECOME AN OBSESSION OF THE GERMAN
IN THE SUMMER OF 1939,
GERMANY SENDS A SUBMARINE FORCE WITH PARATROOPERS TO VENEZUELA,
TO RECOVER VON HUMBOLDT’S GOLD AND PLATINUM.
ONLY JACK FORD, AN AMERICAN
PROFESSOR OF ARCHAEOLOGY, STANDS IN THE WAY OF A SUCCESSFUL RECOVERY.
April, 1939. Students milled around in the hall outside
the lecture room at the far end of the Institute waiting for classes
to start. One of the resident archaeologists in the museum, Jack
Ford, stopped briefly to look at the crowd of students. Not spotting
any familiar faces in the crowd, he threaded a path that would take
him to his laboratory. It seemed to him that student numbers had
swelled somewhat during the last few months while he had been off
recovering artifacts in South America.
At the far end of the hallway, he noticed Reuben Porter,
a cantankerous and windy colleague coming out of his office, fumbling
with his keys. Not wanting to indulge him, Jack crossed over to
the door leading to the second floor, and bounded up the stairs
two at a time. At the top he turned left, hoping he had evaded Reuben,
and walked quickly to his office at the end of the long corridor.
He had an hour before his class started and wasting time on idle
conversation with one of the gossip artists in the place was the
very last thing he wanted to do.
Pulling on his lab coat, Jack settled onto a stool
in front of his laboratory bench and searched for the keys to the
lab cabinet. He unlocked the storage cabinet and took out the latest
gold specimens, icons collected from a site near Machu Picchu in
Peru. He placed them on the table and studied them at length. These
icons had nearly cost him his life and he was lucky to have escaped
in one piece, to return to the normalcy of lecturing in anthropology.
Staring at these ancient relics, he asked himself,
half out loud, “What is it that makes them so sought after,
so valuable?” The earth around them, in which they were found
encased, might yield valuable clues to environmental change and
even age, but the relics, people would fight over or even die for.
For many, they were prized beyond all value.
A knock at the door interrupted Jack’s reverie
and brought Cedric Caine, wearing a broad grin, into the laboratory.
His former professor, Cedric was also his colleague, trusted friend
and advisor. An archaeologist in his own right, with an international
reputation, Cedric spent most of his time trying to finance Jack’s
excavations in South America and elsewhere around the globe.
Jack studied his face, noting a mixture of anticipation
and fear, borne of wonder that the icons had been recovered at all
and anxiety over what the museum board would say about how they
had been collected. Jack had no doubt Cedric would eventually get
round to asking where and how he had managed to collect the icons.
Above all, he knew he would have to come up with some creative answers.
Yes, he ought to smile, Jack thought. The tremendous
find brought back to the museum from Peru would ratchet the museum
up a notch or two in the academic world. They were the first icons
of their kind in North America and supposedly unattainable despite
vigorous searching by many archaeologists all over the world. Jack
had recovered the Incan gold icons from sites radiating out of the
center of Inca culture at Machu Picchu, a civilization destroyed
by the Spanish invasion of the Sixteenth Century.
Turning to look at Cedric once again, Jack could see
he was stupefied, mouth open and clearly unable to speak, overawed
by the beauty of the icons that lay before him.
Anticipating Cedric’s quizzical look, Jack remarked,
“Yes, Cedric, Dad will analyze the gold content. The conquistadors
searched for the source of the gold, but could never find it.”
“Does your father know you are back in town?”
“I talked with Dad last night. He’ll be
in later today to do an analysis on the samples but I have no doubt
the gold content is the purest to have ever come out of South America.
Truly beautiful and truly amazing.”
The Incas had not only found the placers, but exploited
them by mining the gold and little silver (called platina by the
Spanish, now called platinum), producing some of the most beautiful
art forms ever made in South America.
As they sat looking at the figures, Jack thought,
Pizarro had searched for the source of the gold, but could never
find it; he didn’t understand the geology well enough to put
it together. Concentrating on the vein gold, when most of the accessible
sites were at lower elevations in the placers, was a big mistake.
As Cedric continued to study the figures, he turned
them around to inspect every facet, his fingers following every
suture. Jack watched the intensity build in Cedric’s face,
thinking, The people who made them were extraordinary craftsmen.
Their descendants worshipped the icons, believing they contained
supernatural powers so terrible they could be unleashed on nonbelievers.
Just then Cedric looked at Jack and remarked, “The
Indians will have put a curse on you, especially since you don’t
believe in the supernatural.”
“We are not ‘believers’ exactly,
Cedric, but most of us respect the religious significance of the
icons. I certainly appreciate their beauty and exquisite craftsmanship.”
Jack watched Cedric’s reaction, thinking he
might be spooked by the thought of a curse, but Cedric seemed willing
to drop the subject.
The gold alpaca and llama statues, together with a
wooden ceremonial vase and star-headed mace embellished with gold,
formed the newest additions to the museum collection from Machu
Picchu, the last Inca refuge.
Looking at Cedric, Jack pronounced, “Dad will
ask about the source of the gold and this time I think I know the
answer. The Incas were collecting it around the margins of the great
Pleistocene glaciers in the Andes. Find the great glacial terminal
moraines and you have the placers. We dug two of them and brought
the samples back that should prove the theory.”
Watching Cedric grow more intense, Jack waited a few
precious seconds and added, “Want to finance an expedition
to find the source of the gold?”
Cedric weighed the question for a minute or two, and
then, stammering slightly, asserted, “Can you find it Jack,
do you think, the actual source? If you could match the source to
the gold figures it would be a coup for the museum.”
“It can be done, Cedric, it can be done,”
Jack confirmed, with a wry smile.
The two scientists looked long and hard at the figures
without uttering a word, and then Jack locked them away in the sample
As Cedric went off to a committee meeting, Jack thought,
At least I am spared meetings; teaching is wearying enough and nothing
like field work where discovery can come at any time. An important
find might catapult one’s reputation, from the dark abyss
of the unknown, to the known, perhaps even the widely known.
But, fame is not the driving force, he thought. It’s
the adrenalin rush of the find, the exuberance brought about by
new evidence that ultimately provides proof for a new theory. Debunking
a popular theory, advanced by someone who has never dug a site,
has a certain appeal. And, oh yes, there are many archaeologists
with clean, unworn hands, Jack thought.
Archaeology, the embodiment of interdisciplinary science,
is the field of learning which draws upon knowledge in many disciplines,
from physics to history. Thinking of the interconnectedness of several
disciplines, Jack was strangely reminded of Alexander von Humboldt,
the great German explorer-scientist of the New World.
The natural sciences had come a long way from the
pioneering days of von Humboldt and Jack wondered why he had suddenly
thought of the New World and von Humboldt.
It must be the icons, he told himself. Then, after
thinking about the icons for a short time, he puzzled over what
the great explorer would have done with them had he found them.
As Jack thought more about it he decided to write up the results
and publish when the time was right. Dropping the thought from his
mind, he checked to insure the gold figures were locked safely in
the cabinet, and picked up his briefcase.
Looking at his watch Jack realized he had to hurry
to get to class. While chuckling as he walked off to class, Jack
thought, it’s getting on to the end of term, and soon I’ll
be free to spend some months doing field work. Jack had offers to
excavate Bronze-age sites in Britain and pre-Columbian sites in
southern Canada, but the source of the Incan gold kept returning
to nag him. I’ll talk to Dad, he told himself, as he pushed
against the classroom door with his briefcase. The sudden thought
that maybe he had left his revolver in it gave him a start as he
dropped the bag on the desk. No sense looking for it now. If the
students saw it, they would likely be terrified and the museum did
not need students more terrified than usual.
Looking over the lectern at dozens of nondescript
faces in the usual crowd--serious students, to those more pleasantly
bored with the subject matter, Jack thought again about why he got
into academia. “It’s the field work,” he muttered
half out loud. “Teaching is just a job and a paycheck!”
The real payday comes in the field with new discoveries, and sometimes,
with the right batch of students, even teaching in the field pays
Just as he started to open his notes, he thought again
about von Humboldt. He would have wanted to find the source of the
Incan gold, with that inquisitive mind of his, and so do I.
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