The story reads like a cross between ``Raiders of the Lost Ark'' and ``Nova.'' In 1983, Alan Stormo, a plastic surgeon and archaeology buff from Boulder, was vacationing in Peru. Little did he realize his trip would eventually lead scientists to a virtually unknown pre-Incan culture, lost for 1,500 years, and possibly to a better understanding of the fabled Incan empire.
A travel agent in Trujillo, Peru, told Dr. Stormo tales of some virtually unknown ruins in an area called Gran Pajaten, a lost valley covered by nearly impenetrable jungle to the east of Trujillo.
Stormo, a former Navy surgeon and self-styled adventurer, came home to the United States determined to return to Peru and see this area -- and with a conviction that it deserved scientific study. He persuaded two of his friends to become involved. The three contacted Thomas J. Lennon, a University of Colorado archaeologist and Peruvian expert, who was also enthusiastic about visiting Gran Pajaten.
``Within seconds I was ready to go,'' Dr. Lennon recalls. The archaeologist had heard of the site before meeting Stormo. In fact, an expedition had gone there in the early 1900s, but after that the site was nearly forgotten by scientists. Legend, however, kept alive the tale of a lost city in the jungle, where the Incas had secreted their treasures. Until about 20 years ago archaeologists discounted the possibility of such a city, because they considered the rain forest an impenetrable region, where it would have been impossible for the Incas to build a city and maintain the strict discipline for which they were legendary, Lennon explains.
In 1963, however, a farmer from the nearest village rediscovered the ruins at Gran Pajaten. They were a cluster of 18 large circular buildings with elaborate decoration, unlike anything found elsewhere in the region. The Peruvian government considered the find important enough to send a military expedition to clear the area and make drawings of the ruins. After this, a Peruvian archaeologist visited the site for six days of careful excavation. His work indicated the city was part of a totally unknown pre-Incan culture. But because Gran Pajaten was so inaccessible, there was no further investigation.
The area next came to scientists' attention, not because of the ruins, but because of the yellow woolly-tail monkey, believed to be extinct, but discovered there. Zoological work uncovered a number of unusual species, including the spectacled bear, giant anteater, giant armadillo, and torrent duck. As a result, a 1,000-square-mile park was established in the area in 1983.
At about the time Drs. Stormo and Lennon decided to visit Gran Pajaten, Jane Wheeler joined the university's anthropology department. A specialist on prehistoric animals, Dr. Wheeler is also a veteran of 12 years of field research in Peru. She was able to put the group in touch with a Peruvian zoologist studying wildlife in the area.
Armed with this information, the expedition left Denver last July on what proved to be a hair-raising excursion through jungle and across perilous mountain paths. On that two-week trip, the visitors were surprised to find a city that looked ``almost as if the people had just left.'' It is ``unplundered and in a remarkable state of preservation,'' says Lennon, who points out this is rare in modern archaeology. Since the turn of the century, when the major discoveries in Egypt and Peru were made, opportunities to study totally unknown civilizations have become less and less frequent, he adds.
He estimates that Gran Pajaten flourished around AD 400 to 500 and speculates that the city may have been supported by trade between the Amazon Basin and the great Chimu civilization, which existed on the Peruvian coast. Wooden statues and pottery he found at the site are identical to those associated with the Chimu. But there are other features, particularly carved heads with feather headdresses, that are unique. Lennon says there is enough evidence to indicate that the valley was once the home of thousands of people.
It is this aspect of the site that excites Jane Wheeler. ``We have an opportunity here to study the impact of a human civilization on its environment and how well the environment has recovered,'' she comments. Ms. Wheeler has proposed that Gran Pajaten represents a unique opportunity for a multidisciplinary effort to study not only the nature of this lost civilization but also its interactions with the natural environment, something she says has never been attempted before.
The two scientists approached Arnold Weber, president of the University of Colorado, and got his support for such an effort. Then they contacted Peruvian officials. The upshot was the signing of a contract last month between the university and the Peruvian government, giving the university exclusive rights to mount a five-year multidisciplinary study at Gran Pajaten.
Now the team is engaged in raising the roughly $200,000 a year that will be required. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has expressed interest in providing satellite image-processing of the site.