Throughout all the Americas there are legends of archaic avenues, racial memories of subterranean passages stretching for miles. After a great cataclysm the ancestral North Americans lived in the vast cavern complex until it was safe to return to the upper world. The story is spread through many tribes, from the kivas to the Pueblos to the lodges of the Blackfeet, from the hogans of the west to the campfires of the eastern woodland tribes before their dispersion.
To the Hopi this is the fourth world. Thrice the world on the surface has been ravaged while the Hopi escaped by living with the ant people (ant totem) in an underworld beneath the ground.
The Mandans of the northwestern states, some of whom had blue eyes and silky hair, were almost wiped out by smallpox in 1830 with the survivors being forcibly incorporated into the Rickaree tribe. Their legend was linked with the Great Deluge. They said the first men to emerge from the tunnels were the Histoppa or the “tattooed ones.” Having left safety too soon, they perished. The rest, who remained below, waited until a bright light dispelled the darkness on the surface. They found that the destruction was over, but the world above was uninhabited. Each spring the Mandans had a dance celebrating their deliverance from the flood.
The Apaches have a legend that their remote ancestors came from a large island in the eastern sea where there were great buildings and ports for ships. The Fire Dragon arose, and their ancestors had to flee to mountains far to the south. Later they were forced to take refuge in immense and ancient tunnels through which they wandered for years, carrying seeds and fruit plants.
But it is in the south, in Central and especially South America, that the tales of underground passageways and caverns are the most widespread. Myths say that the Votans, who came from the east, were kings of the snake (totem) people, a people of the Great Cataclysm, who through tremendous Atlantean tunnels journeyed to Central America in a very remote time.
“Before the time of the Great Flood,” say the Zapotec sages of old Mexico, “we lived in cave-cities. Our forefathers came out of the caves of the Underworld where it was crowded. They came out by tribes, each led by the spirit of its own animal-totem.”
“Our people long ago came through the places of the cavernous openings,” said the quippos readers of the Incas.
It is in the south that we have the legend of Chichomoztoc, the City of the Seven Caves, but this city cannot be definitely identified with any known city or ruin. And there too are the legends that various ruined cities — Tiahuanaco, Campeche, Palenque and others — are far more extensively built underground than upon the surface.
In the sixteenth century in Peru came Don Francisco Pizarro and his greed-crazed conquistadores. They seized Atahualpa, last of the Inca emperors of the sun, and promised to release him upon receiving a ransom — gold that would fill a room seventeen by twenty feet, and nine feet in height. It is estimated that this ransom consisted of 600 tons of gold and jewels. While awaiting this ransom the Spaniards busied themselves stripping the gold-plating and waterpipes from the Cuzco Temple walls.
The gold flowed into the capital city, arriving by caravans from throughout the empire. Dazzled by the ever-growing display of boundless wealth, Pizarro demanded to know the source. Rumors reached him that the Incas possessed a secret and seemingly inexhaustible mine, or enormous depository, which lay in a vast subterranean tunnel, running many miles beneath the imperial dominions.
Soon gold filled the treasure room to the specified level, but Pizarro refused to release Atahualpa. He announced that if he were not given the secret of the gold’s origin, he would take the emperor’s life. Since Pizarro had broken his first promise, the Inca queen decided to consult the oracles of the priests of the sun. By this mystical means, she learned that whether the secret was given to Pizarro or not, the emperor was doomed. Orders were issued. Under the directions of the high priests, tunnel entrances were sealed and hidden from view.
Beneath the brilliant light of a great comet that gleamed in the southern skies, the empire of the sun came to its tragic end. Atahualpa was strangled and his queen committed suicide. As news of the emperor’s death spread throughout the empire, caravans en route to Cuzco with treasure for their ruler’s ransom stopped and quickly concealed their burdens. Today these lost Inca hoards lie in forests, on lake bottoms, beneath piles of earth and rocks in canyons below the high Cordilleras. They are hidden in fortress vaults, under hills and sealed in caves.
But the greater treasure, the secret place that Pizarro vainly sought, according to legend, is in the strange subterranean tunnels, thousands of years old, that lie locked in the earth. Only a few decades after the conquest, Cieza de Leon wrote “If, when the Spaniards entered Cuzco they had not … so soon executed their cruelty in putting Atahualpa to death, I do not know how many great ships would have been required to bring such treasures to old Spain, as is now lost in the bowels of the earth and will remain so because those who buried it are now dead.”
The Quichua Indians of today are the direct descendants of the Incas of old, a gentle, quiet people with melancholy eyes. Their traditions insist that in each generation a very dedicated few of their number, unknown to all the rest, possess the ancient secret. Shortly after the conquest they told the soldier-priest, Cieza de Leon, that “the treasure is so concealed that even we, ourselves, know not the hiding place.”
Today the Quichuas, down-trodden and poverty-plagued, remember with fanatical devotion the grandeur of their ancestral past, and they dream of a tomorrow when the old glories shall return, when the wheel of time will come full circle, and when, with reincarnated leaders, the empire of the sun will again raise its shining banners beneath Andean skies. Against this day, they preserve their secrets, and dream…
With eternal vigilance they watch the treasure hunters. Any large-scale attempt to locate the tunnels would almost certainly start a revolution. It is to be regretted that the archaic tunnels were used as a depository for Inca wealth, for now, due to the brutality of the conquistadores, they are cut off from modern archeological investigation.
Beneath the veneer of the white man’s civilization with its education and religion, many Native Americans still cling to old beliefs and customs, and take pride in then-cultural heritage. The Quichuas have quietly resisted as much as possible the influence of their Spanish-blooded neighbors. In Mexico the blood of the conquerors and the conquered has mixed. It is estimated that on the average the natives are about 20 percent Spanish and 80 percent Native American. Nevertheless, Mexico too apparently has a concealed cache of gold, its very existence known to only a few in each generation. Said to be hidden somewhere in the buried city below Mexico City, La Ciudad Enterrada awaits the reincarnation of the murdered Montezuma. From time to time, however, some of the gold has seemingly been used for special charitable purposes.
In the southwestern United States among the Pueblos, Navajos, and Apaches, some tribesmen guard hidden gold mines — “gold for Montezuma when he comes back.” That was the explanation given a hunter in the Sandia Mountains when the ground gave way and he fell into a mine and couldn’t get out. A Sandia Pueblo found him, pulled him out, blindfolded him, led him to a trail, and warned him not to go back. He did go back but he never found the mine and he was certain he was being watched.
Whether Montezuma ever returns or not, the discovery of gold brings out the worst in the white man’s nature and culture, including usurpation and despoliation of the land. The Native Americans have a feel for Mother Earth, a love of his land equal to life itself. Why should they offer more wealth to the invaders who have driven him from his own soil, given him the most barren worthless land for his reservations, destroyed his forests, annihilated his buffalo herds and wild game, and polluted his rivers and streams?
The North American Indian has a lore, a tradition, a “deep knowing” that is kept secret from the white man and sometimes within the tribe. This lore and racial memory can contain astonishing insights into the mysteries of their antiquity. The keepers of this wisdom are the sages, the elderly wise men with erudite eyes and weathered faces, who have received it from their fathers.
Greatest of Inca treasures, it is said, was the sun of purest gold which shone from the walls of Cuzco’s Temple of the Sun. It blazed with yellow light, and its radiating scintillations burned the eyes of beholders. Upon its massive circular surface were human facial features, personifying the sun god and his pure, life-giving benisons of light and heat. Each morning as the sun rose above the Andean highlands, its rays fell upon this great disk in the temple, setting it aflame in a dazzling spectacular glow.
It was there when Pizarro and his conquistadores arrived to sack and destroy this ancient civilization, but bandit hands must not touch this most sacred symbol of the Inca god. While the Spaniards slept in their camp near the city, that glorious sun of gold vanished. And along with it into hiding went the golden life-size statue of the Inca Huayna Capac.
There was a smaller sun, a plate of gold known as the child of the greater sun. It was stolen by Don Marcio Serra de Leguisamo, who lost it while gambling the night after the day on which he had taken it. Said Fray Acosta, the monk, “He plays away the sun before the dawn.”
Quite likely the greater sun, the statue and the royal mummies lie somewhere in the mysterious subterranean caverns. There were thirteen embalmed bodies of Inca kings sitting in gold chairs in the temple prior to the murder of Atahualpa. Twenty-six years after the conquest, the conquistador, Polo de Ondegardo, accidentally found three of them. After stripping the mummies of their jewelry, he destroyed them.
To the Incas gold was more an element for ornamentation than a medium of exchange. The yellow metal was used for rail roof gutters and water pipes. It plated temple walls and thin sheets of the beaten gold wallpapered their houses. So delicate in workmanship, so exquisite in artistic detail was some of the jewelry that even the brutish Pizarro refused to melt it into bars.
John Harris, writing his Moral History of the Spanish West Indies in 1705, noted that while debts were paid in wedges of gold, “no Spaniard troubled if a creditor got twice the amount of his debt. Nothing was so cheap, so common, so easy to be got as gold and silver… a sheet of paper went for ten Castilians of gold.”
Much of this wealth was taken to Spain in galleons. Divided among the conquistadores, each man received hundreds of pounds of gold and silver. Since this booty could not be easily transported, some of it was hidden and for one reason or another was never recovered. These lost caches are occasionally and quietly being found today.
Catari, a quippos-reading Incan historian, told Bartolome Cervantes, canon of Chuquisaca, that old records disclosed that Tiahuanaco was primarily an underground city, extending below the surface into vast caverns. There are legends around Lake Titicaca that Tiahuanaco and Cuzco are joined by an underground tunnel and that caverns extend clear through the Andes to the eastern slopes.
Beneath Cuzco are the entrances to three caverns, one being located under the Sun Temple. A number of adventurers during past centuries have entered these caverns but none returned. Finally one man came back carrying two bars of gold but with his mind gone. It was then that the Peruvian government ordered the entrances walled up.
Alan Landsburg visited Tiahuanaco while producing the Jacques Cousteau television documentary on Lake Titicaca. He observed an artificial ridge around an enclosure approximately 4,000 square yards. “I hear that the Bolivian government plans to dig there,” he writes. “It may find nothing, although there are said to be Incan legends of a honey comb of tunnels at Tiahuanaco, and of great vertical shafts… Any subterranean chamber at Tiahuanaco may have long since collapsed or filled with dirt. Still, the solid evidence of that four-thousand-yard earthworks seem meaningful.”
Another legend is that Tupac Amaru, the Inca leader, with several thousand soldier and refugees, in 1533 escaped through tunnel east of Cuzco from Pizarro and his men; route leading into the unexplored jungle territory of northern Bolivia.
After almost every earthquake in Peru puzzling sounds are heard. They are described as comparable to the sounds of huge boulders falling under the earth’s surface as though dropping from the roofs of caves to the floors. The sounds frequently continue as long a twenty minutes after the quake itself, one dominant characteristic being a hollow booming noise with apparent echoes.
But reports of tunnels and caves are not limited to the Andean countries, but exist throughout the southern Americas. Many ancient ruins are above man-made burrows. Fifty miles south of Mexico City archeologists have found the remains of a Toltec pyramid that once covered a larger area than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Beneath it are labyrinthine passages 1,100 yards long.
Fuentes, a Spanish historian who lived about 1685 A.D., wrote: “The marvelous structure of the tunnels (subterranean) of the pueblo of Puchuta, being of the most firm and solid cement, runs and continues through the interior of the land for the prolonged distance of nine leagues to the pueblo of Tecpan Guatemala. It is a proof of the power of these ancient kings and their vassals.”
Yucatan, with its lost and silent temple, in the green hell of the jungle, rests on limestone strata honeycombed with caves. Some of these caves were apparently used as oracles; others are said to lead to carvings deep in the bowels of the earth. They were well-known to the Mayas who lived here millennia ago, but today are largely unexplored. Some have carved figures at their entrances and the natives refuse to enter them
The greatest subterranean cave associated with ancient man that is known to definitely exist is the vast Lolnin Cave complex in the Puuc Hills of central Yucatan. From the huge chamber inside the entrance, corridor: lead off into various directions like the petal: of a gargantuan flower, hence its name, Loltun – “Flower in Stone.”
No one knows how far or how deep into the dark bowels of the earth these spacious passageways go, for they are still largely unexplored.
And as dark as earth’s bowels is the antiquity of man’s occupation of these caverns. From stalactites, stalagmites and rock pillars have been carved gigantic statues of animals, men and gods. Some are Mayan in origin, but there are strange older ones, along with puzzling petroglyphs, that in no way are similar to Mayan carvings. The men display luxuriant beards. One figure is a nine-foot giant with a full beard and wings that is reminiscent of early Assyrian sculpture. Its body is perforated with holes both vertically and horizontally.
But the most startling fact is one that reminds us of Tiahuanaco and confirms the astonishing antiquity of man in the Americas. Dr. Manson Valentine, the archeologist who has made the most intensive study of the cave complex, tells us that the older statues indicate the caves were under water after they were carved. They were water-eroded and there are water marks on the cavern walls. Moreover, divers exploring the nearby sacred wells have brought up oceanic marine growth from the bottoms.
Today this complex is several hundred feet above sea level. How long ago was it beneath the sea? What cataclysms caused these limestone strata to sink and later be raised above the ocean? And who were these people of a dim dawn era who emerged from an enigmatic eon and vanished into a limbo of the lost? Dr. Valentine writes:
The present-day Maya say that they [as a race] had nothing whatsoever to do with such carvings in Loltun and nearby caves. They say these things were placed there by the “first inhabitants” of Yucatan, the small, hunch-backed men they call “Puus.” These men were supposed to have been completely destroyed by a catastrophe that swept Yucatan in remote times, destroying everything on the surface and leaving only the carvings in the caves as reminders that they had passed that way. The Maya say that later their ancestors, the first Maya, entered and found these strange remnants of the “Puus.”
While all the migrations of Native Americans will never be known, there is abundant evidence of a northern movement, of early relationships between the southern and northern Americas. The long, frigid winter of the ice age probably forced the northern peoples to the south, and quite likely some returned as the glaciers retreated.
The Andean country is a vast land of mountains and silences, of breathtaking vistas and melancholy ruins. It is a very ancient country that has known the passing of many peoples, from the mysterious” Old Ones” whose greatness survives in their megalithic monuments, to the sun emperors of old Incan Peru, to the cruel conquistadores and fanatical monks, and finally to today’s impoverished Quichuas and the more prosperous Mestizos. And over it all is a haunting, mystical atmosphere, imbued with a venerable aura of humanity, conflicts and dreams during countless millennia.
In the Lake Titicaca region of these highlands the natives speak an Aruakian dialect. They have a legend that long, long ago enemies drove them from their capital on the lake. At first they fled to the south, but later, after many generations, they came far to the north, to a land of lakes and forests.
Years passed. Nima-Quiche, an orator and a di earner, became the leader of the people, known as the Chichimecs (or Chees). He persuaded his followers to return to their legendary homeland. Either some were left behind to join Algonquin tribes or they adopted Algonquin words into their language. Nima-Quiche died before his people’s migrations south came to an end, but in time they came to Lake Titicaca. On the bank of the sacred lake their sages held council, and they agreed that this was their original home, the place “where the first sun appeared.”
Towering above the lake and hoary Tiahuanaco is Mount Illimani with its height of 21,184 feet. The name means “Sun God” in both the Aruakian and Michigan Algonquin Chippewa tongues. In Longfellow’s Hiawatha the name “Kichee Manitu, the Mighty” was taken by the poet from Bishop Barraga’s Chippewa Language Dictionary. The “tu” which the Chippewa adds to the name for euphony means “unparalleled splendor” in Aruakian. In Bolivia the tribe’s name is spelled Quichna, but is pronounced “Cheepwa.” Its old meaning is “Ancient Chee.”Another astonishing similarity is in the ancient leader’s name, “Nima-Quiche.” In Chippewa, Nima means “ancestor” and Quiche is “illustrious.”
Nor is this all. Tribal customs are shared by the Bolivian Quichna and the Algonquins of the northern forests. Both practice exposure of the dead followed by secondary burial; carry their infants in cradle-boards; specialize in bird decorations; divide the two sides of the face for painting; have similar costuming including feather robes; and make ceremonial use of tobacco in worship of the wind god. In this observance the tobacco is mixed with shavings of certain sacred woods, placed in stone pipes, and the smoke is blown in the four directions. Another identical practice is plucking out the hair of the eyebrows, a custom of the Iroquois and especially of the Senecas.
If a migration from modern Bolivia and Peru to the northern forests of Michigan and Wisconsin seems improbable, consider the migrations from present Siberia and Alaska to Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn advocated by many anthropologists. There is far greater evidence that the totems moved north, not south.
In the American Heritage Book of Indians, we learn that most experts agree that three-fourths of the population in all the Americas was concentrated in the Mexican and Andean areas at the time of the Spanish conquests. However the number of tribes and groups in the Americas “is all but immeasurable; estimates here really run wild.” In North America there was a greater variety of languages than in all the Old World put together and there was a greater variety in South America than in North America. “The most conservative guesses put the number of mutually unintelligible languages in North America at from 500 to 1,000 and in South America to at least twice that.”
In the migrations of peoples, smaller language groups are forced back to borderlines opposite the point of invasion. The indication is that the tide of migration was not from the northwest, but consisted of a series of repeated thrusts from the southeast, principally up the Mississippi River and then toward the west. Thus tribe was pushed against tribe until these smaller groups reached a point beyond which there was no retreat. As a result there are hundreds of tiny groups islanded along the Pacific coast.
The order in which they came from the south is largely guesswork even when the legends are studied. The fact is that many of the North American tribes frequently migrated over long distances. For example the Pawnee, of the Caddoan language stock, once lived beside Iroquois of different stock at the mouth of the Mississippi. The Pawnees moved to Nebraska and beyond; the Iroquois migrated north to New York and Canada. The Dakota were farmers in Virginia when the white man came and introduced the horse, which completely changed their lives. They gave up growing grain and traveled west to the plains and Black Hills where they found an easier living following the herds of buffalo.
The linguistic jigsaw puzzle map is only another Native American mystery. The myriad tongues testify to the countless environments of Native American groups, to the many influences that came their way, especially after the fall of the southern empires and the dispersion of their peoples. Doubtless the diversity of languages was a cause of conflict. Inability to understand breeds suspicion and mistrust.
From the book Native American Myths and Mysteries (Borderlands 1991)
(reprinted from the Sept-Oct 1992 Journal of Borderland Research)
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