Saving the last city of Gold
The battle to protect the Sibinacocha Watershed
with Preston Sowell, Henrik B Pedersen, James Williams, Justin Daniels and George Watson
Stories of Incan Cities of Gold first were first told in the mid-16th Century by Spanish Conquistadores returning from the New World. Ever since they have captured the imagination of anyone with a sense of adventure. These tales told of elusive, prosperous mountain strongholds where, if legends were to be believed, the streets were literally paved with gold.
The New World’s hidden treasure attracted many explorers in search of their fortunes, decimating a population with no natural immunity to the foreign diseases that arrived with these intruders, emboldened by the belief in their god given right to claim the riches of these new territories.
The mountains managed to keep some of their secrets hidden, yet the legends, too potent to be forgotten, persisted. Now, centuries later, the race is on to protect some of these high mountain ranges from exploitation of a different kind, and yet, at the heart of this project is the same tantalising promise that drew explorers to cross oceans in search of the Inca’s lost secrets.
High up in the Peruvian Andes lies the Cordillera Vilcanota, and at its heart is the Sibinacocha watershed. The fragile ecosystem, with its dramatic landscapes and incredible biodiversity, is at a crossroads. Rapid climate change threatens both its biological and cultural diversity. And unfortunately, recent mining activity poses a more immediate threat.
Sibinacocha is not only home to rare animals and plant life: the lake is critical to the lives of millions of people as a principal headwater of the Amazon River. Mining exploitation is a real and present threat to a way of life that has existed for many years in these mountains.
Preserving this area is a race against time, one haunted by the ghosts of ancient civilisations.
Preston Sowell cuts an unlikely figure as a modern-day Indiana Jones, but his ever-present hat, not unlike Indy’s fedora, casts a shadow over the eyes of someone for whom archaeology encompasses the preservation of not just ancient artefacts, but ecosystems, and perhaps an entire way of life. He has dedicated his career to the protection of this region, establishing The Sibinacocha Watershed Project.
The project’s research ranges from baseline biodiversity surveys – the key to understanding how the ecosystem responds to a changing environment, to the establishment of critical conservation programs to protect the area and its people.
But time is running out and Preston and his team have turned to the ancient stories of the lost Incan temples for their inspiration.
“The stories tell of a lost Incan temple that originated in the time before the Inca came to power and that it was associated with another precious resource – water. Others tell of a village, which disappeared below the waters of a lake. Laguna Sibinacocha is the largest lake in the high Andes and some scholars say that it could be the site of this temple. If we can find evidence of this site, and prove that the Inca were there, or at least show that this site had significance for Incan and pre-Incan societies, there’s a chance to save this region from exploitation.”
As well as co-ordinating research on climate change and facilitating biodiversity monitoring in the area, monitoring the rare Andean Mountain Cat and the highest altitude frogs in the world, Preston’s project has brought together a team of divers to explore the lake. But logistics, with limited funds and time, are an immense challenge.
“The first expedition in 2017 was intended to retrieve an artefact, known to be in the lake, for identification, but it was also about solving complex logistics. At an altitude of more than 16,000ft (5,000m) the lake is hard to access, and diving physiology becomes more sensitive, even on shallow dives. Simply getting there is difficult enough – having enough energy to work when the concentration of oxygen in the air is roughly half that at sea level requires grim determination and a mindset of not being too ambitious, even after acclimatising.”
Henrik Pedersen, a doctor and part of the dive team, elucidates: “The conditions for diving are harsh, the lack of oxygen and the cold present significant challenges. Air temperatures rarely get above 7°C and plunge below zero every night, while the water remains at a chilly 4°C. Getting the thermal protection right was critical, giving us more time in the water, and was as much a part of the success or failure of the mission as whether we had enough gas. Couple that with the fact that we are simultaneously setting records for the highest altitude dives and there is very little margin for error.”
The first expedition was a success. As well as being the first people ever to descend below the surface of Laguna Sibinacocha, the team were able to observe the impacts of recent introductions of non-native trout, which in the absence of competition or predation, grow to massive size, and are changing the balance of this unique ecosystem. Valuable data was gathered and critically they discovered structures underwater. They were able to find and recover the artefact which was identified as a pre-Incan pot that was almost certainly placed as an offering to the lake. The team also found artefacts dating from the Inca period.
“It’s hard to overestimate the impact of this discovery,” enthuses Preston. “Whilst certainly not proof that we’ve found the temple, it showed that the lake was sacred to the Inca and their predecessors. If we could discover more evidence, we might be able to establish the area’s cultural significance, something that would truly help in the battle to preserve the Sibinacocha watershed.” This is also the first artefact of its kind to be recovered from underwater in Peru.
The structures included a 100 meter long zigzag wall in the shape of a snake. A highly significant motif in Andean culture and cosmology; the Mach’acuay dark constellation, depicting the snake as part of the Milky Way, representing water and therefore life to the Andean people.
The site held yet more promise for further exploration.
So, a second expedition was planned in late summer 2019, bringing together the team of divers: Preston Sowell, Henrik Pedersen, James Williams, George Watson, and Justin Daniels. Their mission was to attempt to recover a second pot that had been spotted in surface surveys and to attempt to find more critical evidence that would lend support to the cultural significance of the area.
Logistics were, again, challenging.
“Shipping in a small altitude-ready compressor, and a handful of cylinders to be filled in Lima before being transported to Cusco seemed to be an obvious solution to the gas problems we had in 2017.” Henrik explains. “However, the best laid plans don’t always run smoothly in remote areas of South America, and neither the compressor nor the tanks showed up. We were left with just four cylinders of gas to carry out the first part of the expedition while we waited (perhaps ‘hoped’ would be a better term) for the rest of the gear to catch us up.”
A six hour drive from Cusco into the high Andes took the team past remnants of the old Inca roads, still in use 500 years on by the local people, and when the road ran out, the gear was loaded onto 12 horses for the hike up the mountain to their camp by the shores of the lake.
“At least this gave us time to re-think some of the plan.” Recounts Preston. “With an extremely limited gas supply, we decided to do as much survey work as we could from the boat on the surface, snorkelling to identify key sites, using scuba gear only when promising sites were too deep for exploration. Luck was on our side as we cleared the ridge and looked down on the Lake, the water level was lower than in 2017 – there was hope that surveying from the surface would still enable us to pinpoint sites and achieve our objectives. We also had the back up of a small AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) to explore deeper regions.”
After the journey and the establishment of base camp, there was one final formality to be completed. A local Shaman performed a sacred ritual called despacho to ask the lake and its surrounding mountain Apus (dieties) permission for the team to stay by and dive in the lake, and then they were free to explore.
Underwater, a gently undulating green landscape awaited them – moss-like vegetation covered the bed of the shallow areas of the lake, obscuring most of its features, but after snorkelling to survey the area and plan the exploratory dives, the team was able to begin the diving in earnest.
It quickly became evident that recent changes in local conditions were going to have a profound effect on this operation. The thick vegetation made searches difficult but the grass itself was also damaging some of the artefacts due to root growth. The race against time just got increasingly loaded against the team.
“We were unable to find the second pot on this expedition.” The disappointment in Preston’s voice is clear. “But, we were able to narrow down the search area and get much better GPS and survey data so that feel confident that we will find it next time. Dating the pot and the one we already found will enable us to discover whether this is an Incan or pre-Incan site, and dating the sediments within them will give us much needed information about climate events that have taken place in the region.”
“After all, this is not just an Anthropological expedition – we have been able to document several threatened and endangered species here and we have now set camera traps to gather more evidence of the presence of the Andean Mountain Cat which is on the IUCN Endangered Species list (ed: less than 2,500 individuals are thought to remain) and this is another way for us to protect this area.”
More mining concessions can be made at any time, and the race to find that most compelling last piece of evidence is still very much on.
So what did this expedition uncover?
“Given the significance of water in these areas and in the culture of the High Andean people, what we discovered actually lends even more weight to the importance of this area. Springs were sacred to the Inca and our discovery of one occurring here, close to the zigzag structure, may well confirm the status of this site as a pacarina – a sacred place of origin and of final destination for the ancestors. Sediment sampling can help to confirm what we already suspect about the age of the site, and drone footage from the unexplored north of the lake shows evidence of more structures which will need further investigation.”
Preston concludes: “Perhaps we have done enough to protect this area. Perhaps the papers we are about to publish will provide the body of evidence to preserve this nearly pristine wilderness. Under that lake lies answers to many more mysteries and there is so much that we have been unable to survey. Was this the site of the lost temple? Who knows, but it’s going to be an adventure finding out.”
About the team
Preston Sowell is an Environmental Scientist and CEO of Geotic Solutions as well as President and CEO of the Sibinacocha Watershed Project.
Henrik B Pedersen, MD is an orthopaedic surgical consultant and Director of Medical Multimedia for the International Congress for Joint Reconstruction and acts as the team doctor.
James Williams and Justin Daniels are network designers for global computing networks.
George Watson builds algorithms to analyse the data from global satellite imaging, and his company DigitalGlobe assists with some of the site imagery from the project.
Image credits: Preston Sowell / James Williams
“Getting the thermal protection right was critical, giving us more time in the water, and was as much a part of the success or failure of the mission as whether we had enough gas.”
Henrik Pedersen, expedition team doctor.
Fourth Element are proud to have supported the expedition with dive gear and luggage. Pack ponies not included.