I was all for this episode of Expedition Unknown S01E11 “Secrets of the Nazca” right up until the last fifteen minutes. Host Josh Gates did a nice job investigating the Nazca lines, debunking claims that aliens were involved in their construction, and revealing how the Paracas people really created elongated skulls—without alien DNA. Then in the last 15 minutes ancient astronaut and Nephilim enthusiast Brien Foerster showed up, and the show pretended that he was a trained expert in Paracas culture and not a self-educated tour guide who claims to have smuggled artifacts out of South America to be tested for traces of aliens. They refer to him as the “director” of the Paracas History Museum, which is a private tourist attraction owned by Juan Navarro and not a professional museum, and they falsely imply that he is one of the world’s leading experts on Paracas culture. (Foerster was the “assistant director” last year, so did he get a promotion? Or did the Travel Channel curtail his full title?) Giving him a segment to present himself as a legitimate historian is fraud, and it does a terrible disservice to the Travel Channel audience, who may not know that he’s a regular on Ancient Aliens, In Search of Aliens, and various other fringe shows—and holds no credentials in South American archaeology.
For the Travel Channel, Foerster abandons his extraterrestrial, lost civilization, and Nephilim theories and instead mouths the more conventional claim that the Nazca and Paracas lines were intended to indicate water sources. He is a chameleon who will say whatever pays.
In the segment, Foerster is seen reaching into a sand pit and removing an ancient human skull from a disturbed burial without documenting its context, or apparently reporting the find to authorities. He later reburies the skull, saying that it is a sign of respect.
This segment is a sad development because the 45 minutes preceding this travesty were an exemplary exploration of the Nazca lines and the older Paracas lines that were recently uncovered. To our purposes, Gates demonstrated how lines could be created using only simple tools, and in his words he “debunked” the UFO hypothesis (famously advocated by Erich von Däniken) by showing that no special alien technology is necessary to make the lines. (“Take that, UFOs,” he said.) He also explained to viewers that the elongated skulls of the Paracas people were not extraterrestrial in origin, discussing how the process of head binding works. Gates also rejected Maria Reiche’s astronomical hypothesis, noting that most of the lines failed to connect to celestial events. Gates concludes the show be endorsing the hypothesis that the lines had multiple purposes and that they were ritual in nature, connected largely to ceremonies revolving around water, a precious resource in the desert.
So, to stay on the theme, I thought I’d look into a Peruvian claim from Jacques Vallée’s and Chris Aubeck’s Wonders in the Sky (2009). This time, the two authors claim that Garcilaso de la Vega (El Inca), the author of the Historia general del Peru (1617), recorded that at the death of the puppet Incan ruler Tupac Huallpa, a comet of greenish-black color was seen in the sky prophesying his end, “little narrower than the body of a man and longer than a pike.” The authors note that comets are not greenish-black, a point they emphasize with an exclamation point. They do not provide complete text of El Inca, and they attribute the passages to either “chapter 23” or to “Book 1, chapter XXXIV,” depending on which citation you believe they actually intended to match the text. The authors then say that “This [comet] made Huallpa particularly depressed because a similar object had been observed a few days before the death of his father, Huayna Capac.”
The trouble starts with the fact that the Historia general is only occasionally considered an independent work and other times is given as the second volume of Garcilaso’s Royal Commentaries. Fortunately, however, while the Historia general isn’t easily available online in English translation, Alexander von Humboldt provided enough missing details in his Views of Nature to track down where in the Spanish text to look for the material:
The captive Inca was, at his own desire, a short time before he was put to death, conducted into the open air, for the purpose of seeing a large comet, described to have been of a greenish black hue, and nearly as thick as a man's body; (“una cometa verdinegra, poco menos gruesa que el cuerpo de un hombre,” Garcilaso, p. ii. p. 44). This comet, which Atahuallpa saw shortly before his death, (therefore, in July or August, 1533), he supposed to be the same comet of evil omen, which has appeared at the death of his father Huayna Capac, and was certainly identical with that observed by Appian.
That finally got me closer to where this came from! But I was disturbed that Humboldt gave a different Inca as having seen the comet: Atahualpa, brother of Tupac Huallpa. Humboldt was using an eighteenth century printing of Garcilaso, and there in chapter 34 of Book 1 of the Historia general Garcilaso gives the account—just not of Tupac Huallpa, but to his brother Atahualpa, whom Garcilaso specifies before writing:
At last, in total despair, they said that, among other signs, there appeared in the sky a dark green comet, slightly less thick than the body of a man, and longer than a pike, which that night looked like the one he saw shortly before the death of his father, Huayna Capac. (my translation)
So, Vallée and Aubeck managed to get one of their two citations to the text correct! And they also managed to correctly describe the comet as long and green-black. This already makes this one of their most accurate accounts ever.
However, what’s interesting is that Vallée and Aubeck seem content to have mangled Garcilaso (bizarrely assigning the story to the wrong Inca) without noting that only a few lines later Garcilaso explained that his account was confirmed by the older version of Pedro Cieza de Leon, one of his sources, who gives a fuller account in his own Chronicle of Peru in chapter 65:
There are some Christians now alive who were with the Marquis Don Francisco Pizarro when he seized Atahualpa in the province of Caxamarca, and they saw a green sign in the sky, in the middle of the night, as broad as a cubit, and as long as a lance. When Atahualpa heard that the Spaniards were looking at it, he requested that he also might be allowed to see it; and when he beheld it, he became very sad, and continued so during the next day. The governor Don Francisco Pizarro asked him why he continued to be so sad, and he replied, “I have seen a sign in the sky, and I tell you that when my father, Huayna Ccapac, died he saw a similar sign.” Within fifteen days Atahualpa was dead. (trans. Clements Markham)
In case you care, Garcilaso (1.9.15) says that Huayna Capac died in 1524 after a large green comet was seen in the sky and lighting struck his palace.
Green comets are not impossible nor rare. Comet Lovejoy, which was visible in January of this year, was green when it passed by Earth.
It’s probably important to note here that Cieza de Leon gives Atahualpa’s sign as verde (green), while Garcilaso, writing much later, describes it as verdenegra (blackish-green) and turns it into a comet, presumably “correcting” the earlier account, though against what I can’t imagine. The only other primary source is a Spanish account translated into Italian and published by Giovanni Batista Ramusio in his Navigations and Voyages in 1557. The Spanish account claimed that there “appeared in the sky a prodigy, a great sign toward the vicinity of Cusco, and it was like a comet of fire, which lasted most of the night. And when Atabalipa saw this sign, he said that in a short time he would die…” (folio 332v. in linked edition). A second, slightly different, reference to the event in the same volume said that:
Twenty days later Atabalipa died, not knowing than an army was waiting. Atabalipa had spent a very cheerful evening talking to some Spaniards, and there appeared in the air near the city of Cusco a comet of fire, which stayed most of the night, and when Atabalipa had seen it he said: “Soon there will die a lord of this country.” And that was him. (folio 315v. in linked edition)
Ramusio’s collection and Cieza de Leon’s account are contemporary with the Conquest, compiled (or at least reflecting material gathered) during the 1532-1533 Conquest and published in the 1550s (1557 and 1553 respectively). Garcilaso de la Vega, though, published the Historia general in 1617, and therefore his version is the least likely to be accurate since he was dealing secondhand with nearly century-old material. As I said, I can’t figure out how the comet turned from green to “blackish-green” in the retelling but the fault seems to lie with Garcilaso rather than the stars. Vallée and Aubeck content themselves with the shortest and least accurate source, which they mangle, and never review the earlier, primary sources for the event in question. If one is intent on hanging an analysis of the event on its supposedly impossible color, learning what the primary sources say about the color would seem to be important.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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