Mysteries of the Tayos Caves: Lost Civilizations Where the Andes Meet the Amazon
Alex Chionetti | Bear & Company | Dec. 2019 | 272 pages | ISBN: 9781591433569 | $20
Publishers don’t share all of their new books with me, so I don’t always get to read all of the books that might be relevant to this blog before they are published. Ever since Andrew Collins complained that I gave one of his books a negative review prior to publication, Inner Traditions, one of the biggest purveyors of pseudohistory and New Age claptrap in the publishing industry, has stopped making available for review their books on themes related to archaeology and ancient history prior to publication, presumably to stop me from reviewing them. Therefore, I had to wait to read a new book published last month by Bear & Company, a division of Inner Traditions. The book is called Mysteries of the Tayos Caves by Alex Chionetti, and it deserves notice for two reasons: First, because of who Chionetti is and second, because of who endorsed his book. The actual content of the book is nothing you haven’t seen before on Ancient Aliens and Expedition Unknown, and for good reason, as we shall see.
Regular readers will remember Ecuador’s Tayos Caves because of their close connection with a collection of false claims, fake legends, and lies popularized by ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken in his 1973 book The Gold of the Gods. In that book, von Däniken falsely claimed to have descended into the cave system under the guidance of Juan Moricz and visited a golden library of books and statues created by space aliens. The befuddled priest Father Crespi, who collected hoax copper and tin art that he wrongly believed to be ancient Old World artifacts from the Tayos Cave is, sadly, another fraudulent part of the story thanks to Von Däniken. Von Däniken later confessed to Playboy magazine that he had never actually visited the caves, and Moricz admitted to making up the story of the golden library. Nevertheless, a dedicated group of believers have tried for the past four decades to find the golden library, with no success. Neil Armstrong led an expedition that concluded nothing mysterious lay within the caves, and even the team from Ancient Origins was forced into the same conclusion after their explorations of the cave system turned up nothing but rocks.
Here is how Bear & Company describes the book, a summary good enough to save me typing:
Sharing his more than 30 years of research into the Tayos Caves as well as his own explorations, Alex Chionetti examines the legends and mysteries associated with this site and the explorers who have ventured within. He details the discovery of the Tayos Cave complex by Hungarian explorer Janos Juan Moricz in the 1960s, including Moricz’s claims of finding a metal library with books of gold. Exploring the oral tradition of the Shuar, he explains how this region was the possible origin of Incan culture and the legend of El Dorado. The author shares his own dangerous explorations within the Tayos Caves, and, drawing on unpublished interviews with speleologist Julio Goyén Aguado, he reconstructs the expeditions of the 1960s and ’70s, revealing the Mormon Church’s search for lost tablets, a British army incursion, and sightings of paintings, gold statues and skeletons, copper plates, and a quartz sarcophagus--treasures akin to the Crespi treasure. The author also shares details from Stanley Hall’s suspicious expedition in 1976, which included astronaut Neil Armstrong.
The book carries an endorsement from Douglas Preston, the author of The Lost City of the Monkey God, a global bestseller that perpetuated some mid-twentieth-century fictions about the so-called White City of Honduras, a fictitious ancient site. Preston called Mysteries of the Tayos Caves “a gripping read,” and “fascinating,” though in the strictest sense that doesn’t imply anything about the quality of the content or its conclusions.
This is astonishing, though, since the author of the book, Alex Chionetti, is a longtime ufologist and ancient astronaut theorist from Ancient Aliens who believes in bug-shaped space aliens, as the Los Angeles Times documented a quarter-century ago. Good to know the company Preston keeps, or at least will lend his name to.
In addition to appearing on camera, Chionetti is a former producer or researcher on Ancient Aliens, Expedition Unknown, and Destination Truth. He bills himself as an “award-winning journalist” because an essay he wrote won an award in 1978, according to the Explorers Club, where he has lectured on the Tayos Caves at least twice. The Argentina-born Chionetti has written about the Tayos Caves, primarily in Spanish, for decades. His former program, Expedition Unknown, ventured to the Tayos Caves in 2018 and correctly determined that nothing artificial lay within. Apparently, Chionetti disagrees with former colleague Josh Gates on this point, although Chionetti credits himself on his LinkedIn page as the researcher for the episode and the person who proposed the concept to Gates, the executive producer.
But what is astonishing is that, if you believe his boasts, Chionetti is a secret sauce connecting every crazy-quilt brand of pseudohistorical idiocy masquerading as science for four decades. Chionetti has appeared on Ancient Aliens as a talking head. He claims to be a disciple of J. Allen Hynek. He claims to be the discoverer of the pre-Inca sites featured a decade later on Expedition Unknown as Josh Gates’s “discovery.” He claims to be an “expert” on both UFOs and apparitions of the Virgin Mary. He wrote books about lost civilizations and parallel worlds. He claims in his new book to pray to Father Crespi’s ghost for guidance, holding him to be a Catholic folk saint.
And here’s the kicker: He produces news for Univision.
It goes without saying that the guy who wrote the forward to the book describes Chionetti as a “flesh-and-blood Indiana Jones.” Chionetti dresses the part in public.
I have to say, discovering that Expedition Unknown and Ancient Aliens share a producer and that the producer is a looney tune who believes in bug-shaped space aliens shouldn’t surprise me. And yet, it kind of does. I keep hoping that their idiocy and ignorance are due to cynical audience exploitation, but I keep finding a firewall of true believers who have cast a weird spell over large corporations and, intentionally or not, have created a self-perpetuating machine where pseudoscience belief begets pseudoscience series whose existence then justifies believing both in the false claims and that audiences, trained by decades of similar shows, won’t accept anything other than myths and lies. Alan Landsburg of In Search of Ancient Astronauts and In Search of… was perhaps the first, and Chionetti is an unheralded follower in those footsteps. Kevin Burns of Ancient Aliens and Curse of Oak Island is a more famous follower.
So, let’s be clear: Through Chionetti, there is no more than a degree or two of separation between properties and figures as diverse as To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, Erich von Däniken and his spinoff Ancient Aliens, Josh Gates (twice!), the Skinwalker Ranch crew, and now Douglas Preston and the White City myth. And the most important connection of all isn’t Chionetti himself (being more symptom than cause) but rather the ecosystem he represents—cable TV. Everything he has touched has been part of or promoted by a handful of big companies: A+E Networks and NatGeo (both parts of the Disney empire), Comcast, and Discovery Communications.
I must say, though, that I found it hilarious that Chionetti says he decided to write this book after all of his former TV employers, including A+E Networks, NatGeo, and Discovery, passed on his plans for a documentary about the Tayos Caves. They had, after all, already produced multiple shows featuring the caves, many as part of shows he worked on.
So, what about the book itself? Well, I’m not sure how Preston could describe it as “gripping.” (To be fair, book blurbs are often written by celebrities who have never read the book, which is not an excuse.) It is not an adventure book. It is not a coherent narrative. It is not fun to read. It is very obviously not originally written in English, and the prose is awkward in places and in dire need of a more fluid rewrite. (Its original Spanish composition and subsequent and apparently quite literal translation are only acknowledged on the copyright page.) It is not always easy to tell when Chionetti is stating a bizarre belief he actually holds and when he is speaking metaphorically. For example, he seems to believe that Percy Fawcett attained immortality and lives in an underground city in the Amazon, but he might be speaking about his spirit. It’s not written clearly enough to tell whether he believes the stories he claims to relate from local lore. The same goes for the speculative claims offered for the Tayos Caves, including Phoenician, Israelite, and other Old World connections. He seems to speak as though he believes them plausible, but at the same time never commits to it, following the roundabout style more popular in Latin America and Continental Europe than in the U.S. and U.K. of indirect analysis and saying very little with a large number of words.
It’s also not a good sign that he praises Theosophy for its special insights.
Neither is the book a narrative of adventure in the manner of Lost City of the Monkey God. Parts tell stories, briefly, of the author getting chase by hostile natives, but they are interrupted by pasted-in articles from the 1960s and 1970s, long interviews that go nowhere, and asides not relevant to the story. There isn’t much of a through line so much as the book is a collection of somewhat-related essays about fifty-year-old controversies that have never led to anything other than a paycheck for ancient astronaut theorists.
Much of the book is dedicated to telling the story of the men who have hunted for the cave’s treasures, starting with Juan Moricz, a Hungarian expatriate who initially wanted to find (sigh) a lost white race that he believed were the true indigenous Americans. He became enthusiastic about Mormonism for a while due to the Mormons’ belief that the Americas’ first peoples were a lost white race. That, in the end, is why Moricz believed that the caves were the home of a superior and vanished race called the Taltos and had connections to the Great Flood of Noah and (of course) ancient Magyars, i.e. Hungarians like Moricz, whom he felt were the descendants of the superior race. Chionetti even notes that Moricz was repeating Nazi claims about Andean cultures and their imagined connection to the Aryan race, but stops short of seeing this as problematic. Similarly, he reports suspicion that Father Crespi was a Nazi and had a trove of art stolen by Nazis and again offers no concern.
Chionetti, of course, doesn’t think there is anything weird or unsavory about any of this but instead puzzles over why there were no written documents of the grand ancient civilization.
At one point, he almost seems to stumble onto a relevant question when looking for evidence of the “metal library”: “How is it possible that a collection of Salesians, revisionists, journalists, and profiteers conspired to make known the story of the plates, especially when these resurfaced after Moricz and Aguado’s death? Are these plates really from the metallic library in the Tayos Cave?” But Chionetti can’t overcome the fault at the heart of most fringe types: He believes in people rather than evidence. Unable to believe that someone could lie to him, he claims to get “goosebumps” imagining that the various fraudsters, profiteers, and Nazi-adjacent types are telling “nothing but the truth.” The ambiguity of Chionetti’s position is best summed up by his oddly phrased admission that “My doubts go back and forth.” By the end of the book, he states that he has come to no conclusion about the fake legend of the caves invented in 1969. He states with seeming seriousness that he thinks the caves contain a portal to another dimension, so that some visitors enter a golden library and others find only rocks—but in the same section he also dismisses such portals as hallucinations! It’s maddeningly incoherent.
The end of the book sees Chionetti hire a remote viewer (in the manner of Hal Puthoff’s “research”) to “investigate” the caves psychically. Then he talks about a “curse” now imagined to affect those who explore the cave. Having explored magical thinking for two chapters, he ends by deciding that the complete lack of evidence for space aliens or lost Atlantis-like civilizations proves only that “the truth is still down there,” a truth he alleges can never be known.
Chionetti is no scholar, and his analysis rarely stretches beyond the superficial. He overstates his case regularly, falsely claiming, for example, that Gold of the Gods “made von Däniken a star,” when it was his Chariots of the Gods and the subsequent TV special and media tour that did so. His research rarely goes beyond common published sources and a few personal interviews. There is no bibliography. His critical thinking is entirely absent. But he forestalls my criticism in an epilogue condemning the “negativity” of skeptics, alleging that such criticism “obstruct[s] human progress,” unlike, say, Ancient Aliens, which is of course responsible for dozens of innovations such as … Oh, right. None.
On the plus side, the book is a complete collection of the relevant facts, documents, and actors involved in the Tayos Caves phenomenon, something not fully explored in other sources. It also provides an unintentional portrait of the fringe history industry, with its grifters, deluded true believers, and the ever-present force of the publishing and cable television industries. Mysteries of the Tayos Caves teaches us a bit about the secret cabal of true believers that push cable TV toward the intellectually dishonest, and it also removed whatever residual respect I had for Douglas Preston’s literary judgment. So, I guess that made it worth the couple of hours it took me to read through this very short book.
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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