On Friday, I reviewed the latest episode of Ancient Aliens, and in that review, I noted that new talking head Ashley Cowie, the erstwhile host of Syfy’s Legend Quest, stated that there were “legends” that a golden Inca sun disc had been removed from the Coricancha temple in Cuzco and taken to a “mountaintop village” called Paititi. Many readers likely remember Paititi from when Josh Gates sought it out in Expedition Unknown a few years ago. In most versions of the story, it is a city possessed of fabulous treasure, or even made of gold, but the oldest surviving documents fail to indicate any such connection to lost Inca treasure, though they do speak of having plenty of precious metals, so much that they make pots and pans from “precious metals,” though this probably refers to copper. The legend of the sun-disc being there, so far as I have been able to tell, does not date back before the twentieth century, so I described Cowie as “telling a lie” by implying, in context, that such stories go back to the Conquest. As it happens, my conclusion, while not wrong, is incomplete.
The story of Paititi is one that probably needs more discussion than I gave it in my review, not least because Ashley Cowie stopped by my blog to complain about my description of his comments, though without being able to cite an actual source for the so-called legend. What makes that doubly infuriating is that Cowie devoted an episode of his 2011 series Legend Quest to hunting for this same sun disc in the jungle—undoubtedly the credential that earned him a place in the Ancient Aliens roster of “experts” on circular objects. He didn’t find it, but he said in 2011 that he planned to seek permission to excavate the mountaintop where he thought it hides. He did not. In 2011, a time Cowie now dismisses as the folly of his youth (“And my days of conspiracies and the like ended a long, long time ago”—he was 38), he imagined that he found a secret code to the disc’s location and alleged, without explanation, that the golden sun disc could create and direct earthquakes, and heal illness. I think it is fair to say it cannot, and most of this is not in the primary source literature.
Oddly enough, this same sun disc appeared on Ancient Aliens back in episode 4 of season 3, when the program declared it human-made evidence of the Inca trying to honor an alien:
Narrator: Ancient astronaut theorists believe a golden sun idol called the Punchao that once resided in Coricancha may provide evidence that extraterrestrials had contact with the Inca.
In the new episode, the golden sun disc has been transformed from an image of an alien to a mirrored iPad that the Inca used to stream content from spaceships. The Punchao’s exact shape is in dispute; some colonial sources described it as an effigy of a ten-year-old boy, and others as a circle or oval the size of such a youth. The fate of the Punchao is unknown, but the Spanish recorded no legend of its whereabouts. Sierra de Leguizamo claimed to have taken the sun-disc and kept it at his home in Cajamarca until he lost it gambling, but this was almost certainly a lie. Cristóbal de Molina of Santiago wrote in 1553 that “the Indians hid this sun so well that it could never be found up to the present day” (trans. John Hemming). The short form is that the Spanish recorded no claim that it had gone to Paititi, and the extant evidence is that there was no clear legend of its whereabouts in the 1500s and 1600s.
But the question of the sun disc in Paititi is not quite as clear cut as we might like. The legend that Cowie offered seems to be a modern invention. I can find no trace of it prior to the twentieth century. It appears in the various works of David Childress going back to the 1980s. Childress, infuriatingly, attributes the claim only to uncited “legends” and “sources.” His actual source, however, is Harold T. Wilkins, from whom, as we shall see, he and others have copied wholesale. Another possible source for Cowie’s story is probably the late ancient astronaut theorist Philip Coppens, who in 2008 or 2009 wrote an article claiming that the sun disc had been secreted to Gran Paititi, based on the work of Javier Sierra, a Spanish novelist and journalist best known here in America as a colleague of Graham Hancock in the search for an idealized Ice Age civilization.
As Coppens wrote at the time:
Javier Sierra, best known as the author of the novel “The Secret Supper”, noted that at the time of the Spanish Conquest, several items of tremendous importance were nevertheless hidden by the Inca themselves, including the Punchaco. The collective of this lost treasure was labelled the “treasure of Inca King Atahualpa” and rumours had it that it was secreted away in tunnels. This rumour was linked with stories about a tunnel leading from the Coricancha and exiting near Sacsayhuaman, the fortress that towers above the city.
The warrant for this, according to Sierra and Coppens, is an unspecified account from 1600 in which a Jesuit friar wrote of the tunnels that allowed the Inca to travel from Sacsayhuaman to the Coricancha to worship the Punchao. In the colonial era, Spanish officials found some evidence that gold had been carried out of the temple using these underground tunnels, but the gold was never found.
Since this evidence—a golden ear of corn found in a tunnel under the former Coricancha—turned up in 1814, we have a problem. As even Helena Blavatsky (!), writing in Isis Unveiled, confirmed, the going story in Cuzco from the Conquest down to the 1870s was that the treasure was housed in an underground vault near Cuzco, the story of which eventually gave rise, by other means, to Erich von Däniken’s cave of gold in Ecuador and fringe claims of a continent-wide network of pre-Inca tunnels. Sierra, for example, asserted, without proof, that the tunnel under the Coricancha extended hundreds of miles to Ecuador, and that the whole tunnel system in Cuzco was illuminated by using the Punchao as a mirror to shine sunlight through the whole system! (According to colonial accounts, the Punchao was actually used in such a manner to light the interior of the Coricancha.)
In the middle of his article, Coppens offers an awkward transition that leads into an unsupported claim, which he offers to reconcile contradictory modern accounts: that the Inca treasure had been divided, with some buried in the underground tunnels and the rest taken to Paititi. However, here Coppens cops out and doesn’t share his sources. He quotes—well, we shall see that momentarily. Suffice it to say that Coppens’s article is an uncredited rewrite of a portion of Harold T. Wilkins’s Secret Cities of Old South America (1950), to which he added some of Sierra’s modern color. Wilkins (and Coppens in copying from him) shares a colonial era text that offers what we might consider evidence for an early version of the sun-disc story that Cowie summarized. It comes from Fray Juan Lorenzo Lucero, a Jesuit writing sometime after 1681, but quoted without citation or source:
This empire of Gran Paytite has bearded, white Indians. The nation called Curveros, these Indians told me, dwell in a place called Yurachuasi or the “white house”. For king, they have a descendant of the Inca Tupac Amaru, who with 40,000 Perúvians, fled far away into the forests, before the face of the conquistadors of Francisco Pizarro’s day in AD 1533. He took with him a rich treasure, and the Castilians who pursued him fought each other in the forests, leaving the savage Chuncho Indiós, who watched their internecine struggles, to kill off the wounded and shoot the survivors with arrows. I myself have been shown plates of gold and half-moons and ear-rings of gold that have come from this mysterious nation.
David Childress includes this same quotation in his Lost Cities & Ancient Mysteries of South America (1986), and Robert Charroux cites it from the same source in The Mysterious Past (1974).
But there is a bit of a discrepancy in Wilkins’s work. The above uncited quotation appears on page 232, but on page 237 he claims to offer the first ever English translation of the same, and this time the lines are different. “I have seen and had in my hands some patenas (thin metal plates), shaped like a half-moon, ear hoops (orejeras) and various things of gold of that nation.” Now, it is certainly possible that Lucero repeated himself, but the second version doesn’t offer any clear connection to Paititi. No other writer, including Clements Markham, who read nearly everything, makes any mention of the first quotation. There is nothing in it that cannot be found in other Jesuit writers of the era (the Jesuit Andrea Lopez, for example, mentioned the white skin, though not the beards), so it is not impossible that it is genuine. It is just strange that no other source makes any mention of it, and Wilkins himself seemed to forget he attributed the two quotes to the same writer.
This bothered me, so I found an 1842 reprint of the 1792 printing of excerpts from Lucero’s work so I could read it myself. The book is the Historia del reino de Quito en la America Meridional (1792) by Juan de Velasco. Not coincidentally, this is also most likely Wilkins’s source. I suspect this because his description of Lucero’s book seems to be an uncredited word-for-word translation of the 1792 introduction to the passages in question, and it comes on the heels of material explicitly cited to that book. I won’t burden you with the long and dull details, but the second of the quotations that Wilkins provided is abbreviated but mostly correct as far as it goes, but the first one doesn’t appear in the book. It looks like an altered paraphrase of the real one, which I suppose I am now obliged to translate in full:
After thirty days of sailing from my town of Santiago de la Laguna, not by the Guallaga but by a much larger river that descends from Cuzco, I had communication with the villages of five small nations, wherein there are as many as 10,000 Indians, and they are called the Manamabobos, Campas, Remos, Unibuesas and Piros, of which only the first are somewhat numerous and of them I have already formed the town of San Nicolás. The Piros, who are no more than a portion of their very numerous nation, dwelling above, treat and trade with another nation, at a short distance, which has a king who is descended from the Incas, or who is at least considered as such.
So that’s the real text.
I will confess to being baffled as to where Wilkins got the first quotation. In his book, he gives the two quotations separately, and tells the same story of about Lucero twice, as though he copied the quotations from two different sources without realizing he was repeating the same thing from two sources. It seems sort of like the first quotation is something of a paraphrase, but I cannot identify the source. Wilkins’s bibliographies list only the Archivos General de Indias, a manuscript collection in Seville, and because I do not have the inclination to search through literally millions of pages of documents, I can’t confirm where that first quotation came from. Some of the sentences have close parallels in Velasco’s text, such that it might be an example of that particularly Continental habit of placing quotation marks around a mixture of quotation, paraphrase, and editorial comment that frustrated me so much when translating Eugène Beauvois. Perhaps Wilkins mistook such a secondary citation for the original? Or else Wilkins is telling the truth about finding it in the archives and simply elected never to share a citation.
Anyway, at first glance this would sound like pretty good proof that there was an active legend of Inca gold in Paititi, even though in 1600 Andrea Lopez, another Jesuit, reported that the real Paititi had plenty of precious metals but no claim to an Inca connection or ancient treasure. But it turns out that there is more to the story of Juan Lorenzo Lucero than meets the eye.
According to the Historia of Velasco, Lucero was caught up in a bit of Paititi fever launched by Pedro Bohórquez, who went by the name Inca Hualpa. He was a Spanish rogue of Moorish descent who claimed to be the descendant of Inca royalty and deceived enough people to receive the crown from the Calchaquies in 1656. The long and short of it is that he fooled the Jesuits into thinking that he knew how to convert the natives to Catholicism and how to find vast mineral wealth. Starting in 1629, he began spreading rumors that he knew the true location of Paititi. He was killed after trying to spark an Indian uprising, but he tried to use his supposed secret knowledge to secure a pardon. He failed. But his fraud lived on, and his combination of Inca claims and Paititi claims helped secure the growing myth of the lost Inca kingdom.
That said, not a single source I found from the era mentioned the Coricancha sun-disc, and it does not seem to be part of the story until the twentieth century, when all of these sources merged together. In that manner, the old Conquest era century story (first told by Juan Alvarez Maldonado) that the Inca left Cuzco for Paititi (which he said was a lake) merged with the newer colonial-era legend that Inca treasure was concealed in underground tunnels to yield a composite modern story that they had taken the religious icons through said tunnels to Paititi.
So, in short, Ashley Cowie seems to be wrong that there was a “legend” that the sun-disc had been secreted to Paititi. There is a modern composite story to that effect, but it is built upon a Spanish-Inca legend and a colonial Spanish story, neither of which said what the modern story does. If there are primary sources that say otherwise, I would be happy to learn of them. But I would be more interested to learn why the major writers on the topic were unaware of them and knew nothing of the story until very, very recently.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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