TUCUME, Peru -- A giant sting ray haunts the sacred mountain, and witch doctors high on hallucinogens reign.
Spirits move as shadows in the night. A curse is cast; a dead
rooster is hung from a pole, and a dog is slaughtered.
Buzzards circle overhead. The heat is punishing. The place is called El Purgatorio, and it's just outside this impoverished village of dirt streets and adobe shacks.
Thor Heyerdahl has come to unlock its secrets. Tanned, fit, white hair neatly combed and blue eyes clear and direct, the Norwegian explorer, 76,, who was made famous by his Kon-Tiki voyage 44 years ago, has calmed the spirits and befriended the witch doctors in an effort to excavate the largest complex of pyramids in the Americas.
Mr. Heyerdahl is not here for fun, though he is enjoying himself. He is on a mission -- the same one that earlier pushed him to travel by raft thousands of miles across treacherous oceans: to prove that all civilizations have a common heritage, to show that the pyramids he is now excavating are linked to the pyramids of Egypt and other great cultures.
Most archaeologists think Mr. Heyerdahl is nuts, or, worse, that he manipulates facts to support his theory. Civilizations from Egypt to Mesopotamia to America's pre-Inca cultures arose independently, they say, and developed similar characteristics -- such as pyramid-building -- because of man's common predilections. There were no ancient mariners rafting across oceans spreading knowledge as Mr. Heyerdahl claims.
Mr. Heyerdahl has fame and fortune. Now he wants respect -- an affirmation that his life's work means something. This may be his last chance, here in Tucume, near the sacred mountain that residents believe is haunted by the giant sting ray.
"I don't listen to the 'know-hows,' the people who sit behind desks and think they know everything. It is utterly illogical to think cultures developed independently without direct contact after man developed seagoing vessels about 5,000 years ago," said Mr. Heyerdahl, relaxing in his comfortable two-story home that faces the ruins.
But Richard Burger, an Andean expert and professor of anthropology at Yale University, said Mr. Heyerdahl's theory was "idle speculation."
"He tries to explain the complicated civilization of the Andes by saying it was developed by outside influences. It's a theory few professionals lend any credence to."
Mr. Heyerdahl's interest in faraway places began as a child on the spectacular fiords near Oslo, Norway's capital. His father, a brewing company executive, traveled often; his mother, a homemaker, was a fierce Darwinist who read her son books about the Galapagos Islands, Africa and South America.
"Ever since I was young, I always wanted to be an explorer. As early as I can remember, I was interested in plants and animals and being in nature," he recalled.
Mr. Heyerdahl graduated from the University of Oslo with a degree in zoology, and in 1937 moved with his wife to the Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva, where he researched plant migration. It was there that Mr. Heyerdahl noticed the westerly trade winds pounding the surf and discovered plants on the island native to South America. Was it possible that Fatu Hiva and other Pacific islands were settled by a white mariners who sailed from South America rather than by Asians migrating from the east, as most researchers believed?
Mr. Heyerdahl set out to prove his theory, or at least to prove it was possible. In April 1947, he and five other Scandinavians left Peru on a 45-foot balsa-log raft called the Kon-Tiki and 101 days later landed on an island near Tahiti.
The 4,300-mile voyage earned Mr. Heyerdahl international fame. He met Harry Truman at the White House, wrote a best-selling book, "Kon-Tiki," which chronicled the journey, and won an Academy Award for best feature film documentary. But the experts snickered. Mr. Heyerdahl could sail, they said, but he didn't know anything about ancient cultures. He was a stunt man posing as a scientist.
The criticism stung.
"They couldn't understand how a guy from Norway who was not an academic could do something they said couldn't be done," said Mr. Heyerdahl, his voice rising slightly in anger. "Before Kon-Tiki, nobody thought ancient Peruvians navigated the oceans. Recent excavations have proven there was a highly developed maritime culture."
Well, maybe. Archaeologists say ancient Peruvians sailed along the South American coast, but doubt they had ocean-going vessels. And they insist that Polynesians of Asian descent -- not South Americans as Heyerdahl asserts -- settled Easter Island, a wedge-shaped volcanic rock 2,000 miles off the Chilean coast.
It was there that Mr. Heyerdahl refined his controversial theory after heading the first of several excavations in 1955.
According to Mr. Heyerdahl, ancient mariners -- possibly from the lost continent of Atlantis -- sailed to the Middle East and later to the Americas. The mariners were bearded white men, "long-ears" as Mr. Heyerdahl calls them, who taught the Indians high culture before rafting to Polynesia and Easter Island 1,500 years ago. They were led by Kon-Tiki-Viracocha, a white, bearded sun king of pre-Inca legend who is also cited in Polynesian mythology.
"Throughout tropical America . . . the Spaniards learned they were not the first bearded white men to come sailing across the Atlantic. The legends told in detail of teachers, similar in appearance to the Spaniards, who had once mingled with the aboriginal Indians and taught them how to build adobe houses and live in towns, erect pyramids and write on paper and stone," Mr. Heyerdahl wrote in "The Ra Expeditions," which chronicled two trans-Atlantic raft voyages he made in 1969 and 1970.
Mr. Heyerdahl's insistence on a link between civilizations -- a link forged by white men -- has also led scientists and American Indians to accuse the explorer of racism. In an interview, Mr. Heyerdahl repeated his assertion that North American Indian culture was less sophisticated than Inca, Aztec and Mayan civilizations because they were never colonized by the ancient mariners.
"I wouldn't say Heyerdahl is racist, but many people feel his explanation of the world is subconsciously racist," said Mr. Burger, the Yale anthropologist, who called Mr. Heyerdahl's theory of an ancient white race "preposterous." "It supports people who see Latin America as poor and backward and question how these people could have developed such great civilizations without outside help."
Mr. Heyerdahl denies any notion of racism, noting that much of European civilization was imported from the Middle East, that most of his own raft crews have included men of different races and that his rafts have sailed under the United Nations flag.
He is demonstrating the same sense of cooperation here in Tucume, where he settled in 1988 after being shown the 500-acre site by Walter Alva, a Peruvian archaeologist. Despite its importance, the site had remained unexcavated for lack of funds and perhaps because of its overwhelming vastness. Mr. Alva had just discovered the now-renowned tomb of a Moche warrior-priest at Sipan, which had been partly looted. The Moche civilization dominated the northwestern coast of Peru from 100 to 750 A.D.
Some of the tomb's gold artifacts, considered the finest ever discovered in Peru, were inlaid with seashells and rare stones that originated thousands of miles away, something that excited Mr. Heyerdahl because, to him, it proved extensive maritime travel. And the Tucume site -- only 20 miles from Sipan -- had never been looted because residents believed it was the entrance to hell.
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors set huge bonfires on the Tucume mountain and rode through town on horse-drawn wagons, wearing painted devil-masks and shouting that they had come from hell and would execute anyone who refused to convert to Christianity. Local residents still hold a devil dance every year, and the town has the heaviest concentration of witch doctors of any place in Peru.
"When I first came here, I was advised to become friendly with three people: the Catholic priest, the mayor and the chief witch doctor. My friendship with all three men has been helpful," Mr. Heyerdahl said.
The witch doctor, Santos Vera, serves as the commander of a Heyerdahl-funded patrol that helps residents guard against animal rustlers and against looters who try to enter the Tucume site. Mr. Heyerdahl's friends also summoned a witch doctor to remove a curse cast on him by neighbors afraid he was going to take their land.
The neighbors, who live in adobe huts just outside Mr. Heyerdahl's fenced-in home called Casa Kon-Tiki, hung a dead rooster at one corner of Mr. Heyerdahl's property. Soon after, Mr. Heyerdahl found a dead dog in his driveway.
"I didn't think much of it. But my friends said it was witchcraft. They immediately found a witch doctor who told them to spread red peppers in a circle around the dog. They did it, and the next day the dog, the rooster and the peppers were gone. I've had no problems since."
Dan Sandweiss, one of two archaeologists Mr. Heyerdahl has hired to the Tucume excavation, said the site -- a giant mound of sand encircling a mountain that rises from a flat plain -- is a huge complex of ruins containing 26 large pyramids, called huacas, and numerous smaller pyramids, courtyards
and temples probably first built around 1000 by the Lambayeque. The adobe pyramids, some of which are 120 feet high and longer than a football field, were used as foundations for temples and elite residences protected by zig-zag ramps.
The site was probably the center of the Lambayeque civilization, which lived by fishing and agriculture and was ruled by a mixture of religious and secular authority. Crab monsters, hummingbird people and snail warriors were among the deities worshiped by the Lambayeque, who dominated Peru's northern coast until they were conquered by the Chimu in the 14th century and, later, by the Incas.
Most of the digging has focused on the Inca ruins, where Mr. Sandweiss' team of 30 workers has uncovered fine pots, metal tools, shell-bead necklaces and several workshops and burial chambers. On one excavated wall is a multicolored frieze of birds and geometric designs -- the only one of its kind found in South America.
Always looking for a maritime connection, Mr. Heyerdahl says the frieze represents sea birds diving into the ocean, which is 30 miles away. And he says he has found seashells from Ecuador and Panama, fragments of fish nets and the wooden rudder of an ancient sailboat that once navigated the oceans.
"What we immediately discovered is a culture not just based on agriculture, but on fishing and long-range maritime trade," said Mr. Heyerdahl, though Mr. Sandweiss says the finds indicate only that the Lambayeque had "some maritime ability."
The dig, which could take decades to complete and may also include earlier Moche ruins, is funded by the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo and several U.S. businessmen, including Morton Zuckerman, publisher of U.S. News & World Report.
Mr. Heyerdahl is settling in for the long haul. He jogs when he can, rides his horse to the ruins almost every day and grows vegetables on his 20 acres. Twice divorced, he has five children who visit him often.
With the help of a Norwegian non-profit group, Mr. Heyerdahl has begun repairing schools, building sewer systems and bringing electricity, clean drinking water and health care to 14 nearby villages. And as he walks Tucume's dusty streets, most of the town's 1,000 or so residents seem to like the tall, dignified explorer, who has become a local celebrity in this quiet corner of Peru.
He presides over official functions, attends all-night healing ceremonies headed by witch doctors high on a hallucinogen produced from local cactus and has received a commitment from the Peruvian government to build a museum in Tucume to house whatever artifacts he finds.