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In the Clouds of History

February 03, 1985

The story sounds like a fairy tale. A plastic surgeon from Colorado on vacation in Peru hears of a lost city high on the eastern slopes of the Andes. He organizes an expedition that hacks its way through the jungle and discovers an unknown civilization that flourished centuries years before the Incas.

Gran Pajaten (pronounced PA ha ten ) appears to have been inhabited from AD 500 to 1500, and its 18 well-preserved buildings show a sophisticated architecture produced by a people skilled at sculpture, weaving, pottery and interior painting and design.

The extraordinary thing about these people, whoever they were, is that they survived in harshly inhospitable conditions--a rain forest 8,600 feet in the mountains, surrounded most of the time by clouds that kept out the sun. They built agricultural terraces, but no one knows what crops they grew in that climate, which appears inconducive to growing anything.

The experts at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which is sponsoring the project, say that no one in the modern world lives in an ecological zone comparable to the one that these people mastered centuries before the Spanish dreamed of sailing to the New World. Nor, the experts say, is there any evidence that the climate was different then from what it is now.

Another mystery is what happened to these resourceful people, who left well-preserved slate, wood and mortar buildings but not their name, which remains unknown. Did they go away, or did they die from the white man's diseases or from some other cause?

All this comes to light because Alan Stormo, the Boulder plastic surgeon, once read William H. Prescott's "History of the Conquest of Peru" and later became smitten with a tale of a lost city in the Andes. He interested anthropologists and archeologists at the university, and they plan to go back this summer to continue studying their find, about 200 miles north of Lima, which may rank in cultural significance with the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu.

Two years ago archeologists in Alaska uncovered a civilization that lived on the Arctic Coast in winter with Stone Age technology. The folks from Colorado have found a people who managed to live in a cloud with 200 inches of rainfall a year. Everything that we learn about ancient people shows that they were more sophisticated than we thought. In many ways their accomplishments were no less remarkable than our own.

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