It’s true: Neil Armstrong led an expedition into an Ecuadorian jungle to search for gold plates. The story begins with a Latter-day Saint mission president, an eccentric anthropologist, and an Italian Catholic missionary. It ends with Donny Osmond. And there are aliens in the middle.
In 1968, Jim Jesperson, president of the Andes Mission, visited Ecuador during his regular administrative business and was put in touch with Juan Moricz, an Argentinian anthropologist of Hungarian descent teaching in the capital city of Quito. Moricz claimed to have discovered golden plates in Ecuadorian caves and wanted to organize an expedition. Through various contacts, he had learned how (obviously) interested the Mormons would be in this discovery and believed they could fund the search. Jesperson agreed to make a small expedition: just himself, Moricz, and Latino and native Shuar assistants. They set out on what was supposed to be a quick journey from Cuenca into the Ecuadorian edge of the Amazon to explore Moricz’s caves.
Video taken of the trip shows Jesperson and Moricz disembark from (future general authority) Robert E. Wells’s small airplane in Yaupi near the Morona River. The crew headed downriver for over six hours before reaching the cave entrance. After a couple of days of exploring, they found an impressive network of deep caverns, but no artifacts. Moricz wanted to press further, but it was clear they needed more equipment before they could plumb the depths safely. Jesperson called Wells on radio, met him at a military airstrip still deep in the jungle, and saved more intrepid exploring for another day.
Moricz was determined to find the gold. Though he claimed otherwise, Moricz probably learned of the gold artifacts not from indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon, but from Carlo Crespi, a Catholic priest in Cuenca who traded liberally with indigenous Ecuadorians. Crespi had made it his mission to relieve the poverty of the people of Cuenca and intentionally traded at a loss to enrich the Shuar. This had the unintended consequence of locals fabricating their own artifacts to keep up a supply for Crespi, making the task of separating authentic from souvenir materials quite difficult and potentially impossible.
Nevertheless, the Crespi collection boasted golden artifacts of ancient origin, including plates with indecipherable engravings. Moricz likely learned of this collection and traced its items to their Shuar crafters. He claimed indigenous Shuar had told him of a metal library deep in caves known for being the habitat of colonies of Tayos birds.
A Swiss author, Erich von Däniken, had recently published a book that popularized the extraterrestrial civilization theory. Däniken said ancient structures gave proof that aliens had brought advanced civilization to earth and that religion had grown out of prehistoric human contact with alien beings. Moricz’s lawyer who had helped him file a title deed for any artifacts discovered in the Tayos caves read Däniken’s book and contacted Däniken hoping to collaborate.
In 1973, Moricz took Däniken to the entrance of the caves, but again, they only found empty chambers. A short geologic arch appeared to Däniken like right-angle formations. Moricz told him of his own theory for the structure: this was proof that highly civilized people once lived here and may have even built the caves as a labyrinthine bridge to their hidden city. Moricz believed all civilizations sprang from an ancient Hungarian nation. What dispersed this proto-civilization was a tidal shift caused by a second moon that had gotten caught in a spiral orbit and had broken up in earth’s upper atmosphere. The tides brought sealevel to wild extremes, forcing these ancient Hungarians to disperse, some of whom eventually settled in the highest point away from the center of the earth: where mountains meet the equator, modern-day Ecuador.
While Moricz interpreted the cave structures as evidence for an ancient Hungarian civilization, Däniken went a step further: not Hungarians, but aliens, had built an advanced city and sealed it off. Greek legend got the story right but the location wrong—the lost city of Atlantis had really been deep inside the Tayos caves.
After Däniken published a book, The Gold of the Gods, recounting his journeys with Moricz and his encounter with Crespi’s collection, Ecuadorian authorities suspected Moricz of trying to defraud the Shuar of indigenous artifacts and they revoked further expedition permits. Inspired by Däniken’s book, explorer Stanley Hall contacted Moricz and began planning a larger expedition.
Hall thought a joint military-scientific crew could allow Moricz to apply for a different permit while still maintaining the title deed to any discovered artifacts. He built up a large expedition composed of British and Ecuadorian soldiers, geologists, and other scientists. There was a distant connection through his mother (who was an Armstrong) to the famous astronaut that Hall tried. Neil Armstrong responded to the invitation to join the expedition: he agreed to serve as its president and join the team in the caves.
Along with the crew, Armstrong entered the tunnels in July and August 1976, looking for the alleged metal library. Hall said Armstrong considered the potential discovery almost like a second-place contribution to exploration behind his moon landing, particularly for the potential a metal library could have for revising the world’s understanding of first civilizations. No artifacts came of the three-week expedition, but the scientists noted something on the order of four hundred new species of plants and an outline of the cave system that brought new data for geologists and speleologists.
The Ecuadorian press declared the expedition a success. The first person on the moon had brought attention to the country exceeding Däniken’s publicity. Mormons took notice again and dispatched Paul Cheesman at Brigham Young University to look into Moricz’s claims and projects. Cheesman corresponded with Moricz’s lawyer and made several attempts to meet, finally reaching Cuenca with his student assistant, Wayne Hamby, a year after Armstrong’s expedition. The two interviewed Crespi and took photographs of his collection, and learned that Moricz had formed a mining company to drill into the cave system for gold. They kept correspondence with Moricz, but never visited the caves, figuring that Crespi had fetched whatever artifacts once existed there.
Hamby reached out to the Osmonds hoping to publicize the Crespi discoveries—and scored. Donny volunteered to write the forward for a book showcasing the photographs and telling the story, and even posed for inserts showing him contemplating various Mesoamerican artifacts. The book came out within months of Cheesman’s trip with the glorious title, Donny Osmond Listens to Voices from the Dust: Part 1. (They never did publish a Part 2.) Donny and Wayne Hamby took a short tour promoting the book, signing a copy for Paul Cheesman that stands on the open stacks at BYU’s library.
There’s more to the story, including the robbery of Crespi’s collection, the politics of a provincial museum acquiring Crespi’s surviving artifacts, and a contentious claim of how Moricz came to learn of the Tayos Cave system in the first place.
On this anniversary of the moon landing, I’m reminded of the power of not just gold, but gold plates, a kind of artifact that compels the imaginations of groups of people as disparate as alien conspiracy theorists and the astronaut they suspect of belonging to the Illuminati, of deeply religious and deeply scientific people, of philanthropists and robbers. Lest we think the gold plates of Joseph Smith were tossed out of hand by all but the devout Latter-day Saints, there have been figures of world renown who bought into gold plates of another story, plates as fantastic and unavailable as those of Cumorah.
[*]: Some sources: Guillermo Aguirre, Lírico y Profundo: Vida de Julio Goyén Aguado (LibrosEnRed, 2006); Paul Cheesman papers, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, HBLL, BYU; Stan Hall, Tayos Gold: The Archives of Atlantis (Kempton, Illinois: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2006).