The long-running mystery of Canada’s Oak Island is familiar to Atlantis Rising readers. Less well known are a number of recent finds that may at last disclose who could have buried a substantial treasure just off the south coast of Nova Scotia, in Mahone Bay, when they did so, how, and why.
The enigma began about two hundred twenty years ago, when a settler digging foundations for a planned farmhouse struck flagstone pavement two feet beneath the surface. Intrigued, he continued shoveling until a log platform was reached at ten feet. Two more wood platforms, at ten-foot intervals, were unearthed with the assistance of two neighbors. They quit at thirty feet, but their peculiar discovery would spark many search efforts throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, even to the present day. Ultimately the search would involve many hundreds of investigators—including celebrities like Errol Flynn, John Wayne, and President Franklin Roosevelt—at the expense of untold millions of dollars in equipment and construction projects. The efforts claimed half a dozen lives but, so far, with little to show for it, except for some tantalizing clues.
There are many of those: human bones, parchment fragments, carved wood, old coins, pre-modern jewelry, and links of gold chain—bewildering and contradictory physical evidence, signifying everything and nothing. Making sense of such heterogeneous materials once did not seem possible, but now Oak Island’s questionable items and artifacts have been subjected to modern testing techniques, and some new insights have begun to emerge.
Foremost in the new analysis is the so-called Carbon 14 testing, a highly respected method for determining the age of any object containing organic material. Radiocarbon is constantly being created by the interaction of cosmic rays and nitrogen when C-14 combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide. The radiocarbon is then incorporated into organic material, which stops exchanging carbon with its environment when it dies. When a tree, for example, is felled and reduced to workable wood for carving, the amount of C-14 in the wood begins to decrease, as the carbon undergoes radioactive decay. Measuring the amount of C-14 from a piece of wood or a fragment of bone provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died. The process is not perfect, but the more often C-14 testing is repeated on a single test object, the averages approach confirmation of an accurate date. Reliability lies in repetition.
When radiocarbon testing is applied to materials from pre-nineteenth century Oak Island virtually all specimens assemble themselves into three, distinct time groups: 1300 to 1400 CE, circa 1500, and mid-1600s to late 1700s. Moreover, Oak Island’s pre-nineteenth century, non-organic objects, when subjected to typological study, likewise fall into the same, three periods.
The location’s far more abundant, mid-seventeenth to late eighteenth century finds are, as one might expect, predominantly British. Nova Scotia became an English colony in 1654, and by 1759, little Oak Island’s one hundred forty acres had been divided among four, New England families.
Amazingly, the genesis of the story told by the Oak Island artifacts may be in faraway South America, where on the early morning of November 15, 1532, one hundred sixty-eight Spanish soldiers led by Francisco Pizarro arrived in the high northern Andes Mountains of Peru, at Cajamarca. On a hill outside the native city, the Inca Emperor was encamped near the Konoj hot springs, surrounded by several thousand of his troops, billeted in tents. Pizarro sent an emissary to the Sapa Inca, requesting a formal meeting.
Atahualpa, the Inca god-king, arrived in state the following day, accompanied by an armed guard, only to be ambushed and captured by the Conquistadors, who then sacked the Inca army camp, from which they looted great quantities of gold and silver. Observing their lust for the precious metals, Atahualpa offered to ransom himself by filling a room twenty-two feet long, seventeen feet wide, and eight feet high with gold, plus two, more equally large spaces filled with silver, and to do so within sixty days. Pizarro agreed thus, conditionally, to spare his royal captive’s life, if not his freedom, and Atahualpa summoned Ati II Pillahuaso, the Inca army chief-of-staff, ordering him to Ecuador, where the gold and silver deposits of the Tiahuantisuyu—the Empire—were stored.
The commander was better known by his nick-name, Rumiñahui, or “Stony Eye,” for his stern gaze, and as the Sapa Inca’s half brother, born of a native noble woman. Weather conditions in the northern Andes did not favor such a protracted, difficult expedition, which could not commence until the following year. After climbing down through the mountains and marching across the Peruvian desert, then through Ecuador’s formidable jungles, Rumiñahui and his warriors finally completed the more than eight hundred, grueling miles to Ecuador’s Malqui-Machay, or “Place of the Mummy,” at Quito, by April of 1533.
This bizarre city, with its trapezoidal, subterranean water canals, was the Empire’s chief repository for all precious metals mined throughout Andean South America. It was not enough, commander Stony Eye learned to his dismay, to fill the three, large rooms required to reprieve Atahualpa from death. Desperate to meet the life-saving quota, Rumiñahui and his men confiscated every piece of gold and silver they could find, including auriferous tiles from Malqui-Machay’s temple of the Sun and even gilt bracelets worn by ñustas temple dancers. These measures proved sufficient, and, in late July, he set out heavily burdened with his royal ransom on the long trek back to Cajamarca.
Meanwhile, Pizarro awaited with growing impatience, Rumiñahui’s long-overdue return. His less than two hundred Conquistadors had not yet been overwhelmed by a native population in the millions, only because the Incas wondered if the fair-skinned, bearded Spaniards, with their advanced weapons technology and never-before-seen warhorses, were not the direct descendants Kon-Tiki-Viracocha, to whom the Spanish bore a striking resemblance. This was the Andean Civilization’s founding father, venerated for countless generations as “Sea Foam” for his escape to Peru from a catastrophic deluge that, in the distant past, had overwhelmed his overseas’ kingdom. After sharing his cultural greatness with the beardless, indigenous people and winning their affection, Viracocha wandered away, promising that either he or his sons would someday return.
Could these gold-crazed invaders have really been his descendants? Doubts arose on both sides, as friars translated into Quechua, the local language, the Old Testament story of Noah and the Great Flood, while the Spaniards themselves, when shown an ancient, life-size statue of Kon-Tiki-Viracocha, were amazed by its distinctly European cast of facial features. Pizarro knew too well that only the thin fabric of myth separated him and his few Conquistadors from being overwhelmed by the vastly superior numbers of the Andean warriors. He was nonetheless torn between his growing dread of being hopelessly crushed and the prospect of obtaining a king’s ransom.
Even in chains, Atahualpa still commanded reverence and obedience from his people, a dutiful respect that increasingly alarmed the Spaniards, until, fearing rebellion, they garroted the Emperor on July 26. Word of his execution spread quickly across the Empire’s twenty-five thousand miles of purpose-built roads traveled by the chasquis, messengers able to cover one hundred fifty miles on foot every twenty-four hours with a series of relay runners. Just five days after Atahualpa died, Rumiñahui learned of the Empire’s unprecedented regicide and immediately returned to Malqui-Machay with his gold-and-silver caravan, then prepared to engage the Conquistadors.
The Spanish were not slow in coming. Led by Sebastián de Benalcázar, Pizarro’s lieutenant—whose forces would defeat the Incas at the Battle of Mount Chimborazo, later that summer—ransacked Malqui-Machay and its territory for miles around, in a frantic, fruitless search for the trove. Rumiñahui was captured alive, but allegedly refused to disclose its location before he died after almost a year of torture. Enraged, the victors, in a wild mania for gold, dismantled Inca Ecuador.
To further vent their frustration at finding nothing in the village of Quinche, Benalcázar ordained the slaughter of all its women and children. His rampage spilled into Colombia, where baseless rumors of El Dorado incited him to further outrages, for which he was eventually tried, convicted, and condemned to death in absentia by Spanish authorities, from whom he died on the run, in 1551. By then, Atahualpa’s former tribute became generally known as the “Treasure of the Llanganates,” because it was allegedly hidden in the Llanganates Mountain Range of central Ecuador, where investigators have been hunting for it ever since.
The quest was given new impetus as recently as 2013, when an international team of British, French, and American explorers discovered and unearthed a two hundred sixty-foot-long stone fortress built of two-ton blocks in a swampy jungle, eighty five hundred feet above sea level, at Llanganates National Park. The structure has been tentatively dated to the Early Inca Epoch, after 1400 CE. Following Atahualpa’s death, Inca forces marched south from Quito with his ransom towards Llanganates, where they apparently intended to conceal it. But the undisturbed ruins there contain no precious metals, an indication that Rumiñahui was cut off before reaching Llanganates, when intercepted by Benalcázar’s army, near Mount Chimborazo. Commander Stony Eye ordered the treasure to safety in the rear, and, with his defeat, it vanished.
But the question remains: how was it possible for a historically attested, eight-foot-high space, sixty-six feet long by fifty-one feet wide, filled with one-third gold and two-thirds silver, to have disappeared without a trace, despite methodically avaricious Spaniards and 485 years of treasure-hunting?
These far-off events seem reflected at Oak Island, with its objects and artifacts dating to the same period. First among them are mats of woven coconut fiber recovered from beachfront excavations that revealed a highly sophisticated, subterranean system still capable of frustrating all attempts at digging into deeper chambers by flooding them with six hundred gallons of seawater per hour. Its drains were prevented from silting up by the installment of filtrating coconut fibers, the very existence of which in Nova Scotia, two thousand miles away from the nearest palm tree, proves the underground mechanism was constructed by pre-modern engineers with building materials native to some far-off, tropical zone.
Although C-14 testing of Oak Island’s coconut fibers dated them from seven hundred to six hundred years ago, radiocarbon parameters are bracketed commonly on either extreme by an extra one hundred years, yielding, in this case, an earlier date of 1200 CE. The later year of circa 1500 is contemporaneous with Spain’s conquest of the Inca Empire.
Vegetable-tanned leather bookbinding was common practice at the time, and a fragment of just such a publishing process was disgorged earlier this century by drill hole H8. The remnant’s deep removal from one hundred sixty or one hundred sixty-five feet beneath the surface of Oak Island indicates its pre-modern, if not precise age.
Found almost as deeply was a piece of animal-skin parchment at one hundred fifty-three feet, in 1897. “Is not parchment made of sheepskins?” asks Hamlet in Act V, Scene I. “Ay, my lord,” he is answered in William Shakespeare’s late sixteenth century drama. Oak Island’s parchment scrap was marked with “VI”. The same glyph was found on deeply buried logs in 1967, and occurs at four-foot intervals on an unidentified, u-shaped structure at Smith Cove, on the south side of the island, site of a pre-modern, artificial beach. The use of Roman numerals was standard practice among Spanish and other Western European carpenters, as well as scholars of the written word, before 1540.
Other artifacts of early sixteenth century manufacture discovered at Oak Island include a lead patch used to repair the hull of a damaged Spanish galleon, an iron spike, and a long stake resembling a pole from the stockade wall of a fort. Smaller items dated after 1500 at Oak Island are wrought iron, “Spanish style” scissors, found in 1967 beneath apparently pre-colonial box drains, and a hand-cut, rhodalite garnet ring.
Seven years before, an outstanding discovery came to light with a billon Double Stuiver. “Billon” refers to a naturally occurring, roughly half-silver alloy, but the specie’s real value lies in its early sixteenth century Spanish connection with Oak Island. The coin was produced in the Netherlands, where Madrid exercised an increasingly vital relationship that eventually led to their colonization by Spain, just twenty years after conquering the Inca Empire. Minted between 1467 and 1477, the Double Stuiver was legal tender for another sixty years between the Dutch and Spanish, vanishing from circulation only after 1540. Its appearance at Oak Island is credible evidence for an early sixteenth century Spanish presence.
Regarded in their aggregate, the archaeological materials found there pick up the story of Inca army commander Rumiñahui shortly before his death on June 25, 1535. It seems unlikely that he would have preferred lethal torture to disclosing the whereabouts of Atahualpa’s ransom, which no longer served its purpose after the Emperor’s execution. Moreover, gold and silver had no intrinsic monetary value to the Incas, who used precious metals only to decorate their sacred buildings or adorn themselves with jewelry. As such, Stony Eye was certainly tortured, but telling his abusers where the gold and silver horde was located could not save his life. The lower-ranking Conquistadors who were the first to learn this information, it seems likely, would not have shared it with their rapaciously psychotic superior officer, but kept the location to themselves in order to seize its treasure.
They secretly loaded it aboard what must have required at least several Spanish galleons, sailing away from Cartagena, on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, ostensibly back to Spain, leaving Sebastián de Benalcázar to chase after his mad dreams of El Dorado. The arrival of such an unprecedented fortune anywhere in Europe could hardly go unnoticed, so the conspirators needed to stash it some place far removed from civilization, yet still within reach to remove piecemeal at a future date, when all the attention stirred up by Benalcázar had passed.
Offering ideal concealment was Nova Scotia, where Portuguese navigator Estêvão Gomes had been commissioned eleven years before by Spain’s Charles V to explore Canada’s south-Atlantic coast, including the off-shore islands of Mahone Bay. It was here, in this securely distant and little—yet sufficiently—known part of the New World that the shivering Conquistadors arrived from the sunnier Caribbean with their inestimable fortune.
Foreseeing the need for excavating a subterranean stronghold, they had brought along Inca mining engineers, whose high skills had made possible the efficient extraction of South America’s vast, mineral wealth. They were responsible for Oak Island’s underground achievement, made possible in part by Colombian coconut fibers improvised as part of an ingenious filtration system, though originally used as dunnage for protective wrapping of breakable cargo in the holds of rolling Spanish galleons.
Into what generations of treasure hunters would someday refer to as the “Money Pit,” the Spaniards, with the assistance of their Inca slaves, lowered the incalculable ransom that failed to save the life of a doomed emperor. Whether or not they succeeded in returning thereafter to reclaim their buried riches, future discoveries at Oak Island might yet reveal.
A sixteenth century Spanish treasure Galeón Andalucía (El Galeón) in Quebec City, September 2016.
Francisco Pizarro (painting by Amable Paul Coutan).
Spaniards burning Atahualpa, Inca ruler, at the stake, with monk holding crucifix to right. (engraving by A B. Greene).