The Music of the Cave

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Cueva de los Tayos — Cave of the Oilbirds — is a giant cave in the Andes guarded over by the Shuar, the Indigenous people of the region. This cave has compelled visitors for hundreds of years, who have linked it to UFOs, ancient metal tablets, and burial grounds. Writing for Outside, David Kushner tells us how the allure of this cave even reached as far as Scotland, to a civil engineer named Stan Hall. 

As a young married man in Dunbar, a seaside town near Edinburgh, he was a mild-mannered civil engineer with a bookish interest in science, history, and travel. “He got interested in explorers,” ­Eileen says. “People like Lawrence of Arabia who would go off into the unknown.” Reading about Tayos in The Gold of the Gods captured his imagination like nothing before. Von Däniken claimed that an Argentine-Hungarian explorer, Juan Moricz, had taken him to the cave, where they found the tablets that, he wrote, “might contain a synopsis of the history of humanity, as well as an account of the origin of mankind on earth and information of a vanished civilization.”

The fantastical account gripped Hall, who on a whim decided to write to Neil Armstrong and invite him to take a trip to the cave in 1976. Armstrong, recently world-famous from his moon walk, could draw enormous attention to the venture, and as Hall had learned, the astronaut had Scottish roots, so he just might consider the idea. To Hall’s shock, Armstrong wrote back saying he was interested. With that letter in hand, Hall approached both the British and Ecuadorean governments, which agreed to provide funding and helicopter transportation to the site. Within a year, Hall had organized one of the largest cave expeditions of his time.

After Stan Hall passed away, his daughter, Eileen, also felt the call of the cave. Kushner joins her on one of her expeditions and discovers that her motivation is very different from that of her father. Eileen is not treasure hunting in the traditional sense, feeling “a growing sense of alienation in a male-dominated adventure narrative,” Eileen was drawn to the spiritual side of the cave. She wants to record music there, an idea, which after some resistance, was welcomed to help “spread the word about the fragility of the region’s landscape and the Shuar people.” And so it is with musical instruments that Kushner descends with her into the deep. 

The deeper we go into Tayos, the more spectacular it becomes. We step into a giant cavern, which I nickname King Kong’s Palace. Boulders cover the ground like fallen ruins, and the cave’s ceiling looms at least a couple hundred feet overhead. In the distance, there’s another passageway with perfectly smooth walls that rise and meet at close to a right angle.

Around the corner, we come to the gargantuan Main Chamber. It could hold a 20-story building lying on its side, and it’s just as tall. The light from our headlamps fades before it reaches the far side. The ground is rocky, lunar, and black, but unlike the moon it’s teeming with life. Giant brown tarantulas stroll between stones. I catch the glimmer of the silvery back of a three-inch beetle before it scurries into the shadows. On a small boulder, we spy what looks like a steampunk insect, part flesh, part machine. It’s an Amblypygi, or whip spider, and as we get closer, we see that it has a beetle in its mandibles.

After pitching our tents and filling up on lentils and rice, we fall asleep to the cries of the oilbirds, which gradually fade to silence.

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