Is Venezuela flooding an unexplored holy site?

PREGONERO, Venezuela — Thick slabs of stone are set at a 30-degree angle into the side of a hill, cloaked in a tangle of undergrowth.

Known as El Porvenir, this pre-Columbian indigenous site in a remote part of western Venezuela has never been truly examined by archaeologists. And now it looks like it may never be.

The government plans to flood the valley in which El Porvenir lies to create a hydroelectric dam, wiping out the stones and leaving archaeologists unable to determine whether the site was built by a local indigenous tribe.

True examination of the site has been limited due to the remote location and difficult working conditions — the area is know for its particularly aggressive lancehead vipers.

Archaeologist Reina Duran, director of the Tachira Museum in the state capital San Cristobal, said she first visited El Porvenir in 1979 and worked on it each dry season for 10 years. “During those years when we came and went it was overgrown and full of mud again,” she said. “Every time we arrived at the site we had to begin the work again.”

Today, only a small patch of the 25-meter-wide by 50-meter-high structure can be seen. It is flanked on both sides by streams that flow into the nearby Dorados River, or Golden River. In 1977 a local journalist wrote that it looked “something like a pyramid,” and strong debate has prevailed ever since over its origins and uses. Some biologists claimed it was a natural geological formation but that’s not a theory shared by Duran.

She believes it was a holy site for the local Pregonero tribe. Little is known about the indigenous tribes that lived in the region but most are believed to have arrived either from neighboring Colombia or from the Amazon in the south. Duran believes the evidence she has gathered so far indicates that the Pregoneros subsisted on agricuture and may be related to the still existing Arhuacos of Colombia. She believes they moved on to the Venezuelan "llanos," or cattle plains, after the arrival of the Spanish.

She says the cut of the stones appears to be man-made. The existence of smaller stones to fill in gaps among the paving slabs seems to support her theory.

Duran’s case was further strengthened by the discovery of a similar structure at the site of an indigenous village near the local town of Pregonero. A local manuscript recounts how “it is said that the Indians of Pregonero obeyed the government of Casique Michitu and that this man came to reward or punish in a valley called Chiscas … this place is where today the river joins with the stream of gold.”

Whatever its origins, there seems to be little doubt that the site was used by the local indigenous people: lithic axes and a clay grinder were discovered nearby.

Tachira, which borders with Colombia, is rich in archaeological sites. Duran is also investigating a 2,300-year-old village consisting of 30 terraces of houses at Queniquea, a site that she calls “the Macchu Picchu of Venezuela.” The site has been declared a site of cultural interest by the Institute of National Patrimony, a status that should guarantee its protection.

But whether archaeologists will ever be able to solve El Porvenir’s mysteries hangs in the balance. The government has earmarked the valley as the site for a 20-square-kilometer reservoir. With Venezuela undergoing its worst electricity crisis in history, plans to flood the valley and build a new power plant are scheduled to begin by 2011.

“We have various archaeological missions planned to go there with the aim firstly of analyzing the remains there and secondly what can be rescued before the flooding,” said Juan Barillas, president of the state company that manages western Venezuela’s hydroelectric dams.

El Porvenir’s survival is further threatened by the fact that the Venezuelan army has been using the surrounding forest as target practice. Just a couple of hundred yards from the site, three-foot craters can be found and pieces of shrapnel are embedded in the trees, some of which have been torn apart by what locals said sounded like cannon fire.

And even if the stones at El Porvenir are transported elsewhere, Duran believes a crucial piece of the jigsaw in mapping Venezuela’s indigenous history will be lost forever when the valley is submerged underwater. “That signs of a settlement nearby could be discovered should not be ruled out," she said. "The actual site is what really tells you something."