The Time Neil Armstrong Got Suckered Into Searching For Ancient Aliens

Neil Armstrong


Welcome to Cracked's Actual Guide To Fake Cities – previously we discussed the USSR's fascination with Tibet and the adventures of the guy who invented the human cannonball. Today's yarn: Neil Armstrong's quest for the lost extraterrestrial library.

On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module and became the first human being to set foot on the moon. Even today, we can all repeat his stirring first words “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (although his slightly less stirring second words, “Shit, this spacesuit is full of weevils.” are usually edited out of broadcasts for the sake of brevity.) After the moonwalk, Armstrong retired from NASA, but dedicated the rest of his life to furthering the cause of space exploration, becoming one of the world’s most respected figures in the process. 

But on that very same day in 1969 a man named Janos Moricz barged into a notary’s office in Guayaquil, Ecuador, convinced he was about to upstage Armstrong and change the world in an even more profound way. According to a sworn statement Moricz filed with the notary, he had discovered a vast artificial cavern hidden deep beneath a local mountain range. Inside the beautifully carved cavern was a mysterious library of metal plates inscribed with the entire “history of humanity, the origin of man on Earth, and the scientific knowledge of an extinct civilization.” Not only that, but the cavern was actually the entrance to a series of tunnels that extended for thousands of miles underneath the Andes -- and might contain a path to the hidden city of the ancients. 

To his considerable disappointment, Moricz’s discovery did not make him a Neil Armstrong-style global icon. But it wasn’t long before the two men would find themselves on a collision course. Following a barely believable set of events, Neil Armstrong himself found himself on a plane to Ecuador, at the head of a huge, well-funded expedition determined to uncover the truth about Moricz’s caves -- and the ancient aliens who were widely believed to have built them.

Part One: The Hungarians Invent Civilization

The story of the caves starts with Janos Moricz himself. Originally from Hungary, Moricz moved to Argentina after World War II and eventually found work surveying the Ecuadorian jungle on behalf of various mining companies. While there, he developed an interest in anthropology and cave exploration. In the late 1960s, he suddenly began claiming to have discovered a hidden library in the Los Tayos cave system, which lies in a particularly impenetrable part of eastern Ecuador. According to Moricz, this took the form of thousands of golden plates bound together, each inscribed with ancient writing in an unknown script. There was also a “golden zoo,” consisting of elaborate sculptures of various plants and animals, all done in gleaming gold. 

Other than these basic statements, Moricz remained frustratingly vague on the details of his supposed discovery. In an interview with Der Spiegel, he claimed he couldn’t say how many plates were in the library or even what size they were, since “I didn’t have a measuring tape with me.” He said that the cave system extended underneath the whole Andes, but admitted he hadn’t actually been further than the original cave. He also conceded that he couldn’t read the symbols on the plate, but insisted that he knew what they said because “my guide told me” (he also refused to name the guide). The guy couldn’t have been less helpful if he’d opened every interview by spraying a lit flamethrower around the room. Still, Moricz was deadly serious about the importance of his discovery and knew he’d need help bringing it to light. Fortunately, he knew just where to get it. 

In 1968, Moricz approached the head of the Mormon mission in Ecuador and asked for help funding an expedition to the Los Tayos caves. He had chosen his target well. The Mormon religion had been founded in the 19th century when a farmer named Joseph Smith claimed to have discovered golden plates hidden beneath a hill in upstate New York. The plates were inscribed with the secret history of ancient America, describing a great conflict between two tribes of Israelites known as Lamanites and Nephites. Since then, certain fringe Mormon archeologists have been scouring the western hemisphere searching for supporting evidence about these ancient immigrants (none has ever been found). Naturally, the news of golden plates hidden in a secret cave was catnip to the devout missionaries, and the Mormons backed early attempts by Moricz to return to the cave.

But unbeknownst to the Mormons, Moricz had his own agenda. In his view, the true ancient Americans were not Israelites, but Hungarians. Moricz believed that the Hungarian people had once been masters of an ancient globe-spanning civilization, which had tragically been destroyed when a second moon smashed into Earth’s atmosphere, causing massive tidal waves. Now that’s all perfectly reasonable, and probably the official position of the Hungarian government the way things are going over there. But Moricz went a step further. He believed that the fleeing Hungarian supermen would naturally have escaped the tidal waves by retreating to the Andes Mountains, where they hid their ancient knowledge in a mighty tunnel system. But while Moricz was determined to prove this theory, the story of the caves was about to spiral out of his control. 

Part Two: Human History Gets Nasty

By 1969, Moricz and the Mormons had attracted so much attention that the Ecuadorian government agreed to back an official expedition to the Los Tayos caves. Sadly, they failed to find the hidden library, although in our library-going experience they should have listened for the sound of a homeless gentleman watching erotic anime on a dying Commodore Amiga.

However, the expedition did uncover several unusual rock formations which strongly appeared to be man-made. Some actual geologists later popped up to say that sandstone just looks like that sometimes, but by then the pictures had caught the attention of one Erich von Daniken. And if you ever strayed into the wrong section of a bookstore as an impressionable teenager, then you just gasped out loud at that name. 

Erich von Daniken was a small-time Swiss scammer who shot to fame in 1968 with his book Chariots Of The Gods? The book claimed that ancient humans had been visited by highly advanced aliens, who apparently just loved showing a bunch of weird bipedal apes how to build pyramids for some reason. Despite being released while the author was on trial for financial fraud, Chariots Of The Gods? became an international bestseller. After his release from prison, von Daniken began to look around for his next big hit. And that’s when he caught word of Moricz’s mystery cave. 

In 1972, von Daniken traveled to Guayaquil and met with Moricz. He subsequently published The Gold Of The Gods, which claimed that Moricz had taken him to the hidden library deep within Los Tayos. There he discovered “an orgy of human history in gold,” 3,000 sheets of thin gold foil inscribed with an unknown script, along with a host of golden sculptures depicting the night sky thousands of years ago. Sadly, like most orgies, there was no photography allowed, since Moricz was concerned it would damage the gold plates in some inexplicable way.

Von Daniken was happy to comply with this rule, since he had begun to worry that a camera flash might trigger an ancient alien laser designed to destroy intruders. That sounds like a joke, but we’re not kidding: von Daniken put out a whole book about history-defining ancient relics and then was like, “Sorry couldn’t get any evidence of them, for laser-related reasons.”

But not to worry, because Moricz also introduced von Daniken to Father Carlo Crespi, a beloved local priest who collected metal artifacts bought from the surrounding indigenous tribes. According to von Daniken, Crespi’s collection included hundreds of ancient gold objects inscribed with “what are almost undoubtedly symbols of space travel,” including what he felt were clear depictions of ancient astronauts. To make things even better, Father Crespi was happy for his collection to be photographed without even a mild threat of laser death (although von Daniken did find time to note that the old priest’s breath was bad enough to kill a caribou at 20 paces). 

Decorated with photographs of Crespi’s collection, Gold Of The Gods became another huge bestseller. Fans were particularly excited, because while von Daniken’s previous books relied on reinterpreting well-known historic artifacts, GotG seemed to point to clear evidence of ancient aliens. All anybody had to do was visit the Los Tayos caves in a laser-proof vest and every skeptic in the world would be silenced. We cannot overstate the excitement this caused. 

Part 3: The Toilet Parts Of The Gods!

One person who was completely unenthused by the book was Moricz, whose jaw hit the floor with sheer horror when he finally heard about it. According to Moricz, von Daniken had visited Ecuador for a grand total of one week, during which he managed to manipulate Moricz into telling him the full story of his trip to the hidden library. Tempted by von Daniken’s offer of $200,000 for another expedition to Los Tayos, Moricz had also taken him on a short jeep trip to see Father Crespi and to view some nearby caves that Moricz thought might connect to the same tunnel system as Los Tayos. But he categorically rejected von Daniken’s claim that they had journeyed inside Los Tayos himself, saying that “he has never visited those caves -- unless it is by flying saucer.”

And there were a lot of holes in von Daniken’s story. For instance, he claimed to have been taken to Los Tayos in Moricz’s jeep. But the only way to reach the caves at that point was a plane followed by a long hike. And anthropologists working near the cave entrance have no memory of seeing either Moricz or von Daniken lurking around nearby. Under pressure, von Daniken was forced to admit that he had never visited Los Tayos or seen any golden plates. Instead, he had simply taken Moricz’s own account and passed it off as his own. Von Daniken tried to defend himself by claiming it’s actually totally fine in Switzerland to include yourself as a self-insert character in someone else’s life story. Which is great news for us, since we’re releasing Both Feet Trapped In Different Vending Machines: A Memoir By Erich von Daniken in Zurich next week and our lawyers were getting kind of worried. 

There were additional problems surrounding Father Crespi’s collection. Far from being the discerning collector von Daniken portrayed him as, Crespi was a beloved local kook who would buy any old piece of metal you offered him. As a result, the local indigenous people literally had a small workshop in a clearing where they would fabricate artifacts out of old scrap metal for sale to the priest (sometimes they didn’t even bother with that, since one of the “gold relics” in Crespi’s collection was clearly a copper toilet tank float). Von Daniken either failed to tell the difference between these brass and copper trinkets and real gold artifacts, or more likely simply chose not to. But that didn’t stop his book winning the heart of a British engineer named Stan Hall, who started putting together his own expedition to the caves -- an expedition that was to be led by none other than his personal hero Neil Armstrong. 

Wikimedia Commons/NASA/Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.

Neil Armstrong, pictured here realizing Michael Collins was going to try out his standup routine all the way to the Moon.

Part 4: The Moon King Gets Scammed

Stan Hall was a young engineer living in Dunbar, Scotland when he read Gold Of The Gods and instantly developed Purple Man-level persuasion powers. Hall was so enraptured by von Daniken’s book that he wrote to Neil Armstrong and invited him to undertake an expedition to the caves. To everyone’s surprise except Hall’s, Armstrong wrote back to say he was interested.

And it gets crazier – armed with Armstrong’s letter, Hall approached the British government, which offered to fully fund the expedition. Seriously, Britain was on the verge of a major economic collapse at the time, but Stan Hall was like “I want to look for aliens based on an obvious scammer’s Big Book of Plagiarism” and the entire government drove to his house with a check. And it doesn’t even end there, because the Ecuadorian government quickly agreed to back Hall as well, meaning that this was now an international expedition to the alien bling library. 

Now in fairness to Neil Armstrong, we should say that he had absolutely no idea about the whole “ancient cave aliens” thing until he was already on the plane to Ecuador. Apparently, Armstrong had received a letter from Hall mentioning their shared Scottish ancestry and inviting him to be honorary chair of a scientific expedition to investigate some unusual cave formations. Possibly a little starved for adventure now that he was no longer sailing the inky void of space, he agreed to come along. It wasn’t until he was wrestling with his little bag of airplane peanuts that he struck up a conversation with a retired Scottish soldier named Malcolm Stewart, who clued him into von Daniken’s part in the whole thing. Which we’re betting made for the second most uncomfortable flight of Neil Armstrong’s life.

Now by this point in the conversation, Buzz Aldrin would have been justifiably swinging a pair of nunchucks around, but Armstrong took the news in stride and decided that the only thing to do was carry on with the expedition. And he wasn’t the only one in that position. Despite his love of von Daniken, Hall had assembled a huge team that included respected academics and military men from Scotland’s Black Watch regiment, as well as the occasional true believer sure that they were about to stumble upon a hidden entrance to the lost city of Paititi, complete with ample parking for UFOs. 

Sadly (or happily, depending on your views on aliens), that did not happen. After helicoptering to the site, the team descended deep into Los Tayos, where they discovered a perfectly natural cave formation, without a single alien or balrog in sight. It’s not that the expedition was a failure -- they made some interesting zoological discoveries, as well as archeological findings related to the cave’s use by the local Shuar people. But there was no sign of the hidden library, much less a mystical path to an underground city. 

Von Daniken, unsurprisingly, was outraged and wrote to Armstrong to insist they must have visited the wrong cave, which is pretty outrageous when you remember that Daniken himself had never been to Los Tayos at all. Armstrong completely ignored him, although he did maintain a friendly correspondence with Malcolm Stewart, despite occasionally having to remind him “on all the manned and unmanned flights to the Moon, no evidence has been found which supports the existence of, or visits by, living creatures.” Meanwhile, Stan Hall remained obsessed by the hidden library and spent the next decade enduring considerable financial hardship while trying to find it, with no success. Although he did get the largest cave in the Los Tayos system named “Stan Hall” in his honor, which is both a fairly good pun and a higher honor than most people will ever get. 

These days, interest in Los Tayos has waned. But still, we should take a moment to remember that magical moment when a kid from Scotland got so into aliens that he persuaded the world’s most famous astronaut, a bunch of respectable scientists, and soldiers from something called the Black Watch to accompany him into the jungles of South America in search of a magical library. If that’s not the premise for a Mummy-style action-adventure romp, we don’t know what is. 

For a real treasure trove of solid gold, visit Alex’s Twitter account (solid gold tweets not guaranteed). 


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