Patagonia’s mysterious carved stones

¿Phoenecians and Knights Templar in Chubut?

Bonnie Tucker / FST
The arid, windswept steppe in Argentina’s part of the Patagonian region has inspired some colorful legends and theories. Consider, for instance, the notions that the medieval order of the Knights Templar established a fort atop a mesa near the coast south of Las Grutas in the province of Río Negro, and that the Chubut River is the Biblical River of Canaan.
Such hypotheses arise from ancient travel diaries and world maps, as well as several carved stones covered with Medieval-looking figures and Aramaic-looking script that were found in different places on the coast and along the major river of the province of Chubut during the past century. Some are part of the collection of the Regional Museum inside the Salesian School in Rawson. At present, the museum is closed to the public.
Some of the stones were taken from ancient Indian burial mounds and others were brought to light by excavations done during the construction of a gas pipeline. The figures carved into their surfaces – hearts, chalices, arrowheads, snakes, turtles, suns and Indian faces – set them apart from other Argentine rock art. Aramaic, the precursor of all Semitic tongues, was the lingua franca of the Middle East until Arabic replaced it in the 9th century AD, when Islam had become the dominant religion in that region.

Until its closure a couple of years ago, the Salesian Regional Museum had 32 of these carved stones on display. Beside each was a tag giving the place where it was found. All had been donated or acquired from third parties.
When I was in the museum in December 2003, I photographed 15 of the most interesting ones in their display cases. Of these, three of the most striking feature (1) a Semitic-looking script; (2) a mass of writhing snakes, and (3) a cross, a sun and a crescent moon. The latter is the only one in white marble, a type of metamorphic rock that doesn’t exist in the region.

The stones seem to have been carved by different people at different times. The intertwined snakes in low relief look Celtic. The profile of a native chieftain or warrior, also carved out in low relief, is the sort of thing that an Indian who had learned rock carving from a European master could have dreamed up. A man on horseback faced by a big arrowhead looks post-Conquest, considering that horses were re-introduced in the Americas by the Spaniards. … Or were the Spaniards the ones who brought them?

I had wanted to see these stones ever since the late 1960s, when Juan Foerster, a German naturalist with a private museum in Dos de Mayo, Misiones, showed me an old scientific journal with photos of the display cases in the Salesian Regional Museum of Rawson and a text speaking of "rune stones" in Chubut. So when I was invited by the province to write travel articles in 2003, I put the museum on my request list.
Looking at these stones in Rawson, I thought (and still think): "Either some scholarly priest or sculptor whiled away long Patagonian winter nights carving these stones, or … there’s something to them."
The stones have drawn numerous researchers from around the world, and have inspired as many interpretations of their symbols. Some people point out that the ancient Egyptians and Asians associated snakes with fertility. There are those who link the crescent moon on the white marble stone to Islam, and the hearts to medieval Christian symbolism. But one should not forget that the half moon is also a Mapuche image.
After doing some quick comparisons of ancient alphabets on the Internet, I would say the characters look more like Aramaic (a language spoken from 700 BC to the present) than the runes used by the Germanic peoples from the 3rd to 13th centuries AD.
The characters do not correspond to an indigenous language. Neither the Tehuelches (who inhabited the land 12,000 years before the arrival of the Spaniards) nor the Mapuches (an ethnic group from Chile that absorbed the Tehuelches and other indigenous groups of Argentina in the 19th century) developed writing. In the 17th century, Jesuit priests developed a Mapuche alphabet with Latin letters to facilitate evangelization; now there are more than 10 different alphabets with similar letters in use in Argentina and Chile. The Mapuche people adopted their national flag in Chile in 1992. Before that, in 1987, Julio Antieco (1929-1993), an Argentine Mapuche, had invented a Mapuche-Tehuelche flag with blue stripe above, a gold stripe below, and a blue arrowhead in the white stripe in the middle, despite the fact that the Tehuelches’ traditional flag, the one they used in the 19th century, was plain white.
The Salesian Regional Museum was closed as part of an official plan to put the collections of Rawson’s three museums under a single roof. The plan did not materialize, but the museum inside the Salesian school remains closed, and some of its stones were lent to the municipal museum next door.

Early explorations
The Chubut stones came to light at about the time that international scholars were beginning to consider the possibility that the New World had been explored long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.
When Columbus set out from Spain, he thought that the land west of Europe was the East Indies because the maps in use at the time showed South America as a gigantic peninsula of China. The problem was that those maps were based on one by an Egyptian that altered an earlier map by a Phoenecian that had shown South America as a continent.
Throughout the 20th century, various scholars, such as Paul Rivet in France, António Mendes Correa in Portugal and Dick Edgar Ibarra Grasso and Paul Gallez in Argentina, among others – published books and papers about ancient maps and written references to trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic voyages that seem to have taken place several centuries before Christopher Columbus’ arrival in North America. Thus we not only have the Phoenecians (from today’s Lebanon and Syria) arriving in England in 1103 BC to mine tin, but also the Chinese discovering North and South America in 400 AD, and Columbus sailing to the New World with copies of maps made by Middle East cartographers who registered voyages that were made 2,000 years before 1492. A leading Argentine exponent of these theories was anthropologist Ibarra Grasso (1914-2000), who wrote many books on the origins of the peoples of Latin America based on his excavations and findings and those of colleagues during the second half of the 20th century. Of particular interest is his book Los mapas de America 2000 años antes de ser "descubierta" (Maps of America 2,000 years before it was "discovered"), published in Buenos Aires in 1997. One ends up thinking: if maritime charts and copies of them made the rounds of Europe and Asia over such a long period of time before Columbus’s voyage, and Greek, Arab and Asian mariners accepted that the earth was a sphere long before the Europeans admitted that is was not flat, why couldn’t Christians fleeing the Holy Land invaded by Muslims have got as far as southern South America on the same maritime routes that the Spanish and Portuguese explorers would take several centuries years later? The main question is: why would Europeans want to go so far south in 800 or 1307 AD?

The Templars craze
The Knights Templar have fascinated common mortals ever since their order of Christian warrior monks (the Order of the Temple) was established to defend pilgrims from Muslims in the Holy Land in 1099. The knights started out so hard up for money that their seal depicts two men sharing a war horse, but they ended up with their own navy, and as the bankers of many people, including kings.

The treacherous way in which the Order was disbanded in Europe in the early 14th century adds to its aura, and it has numerous fans around the world today. In the US best-selling detective novel The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003, the Priory of Zion (suggestively founded the same year as the Order of the Temple), the Opus Dei, and, in consequence, the Vatican, are portrayed as villains out to keep the world from knowing that Jesus left descendants capable to reminding people of the importance of his teachings. In so doing, it reflects the feelings of many Templar fans about the way in which the Church hierarchy abandoned the leaders of the Order to their fate. And it is an indication of the interest that the Templars are drawing in this digital age, which is also a period of history marked by the rise of violent Islamic fundamentalism. For an example of this adulation in the United States, complete with merchandising, see For the order’s local version, see There are those who go so far as to say that the source of the Templars’ wealth was the gold they brought from North or South America during their two centuries in the Holy Land. This theory arises from a Biblical reference to three-year voyages in search of riches that were made to and from Ophir by a Phoenician King’s navy on behalf of King Solomon around 1000 BC, and the fact that the French founders of the Order are believed to have discovered the famous Hebrew leader’s maps during their excavations at their headquarters on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years later.
However, the most popular legend of all is that just before the arrest of the French leaders of the Order of the Temple in 1307, the Order’s treasure disappeared from its headquarters in Paris and its fleet set sail from La Rochelle, never to be heard from again. The leaders were tortured by the Inquisition, forced to sign false confessions to heresy and other crimes, and finally burned at the stake in 1314 in Paris by a French king who owed the Order money. It was in Scotland, one of the places in Europe where escaped Knights Templar found refuge, that Freemasonry arose at the end of the 16th century.
In Buenos Aires, the Delphos Foundation holds that a group of Celtic Christians established a fort atop the seaside mesa that is known locally as El Fuerte, and that the knights who escaped from France brought the Holy Grail to this part of the world when the Order was disbanded in the 14th century. They claim that the mesa appeared on maps as the site of an abandoned fort as late as the 19th century.

The sea used to reach further inland, and at that time probably reached the mesa, which is now 1 km from the water. The Delphos people, who spend a lot of time talking with locals, say that Indian legends refer to white men with cannon on the mesa before the arrival of the Spaniards.

The group claims to have discovered ceramic mosaic shards atop El Fuerte. Delphos is now seeking vestiges of a second city founded by the former crusaders on the Somuncurá plateau. Since 1997, their members have made more than a dozen sorties into the coastal areas of Río Negro and Chubut, and to the Somuncurá Plateau, shared by both provinces.
See for their studies.
See also: and
PHOTO CREDITS: The El Fuerte mesa, Fundación Delphos. Five carved stones from the Salesian Regional Museum of Rawson, Chubut, Bonnie Tucker. Map drawn by German cartographer Henricus Martellus Germanus in 1489. Templar seal. Templars in an old engraving. Detail of a map attributed to French cartographer Jean Antoine Martin de Moussy, published in his atlas of 1869, and a Fundación Delphos expedition, both from Fundación Delphos.