Death Valley valley is one of the hottest and driest places on Earth, but it could also be one of the strangest.
An ancient legend of the Southern Paiute people tells of a chieftain who wanted to be reunited with his dead wife, and found a secret passage to the underworld. The entrance to this kingdom of the dead, the city of Shin-Au-Av, was in a cavern at the base of Death Valley.
For thousands of years, the tale was thought to be nothing but a legend.
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But in 1947 a man named Howard E. Hill gave a speech to the Los Angeles Transportation Club.
During his address, he told the story of a retired doctor named F. Bruce Russell who had explored a cave system beneath Death Valley and claimed to have found an ancient lost city, with strange hieroglyphics carved on its walls and mummified bodies “eight or nine feet tall”.
Russell, together with his friend Dr. Daniel S. Bovee, said the giant mummies were dressed in long jackets and trousers made of a fabric that resembled sheepskin that they speculated was from an animal “unknown today”.
There were the skeletons of numerous animals, they said, including elephants, sabre-toothed tigers and other creatures that are now long extinct.
The mysterious catacombs were decorated, Russell and Bovee claimed, with inscriptions that were a mixture of Native American and Ancient Egyptian iconography.
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The duo’s story of a lost world hidden in the valley could easily be dismissed as a tall tale – and indeed archaeologists of the time dismissed Hill’s account as just that – but there are some details that bear closer examination.
For one, Russell and Bovee are not the only people who claim to have entered the lost kingdom of Shin-Au-Av.
Ten years before their discovery, a gold prospector named White also claimed to have stumbled upon the lost kingdom.
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White said he had fallen through the floor of an abandoned mine in the southwest corner of Death Valley, into a tunnel very different to the mine above.
He claimed he had seen great chambers containing mummified leather-clad humans and stacks of gold bars and later attempted to lead a team of treasure-hunters to the mysterious caverns but found only a mysteriously blocked-off tunnel.
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Russell and Bovee also tried to return to the mystical realm, with even more mysterious results.
Months after Russell’s claims were rubbished by the archaeological establishment, he drove into Death Valley to gather more evidence of Shin-Au-Av.
His car was found abandoned with a burst radiator in a remote area of Death Valley. His suitcase and other belongings were still in the vehicle.
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Neither Russell or Bovee were ever heard of again.
Today, the area around Wingate Pass, where the cave entrance is supposedly to be found, is part of the US Government’s China Lake Naval Weapons Centre and is off-limits for the general public.
Any evidence that Shin-Au-Av is more than a traveller’s tale is locked behind its forbidding security gates.
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