Like many Gen-Xers, I grew up watching Indiana Jones films – my favorite is “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – and dreaming about having adventures like those portrayed in the films.
Adventure enthusiasts should enjoy the story of Angelo Pitoni, a larger- than-life geologist whose story includes exploits rivaling any of those portrayed on the big screen. This article focuses specifically on a chapter of his life that took place in my country, Venezuela, and forms part of our country’s oil exploration history.
Pitoni was born in 1924 in the province of Rieti, in the Lazio region of Central Italy. Throughout his colorful history, this “real-life Indiana Jones” assumed multiple roles: war hero, secret agent, geologist, archaeologist, gemologist, agronomist, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization consultant and, finally, esoteric.
Describing Pitoni’s life is a titanic task since few references exist, and those that do focus on the final years of his life, which he dedicated to studying the spiritual traditions of ancient civilizations. Though interesting, those years are not the subjects of this article.
A Soldier Who Switched Sides
One of the few internet sources mentioning the early life of Pitoni describes him as a 19-year-old soldier during World War II. After being arrested in 1943 by German soldiers, he escaped and fled to hide in the snowy mountains near Rieti in Central Italy. While hiding, he met other Italian soldiers who had deserted their German-controlled ranks. Pitoni knew the area well, so he led attacks, usually on trains, to obtain food for his companions. Eventually, the Germans, fed up with their attacks, mobilized an armored division to hunt them down, causing the refugee soldiers to flee to the front lines located farther south. Pitoni led the soldiers across Allied lines, where he was received as a hero for bringing a group of Italians to join the other side.
The young Pitoni received two offers: to join the newly reconstituted Italian army or to be a part of the Allied forces. After evaluating the options, he chose the Allies and immediately received instructions to command a platoon of Hindu Sikhs under English command. Because of his mountain experience, Pitoni received the mission leading the troops to take control of a hill covered with German machine gun nests.
Pitoni completed the mission but expressed deep disappointment over losing half of his men. Missions of that caliber had an average loss rate of 70 percent of the troops, however, so upon his return, Pitoni received a promotion to a higher officer rank. He also received an assignment to serve as an agent of the British Special Force command, and to the American Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency.
After the war ended in 1945, Pitoni received the American Silver Star, and he continued as an agent at the service of the United States. After World War II, the OSS was dissolved, and functions were transferred to the U.S. State and War departments. The CIA formed in 1947, and Pitoni left the agency soon afterward.
He used the opportunity to pursue new adventures, including training as a geologist, after which he began working for oil companies.
A European Geologist in South America
Pitoni’s career as a geologist brought him to Venezuela, where he conducted field work for Shell Caribbean Company, primary in the Zulia state in western Venezuela, with a few expeditions in the Amazon jungle father south.
Unpublished internal reports from Shell record Pitoni’s time as an exploration geologist working in Venezuela. In a typewritten report bearing his signature, Pitoni narrates an adventure that took place in August 1949 while searching for geological sections between the Tocuco and Santa Rosa Rivers in Zulia’s Perijá district.
The following excepts from his 1949 report, describe the expedition.
On August 8, 1949, an expedition under the command of Angelo Pitoni left the town of Machiques (Zulia), with the objective of carrying out a geological assessment of the area between the Tocuco and Santa Rosa Rivers.
For that expedition, Pitoni hired eight men: one Venezuelan, two Colombians, and five indigenous. Using beasts as a means of transport, they arrived at the hacienda of Elías Martínez in the Tocuco river, where they spent the night. The next day, they arrived at the last hacienda in the area, owned by a certain Mr. Pérez.
The owner warned them that the house had been attacked by Motilón Indians several nights before, and he showed them arrows shot into the walls and wooden door.
They organized the luggage to leave the heaviest objects in the hacienda and travel lighter. They left in the morning of August 10 and discovered an indigenous path with an orientation 200-210 degrees, the same direction Pitoni planned to follow.
Once on the path, Pitoni ordered that two indigenous men walk 100 meters ahead as lookouts, with two other indigenous men talking 100 meters behind them to protect their backs. The other members of the expedition marked the distance with a tape measure. Pitoni found the tape measure method to be inefficient, so he changed the strategy and asked two of the men to count the steps. They notified Pitoni every time they reached 100, and he made a record in his notebook.
After testing the step method with tape measure control tests, Pitoni noted in his report that the step method was ‘not exact, but very close.’ At 1 p.m., they found a large ravine and decided to climb it, leaving the indigenous path. After two hours of walking, the topography changed to rugged hills, erosion in the area exposed outcrops with clear stratifications.
Pitoni described samples from station No. 26 as fine-grained sandstone, reddish by iron oxidations, and with azimuth/dip measurements of 68/32. He later found described outcrops at two additional stations as having the same lithology and similar azimuth/dip.
The ravine became very narrow, so they climbed it and changed it to another one, understanding that they had found the basin of the Santa Rosa River. At 6:30 p.m. Pitoni ordered his men to build a palm shelter for the night.
The next morning, Pitoni descended through a larger ravine that had many more rock layers exposed by erosion. All the outcrops described in the report are composed of sandstones, from fine-grained to very fine. He described a special case for sample No. 24 where he found remains of fossilized leaves.
In his report, Pitoni concluded that the lithology and iron oxidations present in the samples collected along the 10 control points, indicated that the formation had many features in common with Los Ranchos Formation, a well-known stratigraphic unit in western Venezuela considered to be of middle Miocene age.
At 5 p.m. they arrived at measuring station No. 49, where, for the first time, they heard movements of indigenous people communicating with each other using shouts and sounds.
They stopped – to avoid making noise and being found by the natives, but suddenly came face-to-face with a Motilón, who was frightened and quickly ran away screaming.
Pitoni and his men left the ravine, marching toward the Santa Rosa River, which they found after one hour. Along the way, they heard the Motilones following them from behind and from the east bank of the Santa Rosa River.
The sun set, and they decided to stop. To create a reference point that could be seen from the air, Pitoni found a big fallen tree along the river and painted it white.
The following morning, the group resumed their march, without incident, but with great care not to leave traces of their passage. After three hours walking, they found a new ravine and decided to climb it. Pitoni described very few outcrops in this new ravine, and the descriptions included the same lithology of the previous day.
At measuring station No. 72, they felt an intense movement of Motilones. Wanting to avoid trouble and seeing that it was impossible to continue climbing the ravine, they decided to abandon the station, marching instead in the direction of the Tocuco River.
They camped for the night at the division of the Santa Rosa and Tocuco river basins. The next day, they continued walking in the same direction, but due to the slow progress, they had to spend another night in the jungle.
On August 13, the men found the original indigenous path again, so Pitoni sent two men ahead to inspect. Soon, both returned frightened, saying that it was impossible to continue because the Motilones were waiting for them ahead, clearly preparing to ambush.
Pitoni decided to leave the path and follow the previous direction until he found the river. They followed the river upstream, and after two hours walking, they returned to Mr. Pérez’s farm. That night, at 8 p.m., the Motilones arrived and surrounded the courtyard of the hacienda, but fortunately and inexplicably, after one hour, they retreated without attacking.
On August 15, Pitoni and his group returned to the Machiques base, and the text of the geological report ended.
In this book “L’incognito: Uomo, Matter, Antimatter” (“The Unknown: Man, Matter, Antimatter”) published in 1973, Pitoni made additional references to his time in Venezuela, but did not provide specific dates. He mentions being hired by Shell Caribbean and spending 22 days in geological exploration, across the area of Caño Paso el Diablo, in the Mara District of the Zulia state, which Pitoni characterized as “geologically unexplored” and “a sacred land for indigenous people.”
In further descriptions of the journey, Pitoni revealed his inner feelings, including the development of a growing love for all things on Earth: plants, animals, rivers and everything representing unspoiled nature.
Pitoni also noted in the book that his field work was appreciated greatly, so he was not surprised when he was offered a field study to verify the existence of a large anticline in an area southwest of Lake Maracaibo. Pitoni accepted, with the condition of traveling alone, which he considered the only way to go unnoticed by the Motilones. He thought that traveling with a caravan would provide an easy target for the natives and their deadly arrows.
After describing the expedition details, Pitoni reflected on the overwhelming curiosity he felt when watching the Catatumbo lighting – an atmospheric phenomenon that occurs over the mouth of the Catatumbo River where it empties into Lake Maracaibo.
Pitoni boarded a boat at the company’s dock, located in Los Haticos, in Maracaibo, and upon setting sail at nightfall, he went up to the deck to watch the sky with boat captain Marcos Pérez. His reports described rhythmic flashes that dyed the sky blue and purple.
After sailing the Catatumbo River, they arrived at the town of Encontrados, where they unloaded equipment and Pitoni met Manuel Osorio, the operator who transported him upstream in another 7-meter-long vessel powered by a diesel engine.
Upon leaving, and with each hour of navigation that passed, Pitoni noticed that the banks of Catatumbo became increasingly narrower. The boat changed course abruptly, and they entered the Rio de Oro River, which serves as a border between Venezuela and Colombia.
Setting Off Alone
Osorio expressed fear about moving forward and told Pitoni that if he wanted to continue, he would have to do so alone. Though Motilones did not live in the territory, they very often entered the area to hunt, so it was necessary to maintain a constant state of alert. They stopped to eat, in a continual state of alarm and tension, then lowered a smaller aluminum boat with an onboard engine into the water. They filled the boat with Pitoni’s equipment, fuel, food and weapons, and he prepared to continue the journey alone.
Pitoni promised to return to the same location in six days and he asked Osorio to wait for him for that time, and an additional three days, just in case. If he had not returned by that time, Osorio could assume that the worst had occurred and go home.
He instructed Osorio to wait for him with two bottles of whiskey, expressing optimism that they would drink them together.
Pitoni sailed along the Rio de Oro for several hours until he reached a point where he decided to continue on foot. He hid the boat and carried a rifle, a pistol, knives, a machete, a compass and a map made from aerial photographs. He traveled without food, recalling from previous trips that there would be no lack of animals to hunt.
After six hours of incessant work with the machete, marching in water up to his calves, darkness fell and Pitoni stopped to spend the night. He made notes, looked for food, and enjoyed contemplating the Catatumbo lightning, feeling that he was sitting just below it.
The next morning, he climbed to the peak of the mountain range and began to descend on the opposite side, following a stream that led to the Lora River. With great satisfaction, he found outcrops with stratifications showing opposite angles. That was just the evidence he needed to prove the existence of the anticline for which he was searching in that area.
Pitoni then set out on his return, and his journal describes a hunt for a lowland paca (a large rodent native to the area) and encounters with a boa constrictor and an anteater. He described finding indigenous footprints marking the area where he stayed and estimated that the prints had been made 20 hours earlier. With that, Pitoni concluded the story of his expedition.
After his adventures in Venezuela, Pitoni’s wanderings left no traces easy to follow or corroborate.
A 1978 report from confidant Darío del Buono affirmed that Pitoni had multiple escapades in the 1950s to 1980s.
Activities reported including discovering emerald mines, unearthing the remains of a small Mayan city in the Guatemalan jungle, exploring Southeast Asia and organizing the CIA-backed mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation.
In 1990, Pitoni traveled to northern Sierra Leone, West Africa, hired by a company, to check the Kono area for diamond deposits. During the search for diamonds, he made an important archaeological discovery, numerous semi-human statuettes of deformed appearance, which the locals call “Nomoli.” These figures are considered very old, but there is no consensus in the archaeological world about their actual age, their purpose, or who made them.
Pitoni’s travel around the world and his immersion in esotericism, led him to write several Italian language books about his experiences: “Our Soil” in 1971; “The Unknown: Man, Matter, Antimatter” in 1973; “Afghanistan: Five Years After the Soviet Invasion” in 1984; and “The Mystery of Life” in 1995. He also wrote a Spanish language book, “El Misterio de la Raza Perdida,” or “The Mystery of the Lost Race,” in 1997.
Pitoni died in Rome, in 2009.
His book, “The Unknown: Man, Matter, Antimatter,” includes a dedication to Venezuela, which reads as follows in the original Italian:
“Dedico questo libro al Venezuela,
che considero la mia patria spirituale.
Infatti in Italia nacque il mio corpo,
ma in Venezuela nacque la mia anima.”
“I dedicate this book to Venezuela,
which I consider my spiritual homeland.
In fact, my body was born in Italy
but my soul was born in Venezuela.”
On behalf of Venezuelan geologists and adventure lovers, I thank Angelo Pitoni for his work and for his contributions to the petroleum history of our country. I hope you have enjoyed his story.