National Geographic magazine report, October 2015 edition, on the discovery of the lost city. By Douglas Preston, Photographs by Dave Yoder
On February 18, 2015, a military helicopter took off from a rundown airfield near the city of Catacamas, Honduras, heading towards the mountains of La Mosquitia. Below, the farms gradually gave way to sunlit steep slopes, some covered by unbroken tropical jungle, others partially deforested for cattle.
The pilot headed towards a V-shaped gorge on a distant peak. Beyond it was a valley surrounded by jagged peaks: a pristine landscape of emerald and gold, speckled with the floating shadows of clouds. Flocks of egrets flew beneath and the treetops swayed with the movement of unseen monkeys. There were no signs of human life: no road or trail, no hint of smoke.
The helicopter tilted and descended in search of a clearing at the edge of the river. Among those disembarking from the helicopter was an archaeologist named Chris Fisher. The valley was located in a region long said to harbor the “White City,” a mythical city built of white stone, also known as the Lost City of the Monkey God. Fisher did not believe in legends, but he did believe that the valley, known to him and his companions simply as T1, held the ruins of a real lost city, abandoned for at least half a millennium. In fact, he was sure of it.
The La Mosquitia region of Honduras and Nicaragua contains the largest rainforest in Central America, covering about 50,000 square kilometers of dense vegetation, swamps, and rivers. From above it may seem welcoming, but anyone venturing into it faces an infinity of dangers: deadly snakes, hungry jaguars, and harmful insects, some of which transmit potentially lethal diseases. The persistence of the myth of a hidden white city is largely due to the inhospitable nature of this virgin land.
However, the origin of the legend is obscure. Explorers, seekers, and early aviators claimed to glimpse the white walls of a ruined city rising above the jungle; others repeated stories of immensely rich cities hidden in Honduras, first recorded by Hernán Cortés in 1526. Some anthropologists who spent time with indigenous Miskito, Pech, and Tawahka people in La Mosquitia heard stories of a “White House”, a refuge where indigenous people sheltered from the Spanish conquerors and were never seen again.
La Mosquitia is on the Mesoamerican frontier, next to the territory of the Maya. While these are among the most studied ancient cultures in America, the inhabitants of La Mosquitia are among the most mysterious. Over time, the myth became part of the national consciousness of Honduras. By the 1930s, it had also captured the imagination of the American public. Several expeditions were undertaken to find the city, including three by the Museum of the American Indian in New York, funded by George Gustav Heye, an avid collector of American indigenous objects. The first two came back with rumors of a lost city where there was a giant statue of a monkey god waiting to be unearthed.
The museum’s third expedition, led by an eccentric journalist named Theodore Morde, landed in Honduras in 1940. Morde emerged from the jungle five months later with boxes full of artifacts. “The Monkey God City was walled,” wrote Morde. “We followed a wall until it disappeared under mounds that had all the evidence of having once been large buildings.” Morde refused to reveal the location, for fear, he said, of looting, but promised to return the following year to start excavations. He never did and, in 1954, he hanged himself. His city, if there ever was one, remained unidentified.
In the following decades, archaeology in La Mosquitia was hindered not only by difficult conditions but also by a widespread belief that the jungle lands of Central and South America were too poor to support anything but scattered hunter-gatherers, too impoverished to sustain the agriculture necessary to develop complex hierarchical societies. This was true despite the fact that, when archaeologists first began to explore La Mosquitia in the 1930s, they discovered some settlements suggesting that the area had once been occupied by a widespread complex culture, nothing surprising considering that the region is located at the confluence between the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures to the north and west, and the powerful cultures of the Chibcha language family to the south.
The inhabitants of La Mosquitia incorporated aspects of Mayan culture and designed their cities in a vaguely Mayan style. They may have adopted the famous Mesoamerican ball game, a ritual contest that sometimes involved human sacrifices. But their exact relationship with their imposing neighbors is unknown. Some archaeologists have suggested that a group of Mayan warriors from Copan could have taken over La Mosquitia. Others think that the local culture simply adopted the characteristics of an impressive contiguous civilization. One important distinction between the two cultures was the choice of construction materials by the inhabitants of La Mosquitia.
There is no evidence so far that they used carved stone to build their public buildings instead of river stones, earth, wood, lattices, and mud. When these buildings were decorated and painted, they may have been as extraordinary as some of the great Mayan temples. But, once abandoned, they were dissolved by the rain and spoiled, leaving unimpressive piles of rubble and ruins. The disappearance of this splendid architecture could explain why this culture remained so “marginalized”, according to Christopher Begley, who conducted archaeological studies in the La Mosquitia region. The culture is still under study, to the point that it has not yet been given a formal name.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about this great culture,” Oscar Neil Cruz told me. Neil is the head of archaeology at the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH). “In fact, what we don’t know is almost everything. Anything is possible.” In the mid-nineties, a documentary director named Steve Elkins became captivated by the legend of the White City and embarked on a plan to find it. He spent years analyzing reports from explorers, archaeologists, gold prospectors, drug smugglers, and geologists. He mapped which regions had been explored and which had not. He hired scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to analyze massive amounts of Landsat data and radar images of La Mosquitia for signs of ancient settlements. The JPL report showed what could be “rectilinear and curvilinear” features in three valleys, which Elkins labeled as T1, T2, and T3, where the “T” stands for target. The first was an unexplored river valley surrounded by hills that form a natural bowl. “I just thought,” says Elkins, “if I were a king, this would be the perfect place to hide my kingdom.” But the images were not conclusive; he would need a better way to see through the dense jungle canopy.
Then, in 2010, Elkins read an article in Archaeology magazine describing how a technique called Lidar (an acronym for light detection and ranging) was used to map the Mayan city of Caracol in Belize. Lidar works by bouncing hundreds of thousands of infrared laser pulses off the rainforest and then recording the location of each reflection. The three-dimensional “point cloud” can be manipulated with software to remove the pulses that hit trees and shrubs, leaving an image composed solely of points that reach the underlying ground, including the contours of archaeological remains. In just five days of scanning, Lidar revealed that Caracol was seven times larger than had been thought after 25 years of field research.
A disadvantage of Lidar is its cost. The measurement of Caracol was carried out by the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM). It would cost $250,000 for NCALM to scan only the 143 square kilometers of the three valleys. Fortunately, at that time, Elkins’s immense enthusiasm for finding the White City had infected Bill Benenson, another filmmaker who decided to finance it himself. The initial results were astonishing. There appeared to be ruins along several kilometers of the T1 valley. A site twice the size was evident in T3. Although the larger structures were easily noticeable, a more precise analysis of the images would require the eye of an archaeologist experienced in the use of Lidar. Elkins and Benenson turned to Chris Fisher, a specialist in Mesoamerica.
And so, in February 2015, Chris Fisher finally ended up standing on the bank of an unnamed river in T1, staring at the wall of jungle on the other side of the river and eager to enter it. Ever since Fisher saw the Lidar images, he was hooked. He had used the technology to map Angamuco, an ancient city of the formidable Purépecha (Tarascan) people who rivaled the Aztecs in central Mexico from around AD 1000 until the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 16th century. While communities in the highlands of Mexico in pre-Columbian America were densely populated, those in the tropics tended to be scattered across the territory. However, sites T1 and T3 seemed important; they were certainly the largest settlements located so far in La Mosquitia. The main area of T3 was just under four square kilometers, almost the same size as the central area of Copán, the Mayan city located to the west. The center of T1 was smaller but more concentrated: it apparently consisted of ten large plazas, dozens of associated mounds, roads, agricultural terraces, irrigation canals, a dam, and a possible pyramid.
Due to the evidently ceremonial architecture, embankments, and several plazas, Fisher was sure that both places fit the archaeological definition of a city, a settlement that shows complex social organization. “Cities have special ceremonial functions and are associated with intensive agriculture,” he explains. “They generally involve a very important and monumental reconstruction of the environment.” In their quixotic attempt to locate a mythical White City, Elkins and Benenson had apparently found two very real ancient cities.
With the help of the Honduran government, they assembled a team capable of venturing into the jungle to “validate in the field” what the Lidar images had identified. In addition to Fisher, who had more experience than anyone in using such images, the team included two other archaeologists – including Oscar Neil Cruz, from the IHAH -, an anthropologist, a Lidar specialist engineer, two ethnobotanists, a geochemist, and a geographer. Also included were Elkins’ camera crew and one from National Geographic. The logistics were daunting; in addition to dealing with snakes, insects, mud, and incessant rain, we ran the risk of contracting malaria, dengue, and other tropical diseases.
To facilitate the journey, Elkins and Benenson had hired three former officers of the British Special Air Service who had formed a company specializing in guiding and protecting film crews in dangerous areas. They were first dropped off by helicopter at the site to clear landing and camp areas with machetes and chainsaws, while the helicopter returned to Catacamas to transport Fisher and the others. Andrew “Woody” Wood, leader of the support team, told me, “I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t think these animals have ever seen humans.”
Wood had chosen a raised terrace behind the landing area as the base camp site, among giant trees and accessible by a log bridge, laid over a mudflat with an embankment ascent. Due to the risk of encountering snakes, it was forbidden for anyone to leave the camp without an escort. But Fisher was impatient; accustomed to dangerous fieldwork, he threatened to explore on his own. In the late afternoon, Wood agreed to a quick reconnaissance of the ruins. The advance team gathered on the riverbank, dressed in snake gaiters and insect repellent. A GPS unit, into which Fisher had downloaded the Lidar maps, showed their exact location in relation to the supposed ruins.
After consulting the GPS, Fisher gave instructions to Wood, who was macheteing his way through false bird-of-paradise bushes. The jungle vibrated with the sound of birds, frogs, toads, and insects. We waded through two mudflats – one reaching up to our thighs – climbed the cliffs next to the floodplain, and arrived at the base of a steep prominence covered in jungle, the edge of the supposed city. “Let’s go to the top,” Fisher said. The on-the-ground verification had begun.
We climbed the slippery slope covered in leaves. At the top, covered in dense vegetation, Fisher pointed out a subtle but unmistakable rectangular depression that he believed was the outline of a building. Kneeling to get a better view, Neil discovered what seemed to be evidence of rammed earth construction, which supported the interpretation that it was an earth pyramid. Fisher was ecstatic. “It’s just as I imagined,” he exclaimed. “All this land has been modified by human hands.”
Fisher and Wood led the team down from the pyramid to what Fisher hoped would be one of the city’s 10 “plazas” or large public spaces. When we entered it, we found a stretch of artificially leveled tropical jungle, like a soccer field. It was surrounded by linear mounds on three of its sides: the remnants of walls and buildings. A ravine cut through the plaza, exposing a surface paved with stones. Crossing the plaza, we discovered on the far side a row of flat stones in the form of an altar, placed on tripods of white quarry. However, the dense vegetation continued to obstruct any attempt to appreciate the design or scale of the ancient city.
We returned to camp with the sun about to set. We woke up the next morning and went out to explore again. Carpets of vines and hanging flowers dripped. Surrounded by immense trees and silent mounds, I felt the connection to the present fading away. A clamor in the high treetops announced the start of a rain shower. However, several minutes passed before the water reached the ground. Soon we were soaked to the bone.
Fisher, wielding his machete, walked north with Neil and Juan Carlos Fernández-Díaz, the team’s Lidar specialist engineer, to map out other city plazas. Anna Cohen, a doctoral candidate from the University of Washington, and Alicia González, the expedition’s anthropologist, stayed behind to clear the vegetation from the row of stones. By the afternoon, Fisher and his group returned after having mapped out three more plazas and many mounds. Everyone drank a round of hot tea with milk. Wood ordered a return to camp, worried that the river might have risen. The team set off in a single file. Suddenly, cameraman Lucian Read, almost at the end of the line, exclaimed, “Hey, there are some strange stones over here.” At the base of the pyramid, just sticking out of the ground, were the upper ends of dozens of beautifully carved stone sculptures.
The objects, barely visible among leaves and vines and covered in moss, took shape during twilight in the jungle: the head of a growling jaguar, a stone vessel decorated with a vulture’s head, large jars carved with snakes, and a group of objects that looked like decorated thrones or tables, which archaeologists call metates. All of the objects were in perfect condition, seemingly untouched since they were abandoned centuries ago. There were cries of amazement. People crowded around, bumping into each other. Fisher quickly took charge and ordered everyone to back off and the area to be cordoned off. But he was as delighted as everyone else, perhaps more so. Although similar objects from other parts of La Mosquitia were well known, most were isolated findings found long ago by Morde and others, or dug up and extracted by locals or looters. Certainly, such artifacts had not been documented. There were 52 objects on the ground and who knows how many more beneath the surface. “This is a powerful ritual display,” Fisher said, “in which valuable objects like these were taken out of circulation and left here, perhaps as an offering.”
In the following days, the team of archaeologists recorded each object at the site. Using a Lidar device mounted on a tripod, Fernández also scanned the objects to create 3D images of each one. Nothing was touched, nothing was taken out; a careful excavation would have to wait for another time, when the group could return with the appropriate equipment and the necessary time. At the time of writing, indeed, a more extensive expedition was being planned with the full support of the Honduran government. Ravaged by drug trafficking and the violence that accompanies it, Honduras is a poor country in need of good news.
The White City may be a legend, but anything that brings that story closer to reality causes great excitement; it’s a source of collective pride, an affirmation of the people’s connection to their pre-Columbian past. Upon learning of the discovery of the artifacts, Juan Orlando Hernández, the president of Honduras, sent a full-time military unit to the site to protect it from looters. A few weeks later, he flew by helicopter to see the site first-hand and pledged that his government would do “whatever is necessary” to promote not only the research and protection of the valley’s cultural heritage, but also the ecological heritage of the surrounding region.
The research has only just begun. Most of the T1 valley has not yet been studied, and the even more extensive ruins of T3 have not been approached. And who knows what lies beneath the jungle canopy that veils the rest of La Mosquitia. In recent years there has been a fundamental shift in the way archaeologists believe pre-Columbian peoples inhabited tropical territories. According to the old way of thinking, sparsely populated human settlements were dots on mostly unoccupied terrain. According to the new way of thinking, settlements were densely populated, and there was much less empty space between them. “Even in this remote jungle environment,” Fisher points out, “where people wouldn’t expect it, there were dense populations—thousands of people—living in cities. That’s profound.” What we still have to learn about the ancient inhabitants of La Mosquitia is virtually limitless. But the time we have left to learn it may not be.
Since February, when we left T1 to return to Catacamas, in just a few kilometers, the uninterrupted jungle gave way to slopes disfigured by clearings for cattle, unpleasant ragged patches. Virgilio Paredes, director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, under whose auspices the expedition operated, estimated that, at the current rate, tree felling will reach the T1 valley in eight years or less, destroying possible cultural treasures and leaving others exposed to rampant looting. President Hernandez has promised to protect the region from deforestation, as well as from looting, in part by establishing the La Mosquitia Heritage Reserve, an area of approximately 2,030 square kilometers that surrounds the valleys studied with Lidar technology. But the issue is delicate. Although logging is illegal, cattle ranching is an economic benefit and a cherished tradition.
If the discoveries in T1 tip the balance in favor of conservation, then it doesn’t matter whether the White City is real or a myth. Its pursuit has yielded riches.