Lost City Discovered In The Honduran Rain Forest


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mile through the valley. When Fisher analyzed the images, he found that the terrain along the river had been almost entirely reshaped by human hands.

Former British SAS soldier Andrew Wood hacks through thick foliage to clear a way for scientists to investigate an archaeological site first identified using an aerial imaging technology called lidar.

Archaeologist Oscar Neil Cruz of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History examines a building stone discovered during a foray to a location identified by lidar as a place of interest. Several such construction stones, apparently shaped by hand, were found in a row at the top of what appears to be an ancient plaza.

Former British SAS commando Steve “Sully” Sullivan (right) waits while the scientific team puzzles over a construction stone that they believe was carved by members of a vanished civilization yet to be identified.

Frequent rains turned the expedition camp into a sea of mud.

The evidence of public and ceremonial architecture, giant earthworks and house mounds, possible irrigation canals and reservoirs, all led Fisher to conclude that the settlement was, indeed, a pre-Columbian city.


Threatened by Deforestation

An archaeological discovery isn’t confirmed until it has been “ground-truthed.” The ground exploration team consisted of American and Honduran archaeologists, a lidar engineer, an anthropologist, an ethnobotanist, documentary filmmakers, and support personnel. Sixteen Honduran Special Forces soldiers provided security. The National Geographic Society sent a photographer and a writer.

The expedition confirmed on the ground all the features seen in the lidar images, along with much more. It was indeed an ancient city. Archaeologists, however, no longer believe in the existence of a single “lost city,” or Ciudad Blanca, as described in the legends. They believe Mosquitia harbors many such “lost cities,” which taken together represent something far more important—a lost civilization.

Anna Cohen, a University of Washington anthropology grad student, documents a cache of more than 50 artifacts discovered in the jungle. Following scientific protocol, no objects were removed from the site. The scientists hope to mount an expedition soon to further document and excavate the site before it can be found by looters.

The valley is densely carpeted in a rain forest so primeval that the animals appear never to have seen humans before. An advance team clearing a landing zone for helicopters supplying the expedition noted spider monkeys peering down curiously from the trees above, and guinea hen and a tapir wandering into camp, unafraid of the human visitors.


“This is clearly the most undisturbed rain forest in Central America,” said the expedition’s ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin, who spent 30 years in Amazonia. “The importance of this place can’t be overestimated.”

The region also is gravely threatened. Deforestation for ranching has checkerboarded the jungle to within a dozen miles of the valley. Huge swaths of virgin rain forest are being cut illegally and burned to make way for cattle. The region has become one of the biggest beef-producing areas in Central America, supplying meat to fast-food franchises in the United States.

In addition to looting, another threat to the newly discovered ruins is deforestation for cattle ranching, seen here on a hillside on the way to the site. At its present pace, deforestation could reach the valley within a few years.


Virgilio Paredes Trapero, the director of the IHAH, under whose auspices the expedition operated, spent several days at the site. He concluded: “If we don’t do something right away, most of this forest and valley will be gone in eight years.” He spread his hands. “The Honduran government is committed to protecting this area, but doesn’t have the money. We urgently need international support.”

The expedition was made possible with the permission, partnership, and support of the government of Honduras; Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández Avarado; Virgilio Paredes Trapero, director of the Honduran Institute for Anthropology and History (IHAH); Oscar Neil Cruz, Chief of the Archaeology Division of IHAH, as well as Minister of Defense Samuel Reyes and the Armed Forces of Honduras under the command of Gen. Fredy Santiago Díaz Zelaya, with Gen. Carlos Roberto Puerto and Lt. Col. Willy Joel  Oseguera, and the soldiers of TESON, Honduran Special Forces.

By Douglas Preston Photographs by Dave Yoder NatGeo
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