LiDAR survey 'finds' lost Honduran 'city of gold'

The Google Map of eastern Honduras is almost blank. A vast and virtually unexplored rainforest region known as the Mosquitia covers around 32,000 square miles, home to dense jungle, hostile terrain and the terrifying-sounding jumping viper. Legend has it that somewhere beneath the forest canopy lies the ancient city of Ciudad Blanca – and now archaeologists think they may have found it.

LiDAR survey 'finds' lost Honduran 'city of gold'
The University of Houston and National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping team produced this 3D digital topological map which when examined shows a man-made plaza ringed in red [Credit: University of Houston/NCALM]
Tomorrow in Cancun, Mexico, an interdisciplinary group of scientists from fields including archaeology, anthropology and geology will appear at the American Geophysical Union’s annual conference to present the technology that has allowed them to discover a “lost world” in the Honduran interior. The team photographed the ground using new technology known as airborne light detection and ranging (LiDAR). They found what appears to be a network of plazas and pyramids, hidden for hundreds of years.

The legend of Ciudad Blanca (“The White City”) has captivated Western explorers ever since the Conquistador Hernan Cortes mentioned it in a letter to Spanish Emperor Charles V in 1526. Cortes never found the city, nor the gold it was said to contain, and the inhospitable region remained unconquered by the Europeans. In 1940, an American adventurer, Theodore Morde, emerged from the jungle claiming to have a found a “lost city of the monkey god”, where the local indigenous people worshipped huge ape sculptures. He was said to have been tipped off about the ruins by Charles Lindbergh, the first solo aviator to cross the Atlantic, who glimpsed “an amazing ancient metropolis” when he was flying above the forest. Morde was killed in a car accident before he could reveal its location.   

LiDAR survey 'finds' lost Honduran 'city of gold'
The Mosquitia region of the Honduran jungle mapped by the University of Houston
and NCALM team [Credit: University of HoustonNCALM]
Steve Elkins, a film-maker and amateur archaeologist from Los Angeles, became interested in the legend during the 1990s, when he travelled to the region in an unsuccessful attempt to find the rumoured ruins of Ciudad Blanca. “Some people believe it’s a bunch of hooey. Others believe that where there’s smoke there’s fire,” said Elkins, who is now 62. “I became captivated by it, and I decided to wait until technology advanced to produce a better way to find it than walking aimlessly through the jungle. Many years later, that opportunity presented itself.”

Elkins won the backing of private investors to fund the LiDAR mapping of the forest in 2012. For a week, researchers flew Cessna light aircraft over a 60 sq mile area of the Mosquitia. The planes were fitted with the $1.5m (£980,000) laser scanning system, which creates a 3D digital map of the topology beneath the canopy by firing billions of laser pulses at the ground.

The project’s lead archaeologists, Christopher Fisher and Stephen Leisz of Colorado State University, say the hidden city was probably home to a sophisticated Mesoamerican society, with paved streets, parks, pyramids and an advanced irrigation system. The discovery of the ruins, which could date back to as early as 500AD, suggests the region’s pre-Hispanic civilisation was significantly more developed than was previously thought.

In a week, the revolutionary LiDAR technology collected more data than a ground search might have done in a decade. “It opens the door into a lost world,” Fisher said. “Archaeology is on the cusp of a technological transformation. It’s going to transform our understanding of the Americas.”

The city’s precise location remains a secret, to prevent potential looting. In cooperation with the Honduran government, Elkins is planning a ground expedition to explore the site at close quarters in the autumn. He is also making a documentary film about the project.

Author: Tim Walker | Source: The Independent/UK [May 14, 2013]

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