Archaeologists find two lost cities deep in Honduras jungle

Archaeologists have discovered two lost
cities in the deep jungle of Honduras,
emerging from the forest with evidence of
a pyramid, plazas and artifacts that
include the effigy of a half-human, half-
jaguar spirit.
The team of specialists in archaeology and
other fields, escorted by three British
bushwhacking guides and a detail of
Honduran special forces, explored on foot a
remote valley of La Mosquitia where an
aerial survey had found signs of ruins in
2012.
Chris Fisher, the lead US archaeologist on
the team, told the Guardian that the
expedition – co-coordinated by the film-
makers Bill Benenson and Steve Elkins,
Honduras and National Geographic (which
first reported the story on its site) – had by
all appearances set foot in a place that had
gone untouched by humans for at least 600
years.
“Even the animals acted as if they’ve never
seen people,” Fisher said. “Spider monkeys
are all over place, and they’d follow us
around and throw food at us and hoot and
holler and do their thing.”
“To be treated not as a predator but as
another primate in their space was for me
the most amazing thing about this whole
trip,” he said.
Fisher and the team arrived by helicopter
to “groundtruth” the data revealed by
surveying technology called Lidar, which
projects a grid of infrared beams powerful
enough to break through the dense forest
canopy.
That data showed a human-created
landscape, Fisher said of sister cities not
only with houses, plazas and structures,
but also features “much like an English
garden, with orchards and house gardens,
fields of crops, and roads and paths.”
In the rainforest valley, they said they
found stone structural foundations of two
cities that mirrored people’s thinking of
the Maya region, though these were not
Mayan people. The area dates between
1000AD and 1400AD, and while very little
is known without excavation of the site and
surrounding region, Fisher said it was
likely that European diseases had at least
in part contributed to the culture’s
disappearance.
The expedition also found and
documented 52 artifacts that Virgilio
Paredes, head of Honduras’s national
anthropology and history institute, said
indicated a civilisation distinct from the
Mayans. Those artifacts included a bowl
with an intricate carvings and semi-buried
stone sculptures, including several that
merged human and animal characteristics.
The cache of artifacts – “very beautiful,
very fantastic,” in Fisher’s words – may
have been a burial offering, he said, noting
the effigies of spirit animals such as
vultures and serpents.
Fisher said that while an archaeologist
would likely not call these cities evidence
of a lost civilisation, he would call it
evidence of a culture or society. “Is it lost?
Well, we don’t know anything about it,” he
said.
The exploratory team did not have a
permit to excavate and hopes to do so on a
future expedition. “That’s the problem
with archaeology is it takes a long time to
get things done, another decade if we work
intensively there, but then we’ll know a
little more,” Fisher said.
“This wasn’t like some crazy colonial
expedition of the last century,” he added.
Despite the abundance of monkeys, far too
little is known of the site still to tie it to
the “lost city of the monkey god” that one
such expedition claimed to have
discovered. In about 1940, the eccentric
journalist Theodore Morde set off into the
Honduran jungle in search of the
legendary “white city” that Spanish
conquistadors had heard tales of in the
centuries before.
He broke out of the brush months later
with hundreds of artifacts and extravagant
stories of how ancient people worshipped
their simian deity. According to Douglas
Preston, the writer National Geographic
sent along with its own expedition: “He
refused to divulge the location out of fear,
he said, that the site would be looted. He
later committed suicide and his site – if it
existed at all – was never identified.”
Fisher emphasised that archaeologists
know extraordinarily little about the
region’s ancient societies relative to the
Maya civilisation, and that it would take
more research and excavation. He said that
although some academics might find it
distasteful, expeditions financed through
private means – in this case the film-
makers Benenson and Elkins – would
become increasingly commonplace as
funding from universities and grants
lessened.
Fisher also suggested that the Lidar
infrared technology used to find the site
would soon be as commonplace as
radiocarbon dating: “People just have to
get through this ‘gee-whiz’ phase and start
thinking about what we can do with it.”
Paredes and Fisher also said that the
pristine, densely-wooded site was
dangerously close to land being deforested
for beef farms that sell to fast-food chains.
Global demand has driven Honduras’s beef
industry, Fisher said, something that he
found worrying.
“I keep thinking of those monkeys looking
at me not having seen people before. To
lose all this over a burger, it’s a really hard
pill to swallow.”