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Almost two years after an aerial survey of the dense jungle of Honduras revealed signs of a long-rumored lost settlement, and after countless hours hacking through the bushes, archaeologists announced last Wednesday the discovery of the untouched ruins of a vanished culture.
Traveling over boat and foot through the dense foliage of the vast, lightly inhabited 32,000-square-mile Mosquitia region of Honduras – known as Central America's Little Amazon – the team of scientists surveyed and mapped a collection of plazas, earthworks, mounds, and even an earthen pyramid belonging to a culture that thrived between 1,000 and 1,400 AD – paralleling the Mayans – before the culture apparently vanished into the jungle.
In what is speculated to be an offering to the gods, the scientists say that the find of a non-looted and pristine site is incredibly rare.
"The undisturbed context is unique," Christopher Fisher, a Mesoamerican archaeologist on the team from Colorado State University told National Geographic. "This is a powerful ritual display, to take wealth objects like this out of circulation."
With the tops of 52 artifacts peeking out from the ground, the archeologists believe that more evidence of the civilization – including some burials – is hidden under the surface. Some artifacts recovered include stone ceremonial seats – known as mutates – and excellently engraved containers decorated with snakes, zoomorphic figures and vultures.
The most striking find was the carved head of what archeologists speculated might be "a were-jaguar," – possibly representing a shaman in a transformed, spirit state. The artifact also might be related to ritualized ball games that were played in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
"The figure seems to be wearing a helmet," Fisher said.
While scientists documented all of the finds, the artifacts were left in place and the site of the discovery is being kept a secret to make sure nobody loots it.
The search for the site began back in 2012, when a group of archaeologists and filmmakers used a form of light detection and ranging equipment known as lidar to find the remains of the lost city by airplane. In layman's terms, the scientists flew a small plane over the dense stretch of jungle, shooting lasers at the topography to map out the land below the canopy, where they purportedly discovered a network of plazas and pyramids, hidden for hundreds of years.
At the time it was speculated that the remains were those of the famed Ciudad Blanca (or The White City in English), which has tempted explorers and treasure hunters as far back as 1526, when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés sent a letter to Spanish emperor Charles V after hearing "reliable" rumors of an area in Honduras that "will exceed Mexico in riches, and equal it in the largeness of its towns and villages."
Cortés never found the city, but rumors of its existence persisted, especially following the 1839 discovery of the Maya city of Copán, in western Honduras, by American John Lloyd Stephens.
Another American, Theodore Morde claimed to have found what he called the Lost City of the Monkey God – named for the allegation that local indigenous people worshipped huge ape sculptures – in 1939. Morde went off a tip from Charles Lindbergh, the first solo aviator to cross the Atlantic, who apparently saw "an amazing ancient metropolis" when flying over the jungle.
Morde, however, was killed in a car accident before revealing the location of the city he purportedly found.
The jungle's remote location and the dangers that accompany a journey into the heart of darkness – poisonous snakes, disease, oppressive heat, dense foliage – has kept many explorers at bay and thwarted other attempts. The airplane's surveillance, however, allowed Fisher and his crew to find a terrain along a river that had been almost entirely reshaped by human hands and plot their course accordingly.
The team – which included American and Honduran archaeologists, a lidar engineer, an anthropologist, an ethnobotanist, documentary filmmakers, and 16 Honduran Special Forces soldiers provided security – now believes that instead of one "Ciudad Blanca" there are many settlements hidden under the dense foliage that indicate a lost civilization in the Mosquitia region.
"This is clearly the most undisturbed rainforest in Central America," the expedition's ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin, said. "The importance of this place can't be overestimated."
The region, which has become one of the biggest beef-producing areas in Central America that supplies meat to fast-food franchises in the U.S., is gravely threatened by deforestation from ranching.
"If we don't do something right away, most of this forest and valley will be gone in eight years." Virgilio Paredes Trapero, the director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, under whose auspices the expedition operated. "The Honduran government is committed to protecting this area, but doesn't have the money. We urgently need international support."