Image by Virgil Finlay/Wikimedia Commons
1. Explorer Steve Elkins took a team into the jungle, looking for a lost city
The team of archaeologists, scientists, filmmakers, armed guards, and a single writer hacked their way through the dense jungle. Their machetes were taped in pink so they could see each other among the leaves. Foliage closed in from all sides like an ocean of green attempting to drown them.
Steve Elkins, explorer and filmmaker, had been in this rainforest before, looking for a fabled place called “The White City” or the “Lost City of the Monkey God.” His first expedition had been fruitless and a disappointment, but this time, he knew where to look. Archaeologist Chris Fisher broke the silence and said, “That’s the pyramid right there in front of you.”
2. Myth says The White City lies within the Mosquitia rainforest of Honduras
Steve Elkins was obsessed with finding this legendary lost city, “La Ciudad Blanca” (The White City). According to myth, it was an ancient place built of white stone that peaked out above the treetops of the Mosquitia rainforest in Honduras. Rumors about it had been circling for centuries.
Some say that Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean, saw a white city in the jungle below. Stories from the area’s indigenous people paint La Ciudad Blanca as a haven from Spanish conquistadores. But something mysterious transpired and all the people fled, leaving it in ruins.
3. La Mosquitia is about as inhospitable as it gets
La Mosquitia is a vast rainforest in Honduras that’s 20,000 square miles of land mostly unexplored by scientists. Between the countless venomous snakes, hungry jaguars, deadly diseases, and drug smugglers, it isn’t the most hospitable place on Earth. The dense tropical landscape is probably the last place you would expect to find a city (except for, perhaps, underwater).
For a long time, archaeologists figured the rainforest’s soils would never be able to support a large population, and that only hunter-gatherer tribes lived among La Mosquitia’s foliage. However, scientists have now realized how wrong that assumption was. Fisher believes it was once a vast garden tended by a forgotten civilization.
4. 50 years earlier, a different adventurer went in search of The White City
Of course, Elkins and his team weren’t the first ones to go looking for the lost city. In 1940, journalist and adventurer Theodore Morde went on an expedition into the Mosquitia rainforest looking for The White City. Morde’s local guides told him about a long stairway ending at a huge statue of the monkey god.
But it was a terribly difficult pursuit and his guides abandoned him after a while. He kept trekking for weeks with his accompanying friend before emerging with a headline-grabbing tale. Morde announced that he had found the Lost City of the Monkey God, but never told anyone where it was, for fear of looters ruining the site.
5. Morde gave few clues about where the ‘lost city’ was in the rainforest
So were Morde’s accounts of the Lost City of the Monkey God true? It’s impossible to say. The only clue he gave to its location was a description he wrote in his journal that said, “Towering mountains formed the backdrop of the scene. Nearby, a rushing cataract, beautiful as a robe of shimmering jewels, cascaded into the green valley of the ruins.”
But after weeks in the jungle, perhaps the whole scene was a fever dream fueled by the tales he’d heard along the way. Or, perhaps he made up the story so he didn’t come away empty-handed. We can’t know either way, but we do know that ruined cities have been discovered in the jungles of Honduras before.
6. In the 1800s, someone did find a ruined Mayan city in the jungle
One hundred years before Morde went looking for The White City, an American diplomat and an English painter journeyed into the jungle looking for a stone city. After a heck of a lot of persistence and probably many uncomfortable nights, their troop came across massive stone temples and sculptures in the middle of the rainforest.
This was the Maya city of Copán, which was bustling with people between the third and 10th centuries. By 1200, it was abandoned and left to the jungle. The site still contains temples, pyramids, stairways, plazas, and a ballgame court. With this miraculous find on the mind, Elkins pressed on into the rainforest, looking for his own discovery.
7. Steve Elkins was obsessed with finding this mythical city
After reading about the Lost City of the Monkey God and hearing tales about ruins in the jungle, filmmaker Steve Elkins became obsessed with finding The White City. Its myth had completely seduced him and so he went on multiple expeditions looking for it.
The first was in 1994 with about 18 people; a few were local guides, but most of the others didn’t have much experience trekking through the jungle. Jaguars tracked them as they traveled. After days or weeks, Elkins and his team found something: an intricately carved boulder. It was the first sign of a lost civilization.
8. Time and money ran out, but Elkins was determined to return to La Mosquitia
However, that boulder was just a single artifact and not an entire city. Time and money ran out, so the team left La Mosquitia, largely empty-handed. Of course, Elkins was not done with this search. He went back on a couple more trips, until a hurricane in 1998 nearly destroyed Honduras.
Elkins went home, thinking perhaps he should give up on finding The White City. However, the thought that yes, people had found ruins in the jungle before, nagged at him. He couldn’t stay away forever, so in 2012 he returned to Honduras to look once more for the Lost City of the Monkey God.
9. This time, he had new technology to make the expedition a lot easier
This new expedition would be vastly different than his past trips, though, because Elkins had a new tool. It’s called lidar, or light detection and ranging. Lidar can map the ground of a jungle, despite the dense canopy right smack in the way.
Searching a jungle for archaeological sites can take years or decades because of how difficult the terrain is to traverse. However, using a small plane and a lidar machine, you can create a map of the area in days. Archaeologists had already used this technology to map the Maya city of Caracol, which revealed that in five years on the ground, they had only found 10% of the whole city.
10. Elkins picked a few sites in La Mosquitia to survey with lidar
Steve Elkins couldn’t survey all of La Mosquitia with lidar because that would cost millions, so instead, he singled out a few sections of the rainforest that were mostly unexplored and difficult to get to on foot. He teamed up with another filmmaker, Bill Benenson, who funded the search.
With a team consisting of a few scientists, a writer, and others, they set out to the idyllic island of Roatán, which is fairly distant from the heavy crime of mainland Honduras. For a couple of days, two or three people crammed onto a shifty little plane with the lidar machine. It was pointed down, into a hole cut in the floor of the plane.
11. The lidar scientists looked at the maps and found evidence of man-made structures
After slowly flying back and forth over the rainforest canopy, the team returned to land and began cleaning up the data to make it look like a map. They had to take out all the data points that were laser reflections of leaves, rather than ground, and merge the various GPS sources they had.
But once it was done, they looked at the map and quickly noticed something unusual. There were straight lines and rectangular shapes that must have been man-made. Pyramidlike mounds and buildings were very clearly hiding beneath the foliage. Now all they had to do was go look at them.
12. While camping in La Mosquitia, the team barely avoided a deadly pit viper
Armed with a definitive location to search, Elkins and his team helicoptered into La Mosquitia. They camped out near the rectangle sites and then journeyed into the forest. It often felt like evening all day long because the foliage was so dense that light barely filtered through.
One night, a highly venomous pit viper called a fer-de-lance snuck into their camp. One of the team’s jungle warfare experts pinned the snake and kept it from biting anyone, but it was angry and spit venom into the air. It wasn’t the warmest welcome into La Mosquitia, but that hardly mattered once they found what they were looking for.
13. The ruins were not made of stone, so they were hard to find
While looking for the lost city, the expedition team had to remember that the people here built their cities very differently from the ancient Maya. While the Maya used large cut stones that still stand today, the people of La Mosquitia used organic materials like clay and wood to build their structures. The forest, with its acidic rain and decomposers, swallowed the ruins.
The buildings disappeared under the foliage, making them incredibly difficult to find. Archaeologist Chris Fisher said, “That’s the pyramid right there in front of you.” Someone responded: “Where is the pyramid?” Fisher pointed, “Right there, you’re looking at it.” All they could see was a wall of trees on a hill.
14. At first, the ruins were disappointing, but they pressed on
As the expedition continued to hack their way through the thick jungle, they noticed spider monkeys gathering in branches above them. The monkeys peered down at the people, some hanging by their tails and screeching, others shaking branches and throwing flowers at the newcomers.
The monkeys seemed to have never seen people before, and they weren’t the only animals that gave that impression. The piglike tapirs and peccaries seemed unafraid of the humans as they walked around the camp. And while large cats stalked around the team, they were unfazed and continued on until they found a spectacular new site.
15. Finally, they found a gold mine: Hundreds of stone artifacts
While the ruins were near impossible to see through the vegetation, except for a few blocks poking out, something else caught the expedition’s eyes. They were half-buried, moss-covered stone objects poking out of the ground at the base of one of the pyramids. Everyone went crazy and excitement filled the air.
“Woah, woah, woah. Everybody stop. Back up. Don’t touch anything. Don’t clear anything. Please,” said archaeologist Chris Fisher. He taped off the site so it could be preserved and properly studied. But the team had already gotten juicy glimpses of carved stone jars decorated with vultures and snakes and inscriptions.
16. The area was once a flourishing city and garden
It turned out there were some 500 stone sculptures. One of the particularly cool artifacts may have depicted a “were-jaguar” — possibly a shaman in a spirit state. It seems that all these artifacts were left on the ground at the same time, perhaps when the city itself was abandoned.
Upon looking at the lidar maps and the archaeological site, Chris Fisher believes this area of La Mosquitia was once a huge garden. He thinks that crops, fruit trees, and flowers would have all been grown together surrounding the city. But if this civilization was once flourishing, then what happened to the city and its people?
17. Most likely, disease from the Spanish wiped out the La Mosquitia civilization
These artifacts (and the city) belonged to an entire civilization in the jungle that we have no name for. While they haven’t been researched much, the most likely reason for the city’s abandonment is disease. The Spanish surely never made it this far into the jungle, but their diseases did — via the people seeking safety from the colonizers.
Let’s put it this way: The Black Death in Europe killed 30% to 60% of the population, while Colombian diseases killed 90% of the population of Honduras. The Black Death wasn’t enough to destroy European society, but this epidemic was enough to take out this civilization.
18. Over half of the expedition team caught a disturbing disease during their trip
Of course La Mosquitia itself has its fair share of diseases. The people living there may have had some natural protection against these, but the expedition team did not. About half of them contracted a parasitic flesh-eating disease called leishmaniasis, though the symptoms only showed up months after they returned home.
They had to go through treatment for the disease before it consumed their noses and lips. The National Institutes of Health studied them and their disease, which seemed to be a unique form of the parasite. Despite this brush with a deadly and disgusting parasite, writer Douglas Preston told The Verge that he would absolutely go back to La Mosquitia.
19. Many scientists are critical of the expedition, saying it’s bad archaeology
Some scientists are very critical of this expedition, calling it adventuring and comparing it to Indiana Jones as opposed to critical science. The writer Douglas Preston, who was along for the ride, showed the map images to one of these critics, archaeologist Rosemary Joyce.
When she looked at the pictures, she agreed it was an archaeological site that had “three major clusters of larger structures, a plaza, a public space par excellence, and a possible ball court, and many house mounds.” She guessed the buildings were built somewhere between the sixth and 11th centuries. Still, she remained critical of their adventuring expedition.
20. The archaeological site is in danger
After this city and the artifacts were rediscovered, the expedition team became concerned with protecting the site. Many archaeological sites in jungles have been looted and disturbed. Not only is that a threat, but so is deforestation. Huge sections are being illegally cut and burned for cattle ranches. This region in Honduras supplies tons of beef to American fast-food franchises.
The Honduran government does want to protect La Mosquitia, but they don’t have sufficient resources. Part of La Mosquitia is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but there could be all kinds of vulnerable archaeological sites still lost among the trees.
21. A team of biologists journeyed into La Mosquitia to record the forest’s biodiversity
In an effort to provide further reasoning to protect the Mosquitia rainforest, the environmental organization Conservation International sent an “ecological SWAT team” into the jungle to survey the area’s biodiversity. The hope was to collect information that would justify protecting the rainforest from clear-cutting and inspire international groups to contribute to the efforts.
The biologists surveyed as much of the flora and fauna around the city ruins as they could. They photographed and collected specimens, taking notes on all the different species. While traversing the difficult terrain, they set up 22 different motion-activated camera traps. The biologists were amazed at what they found.
22. The jungle is lush with rare species of animals and plants
The jungle valley hadn’t been touched by humans in centuries, probably. It appears to be a pristine wilderness, despite the fact that it was once a tamed garden. The scientists found rare species, and even some that were thought to be extinct, in the Mosquitia valley.
This included butterfly, bird, bat, snake, and plant species. The curious spider monkeys may be their own subspecies. And prowling around the trees was a great abundance of cats: jaguars, ocelots, jaguarundis, pumas, and margays. After a nearly deadly return trip, 19 of the camera traps were recovered and biologists began reviewing their contents.
23. Some of these animals had never been seen in Honduras before
While among the trees, the biologists saw a few species that scientists had thought were extinct, like the tiger beetle Odontochila nicaragüense. They found a pale-faced bat, which had not been recorded in Honduras for over 75 years. One of the fish they observed may be a new species to science.
On top of that, they saw many species that had never been scientifically observed in Honduras previously, including 15 different butterfly and moth species, a longhorn beetle species, and a bat species. The team concluded that this area of La Mosquitia is home to a large range of threatened and endangered species.
24. People are working to protect the ruins and the life inhabiting them
While the city ruins and abundant biodiversity are within the protected Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, this doesn’t guarantee their safety, as the laws are tough to enforce. When the team of biologists entered La Mosquitia, they did so with an armed guard to keep them safe from drug traffickers. Plus, people are illegally cutting down sections of the rainforest.
However, last year the Kaha Kamasa Foundation was founded to protect, research, and manage the site. The Honduran government and international conservation groups are eager to protect the archaeological site and its abundant life as much as possible, considering how rare it is to find such a thriving ecosystem these days.
25. The White City will remain forever lost
So after venomous snakes, flesh-eating parasites, and weeks of hacking through the jungle, did they really find the fabled White City, also known as the Lost City of the Monkey God? Not really. That’s still just a myth. Archaeologist Gordon Willey told writer Douglas Preston that the white buildings people told stories about were probably just limestone cliffs.
Another archaeologist, Chris Begley, has seen several different “lost city” sites in the jungle. And while each is interesting in its own right, he told Preston that no ruin can be The White City “because The White City must always be lost.”