It's long past the time where western adventurers would set off into the wilderness and regularly encounter long-abandoned cities. But in Central America, a new archeological exploration has yielded an incredible finding—a city that's been empty for hundreds of years and so isolated that it's never been formally studied.
A scientific expedition into the depths of the Honduran rain forest returned last week with news of the scientific discovery of a never-before explored city. Archeologists believe it dates to between 1,000 and 1,400 A.D., National Geographic reports. Why it was abandoned still unknown.
The team documented "extensive plazas, earthworks, mounds, and an earthen pyramid," as well as parts of 52 stone artifacts partially submerged in the ground, many of which are intricately decorated with carvings of animals. Found at the base of the pyramid, archeologists speculate that the sculptures were an offering untouched since the abandonment of the settlement.
The lost city—so recently discovered that it doesn’t yet have a name—is so remote from modern human settlement that its animals appeared to never have encountered people before. But explorers and scientists have had their eye on the region for some time. Rumors have long persisted of a fabled White City, or Ciudad Blanca—“a mystical, Eden-like paradise from which no one ever returned,” writes National Geographic. And while this mythology often exoticized the real history of the region, it also spurred on over a century of scientific exploration in the 1930s, 50s, 70s, and 90s. These expeditions identified a number of prehistoric sites in La Mosquitia, many of which were known previously to indigenous peoples in the area.*
In 2012, documentarians searching for the truth behind the lore had a specific site in the La Mosquitia valley surveyed for signs of a large settlement. With the help of the Center for Airborne Laser Mapping they used LiDAR to map ground features through the dense foliage. The scan revealed signs of earthworks, mounds, and canals—evidence of pre-Columbian human civilization stretching across about a mile of the valley. That’s the location where the recent expedition aimed its exploration. As National Geographic reports:
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.
The team documented their findings but has not yet excavated the site. They hope to return soon to do so and to study the area further.
The exact location of the settlement isn’t being revealed in an attempt to prevent looting. But the site faces other threats. Within a dozen miles of the lost city, ranching enterprises reportedly supplying meat to the U.S. are illegally clear-cutting huge swaths of rain forest for cattle. Making the call for international support, one official told National Geographic that the whole valley could be gone in about eight years if action isn’t taken soon.
*This paragraph was updated to better reflect the history of research in the region.