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Honduras fighting to save a rainforest, home to an ancient ‘lost city’



lost city honduras jungle white city archaeology
ancient “White City” is now under siege by

Geographic/David Yoder

  • The Honduras government is fighting to save land
    threatened by
    illegal cattle ranching
    , which contributes to
  • The land is home to the treasured Moskitia rainforest,
    the second-largest rainforest in Central America and a key
    player in the fight against climate change. 
  • It’s also home to the vaunted “White City,” a lost
    village that remained untouched for half a

It’s been six years since archaeologists stumbled upon an
abandoned village in the Honduran jungle

— what many
believe to be an ancient “White City,” whose residents vanished
hundreds of years prior.

Now, that very city — and the rainforest that surrounds it
— is under siege by deforestation, wildlife trafficking, illegal
land-grabbing, and the looting of treasured artifacts.

Many of these crimes are tied up with the process of

illegal cattle ranching
, which involves cutting back trees to
make room for cattle to graze. Around 90% of deforestation in the
Moskitia rainforest is attributable to illegal livestock.

That’s a problem not only for the vaunted White City, but for the
safety of the entire planet. As the second-largest
rainforest in Central America, the Moskitia is a critical tool
for absorbing
greenhouse gas emissions
, which contribute to climate change.
It’s also a refuge for endangered or threatened wildlife species
like the spider monkey and jaguar. 

In November, the Honduran government launched an initiative to
end local deforestation by removing all livestock and
evicting cattle ranchers from the rainforest. The government will
also endeavor to reclaim the land, which is in danger of being
cut in half in less than five years. 

The mission represents a critical effort to preserve a
once-forgotten territory, allowing researchers to dig deeper into
its storied past. 

‘What we know about this culture is … nothing’

More than half a millennium after the collapse of the Mayan
civilization, the members of a neighboring Central American
society suddenly gathered their most sacred belongings, buried
them in the center of town, and vanished.

“There’s a big question about who these people were,” the
best-selling author Douglas Preston, who visited the remnants of
the city, told Business Insider. “What happened to this
civilization? Why did they abandon this city so suddenly?”

Cattle ranching and forest destruction
The Honduras government is
attempting to crack down on illegal cattle

Wildlife Conservation

Preston was part of a research mission launched three years ago
to explore the ruins of this
lost civilization
. He wrote about his trip through the
Honduran jungle in the book, “The
Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story.

Some have said that the buried remnants correspond with an
ancient, legendary “White City” — a town of extreme wealth that
disappeared some 600 years ago. Since the 1900s, rumors of this
forgotten city had danced on the lips of explorers, aviators, and
tourists excited by the prospect of uncovering hidden treasure.
But no one knew much about the people who once lived there.

Even after some parts of an abandoned village, including remnants
of plazas and pyramids, were uncovered in 2012, during the first
expedition to the area, anthropologists and archaeologists
remained stumped.

“In the words of the leading Honduran archaeologist on our
expedition, ‘What we know about this culture is … nothing,'”
said Preston.

Nevertheless, some intriguing theories have emerged. Researchers
on the most recent trip found a cache of nearly 500 intricately
carved stone objects inside something Preston described as “a
grave not for a person, but for a civilization.”

The legend of the ‘lost city’ and the discovery that made
archaeologists fume

The 1,000-year-old ruins — whose timeline coincides with the
“White City” — were buried in the rainforest, in a round valley
ringed by steep cliffs. Since a team of
researchers uncovered them in 2012
, they’ve been revisited by
more research teams,
including Preston’s

lost city archaeology honduras national geographic white city monkey god
of a buried ceremonial seat — one of many ancient artifacts
discovered on site in the Honduran jungle.

Geographic/David Yoder

When news outlets picked up the story, most portrayed it as an
ancient mystery that had finally been solved. National Geographic
ran with the headline “Exclusive:
Lost City Discovered in the Honduran Rain Forest
.” NPR
announced “Explorers
Discover Ancient Lost City in Honduran Jungle

There was one problem, though, according to researchers who
signed a
public letter condemning the claims
in the news: The ruins
were not the “lost city” of lore — and worse, they may not have
been lost to begin with.

The dissenting researchers — including Chris Begley, an
archaeologist at Transylvania University who has 20 years of
experience in the region — said the National Geographic story
exaggerated the findings and ignored the region’s indigenous
people. National Geographic responded to the letter by
linking to a statement from the research team
that says its
story never claimed to have discovered the “lost city,” but
merely a lost city in the region.

The people who disappeared

Controversy notwithstanding, the teams of researchers and
documentarians who visited the site in 2012 and 2015 came away
riveted by what they’d seen. Preston and several other
archaeologists maintain that they set foot on terrain that had
been untouched for half a millennium. And they say the clues
these people left behind point to a tragic end.

“It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century a lost city could
still be discovered, but that’s exactly what happened,” he said.
“People hadn’t touched foot there in 500 years. It’s absolutely

Whoever populated the area deep in Honduras’ Moskitia Jungle did
not leave many clues. The team that visited in 2012 was able to
date the remains it uncovered to
somewhere between 1000 AD and 1400 AD.
That places people in
the region after the era of the Mayans, whose
civilization stretched from southeastern Mexico
Guatemala and Belize and into the western portions of Honduras
and El Salvador.

“They grew up near the Mayans. They took on the pyramids. They
laid out their cities in a somewhat Mayan fashion, but not
quite,” Preston said. “But it’s very mysterious. There’s so much
we don’t know.”

dave yoder doug preston camp
Frequent rain turned the
expedition camp into a sea of mud.

Dave Yoder / National Geographic

What researchers do know is that whoever lived there disappeared
suddenly. In addition to rough remnants of their pyramids and
plazas, they left behind a series of intricate stone pieces,
including what is thought to be part of a
ceremonial seat featuring an effigy of a “were-jaguar.”
far, researchers have identified nearly 500 of the stone pieces.

“At the base of a pyramid we discovered an enormous cache of
beautiful stone sculptures,” Preston said. “It appears the people
brought their objects, carefully laid them to rest, and then
walked out of the city.”

Several archaeologists and anthropologists who were on Preston’s
research team believe the people were felled by disease.

“The evidence is very strong that that’s what happened,” Preston
said. “These were diseases brought by Europeans, specifically
smallpox and measles.”

But it’s unlikely that Europeans ever reached this civilization —
at least not in person. Instead, the diseases probably found the
indigenous populations by way
of trade
. As goods exchanged hands, so did
. And some of these invaders were foreign illnesses
against which the
indigenous people had no defense

“This is a fascinating example of how disease can run way ahead
of physical contact,” Preston said. “Even though this valley was
never physically threatened by the Spanish, it may have been laid
low and completely wiped out by their disease.”

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