"Indigenous stories speak of a 'white house' or a 'place of cacao' where Indians took refuge from Spanish conquistadores -- a mystical, Eden-like paradise from which no one ever returned," National Geographic reported.
Colorado State University archaeologist Christopher Fisher, who was part of the expedition, doesn't believe such a place exists, but he does think the team's discovery is still momentous.
“We’re, in many respects, going to be able to repopulate the Americas," the Mesoamerican archaeologist told NPR. "We are going to find all of these places that we previously thought were lightly occupied or perhaps not occupied. And I think that we are going to be surprised at the extent of the human occupation of the Americas and the amount of environmental transformation. And I think that also, theoretically, is going to have a profound influence on archaeology.”
The team encountered an "incredibly rare" and untouched site marked by "extensive plazas" and "mounds," according to National Geographic. Archaeologists found 52 artifacts in the ground -- including "ceremonial seats" and "finely carved vessels decorated with snakes" -- and speculate that many more may be below the soil, including burials, the story noted.
Also among the trove of discoveries were stone sculptures like a prized "were-jaguar" that may depict a shaman in a spirit state (pictured above).
Fisher believes a ritual display at the base of a pyramid may have been an offering.
“The undisturbed context is unique,” he told National Geographic. “This is a powerful ritual display, to take wealth objects like this out of circulation.”
News of the findings were not exactly met with awe from a group of international scholars who have penned a letter that accuses the team of exaggerating their discoveries and ignoring local people's knowledge of the region and its history. The letter notes that the "Lost City of the Monkey God" is a name created for a 75-year-old tabloid news story.
In an interview with the Guardian, Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, compared the use of "lost" and "discovered" in the Honduran context to using those same words when discussing the arrival of Columbus in the Americas.
"Far from being unknown, the area has been the focus of many scholarly and popular works, including two Master’s theses, one doctoral dissertation, two popular books, two documentary films, numerous articles and presentations, and a series of booklets recently published by a Honduran newspaper," the letter states. "Furthermore, mentions of a 'vanished civilization' are especially offensive given the likelihood that the people responsible for the ancient remains were the ancestors of living indigenous people who have not 'vanished' despite genocide, disease, and ongoing injustices."
Fisher told the Guardian that he was baffled by the unexpected backlash and noted that his team has never presented the site as "the city of the lost monkey god.”
“The articles aren’t scientific papers though, and we don’t deny that local people might have knowledge of these sites," he said, referring to media coverage of the find. "But the area was unoccupied and relatively undisturbed after all these centuries.”
National Geographic defended its coverage in a statement, telling the Guardian reported that its article on the expedition “does not give credence to [the] ‘fantastic’ statements” of journalist Theodore Morde, who claimed to have located an ancient city in the Honduran jungle around 1940.
Morton wasn't the first to report of such a place, according to National Geographic. For a hundred years, explorers and prospectors traded stories about a majestic white city where Indians fled from Spanish conquerors, never to return.
Beginning in the 1920s, multiple Indiana Jones-like expeditions have set out to find the Ciudad Blanca, which was rumored to contain a giant buried statue of a monkey. This time, explorers turned to the Center for Airborne Laser Mapping at the University of Houston to survey an area where they believed ruins might be found, according to National Geographic.
In his interview with NPR, Fisher explained how the mapping process involving a laser works:
They used a technique called lidar, which uses a grid of infrared beams that are dropped from an aircraft. The beams return to the sensor when they strike an object on the ground — could be the top of a tree, could be a bird. So not only do you record, you know, any archaeological figures that are on the ground — mounds, buildings, et cetera — but you record everything in the forest. And not surprisingly, there were significant archaeological features there.
Once the images were processed, investigators noticed more than a mile of unnatural structures in a bowl-shaped valley near a river, according to National Geographic. Researchers knew they would need to see the site in person to accurately understand what they were looking at. The sizable ground exploration team included American and Honduran archaeologists, a lidar engineer, an anthropologist, an ethnobotanist, documentary filmmakers and support personnel, according to National Geographic.
Sixteen Honduran Special Forces soldiers provided security for the expedition as well, National Geographic noted.
On the ground, researchers said they found themselves traversing an area so pristine and densely forested that animals appeared to be unfamiliar with humans.
“It was a true wilderness, a jungle wilderness," Fisher told NPR. "And to be able to be in that environment and see and encounter animals and other things that really didn’t have much experience with humans was a really transformative experience for me.”
Chris Begley, a veteran archaeologist who has spent years working in Mosquitia, told the Guardian that he welcomes the use of new technology like lidar, but noted that the region's indigenous people, such as the Pech, are valuable repositories for knowledge about ancient life.
“It’s like driving versus flying, or walking versus flying,” he told the Guardian. “You see all these connections that you’d miss if you’d just gone in on a helicopter. On the ground they always say there’s another place we can see just around the bend, just a few days more.”
The location is also being threatened by deforestation, according to National Geographic. Several miles away, ranchers are clearing forest illegally to make way for cattle that are used to supply meat to fast food franchises in the United States, the article reported. Members of the team speculate that in as little as eight years, the forest surrounding the site could be gone.
“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 IHAH told National Geographic. “The Honduran government is committed to protecting this area, but doesn’t have the money. We urgently need international support.”