The Mosquitia rain forests of Honduras and Nicaragua are, to put it mildly, thick jungle. As one travel guide notes, "While the edges of the Mosquitia can be reached by pickups driving along the beach, the vast majority of the region is accessible only by plane, boat, or foot, lending it the feel of a separate country, cut off from the rest of Honduras and the world."
The lushness of this biosphere -- at 32,000 square miles, "the largest remaining expanse of virgin tropical jungle in Central America" -- draws its share of adventurers and nature lovers each year, but that is not its most remarkable appeal. Over the past century, archaeologists have set their sights on that dense vegetation, hoping that beneath it they would find the ruins of Ciudad Blanca, a fabled ancient settlement seemingly swallowed by the Earth. In 1526, Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes wrote to emperor Charles V, relaying word of a purported province, deep in Honduras, that "will exceed Mexico in riches, and equal it in the largeness of its towns and villages."
Today, at the American Geophysical Union's meeting in Cancun, scientists have released images of what they believe to be that lost city, discovered not by machete-hacking their way through the jungle, but from above, in a tiny Cessna plane, the bottom of which had been cut open to make room for a million-dollar LIDAR machine, which can see through the forest canopy and map the topography below.
"This whole adventure for the last couple years has been quite a wild ride," the expedition's leader Steve Elkins told me on the phone from Cancun. "There were times I felt like if I didn't find anything, everybody would say, 'What a fool you are. You spent all this money, all this effort. There's nothing there.'" But maybe, just maybe, they would get lucky, and the LIDAR would see something -- walls, pyramids, symmetry, straight lines of any kind -- that was at odds with the natural contours of the jungle floor. Something, maybe, like this, the first ever visual confirmation of a lost civilization in the Mosquitia forest:
The New Yorker's Douglas Preston was lucky enough (and brave enough) to be on board during one of these mapping flights, over an area designated Target One (and referred to colloquially as T1), a valley where Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists had noticed unnatural features in satellite data more than a decade ago. "But," Preston writes in his May 6 New Yorker piece (*really* worth reading in full if you have access), "the images were blurry and ambiguous, and no ground expedition had been able to reach T1." Elkins, who is a documentary filmmaker, told Preston, "There's no record of anybody ever being in T1." He continued, "Even the expeditions in the 1930s and '40s went around it, because it was too hard."
But LIDAR technology opens new possibilities for archaeologists. Jungle that was once impenetrable from below is now legible from above. The scale and speed of LIDAR-enabled research dwarfs older techniques.
"This technology is going to revolutionize archaeology," archeologist Christopher Fisher of Colorado State University told me, also from Cancun. "We used to have to walk through the jungle, hacking our way through, recording every architectural feature, every trace of ancient habitation that we used to find. Incredibly labor intensive."
As Preston writes:
Archaeology is on the cusp of a technological transformation. For more than a century, conducting work in the rain forest has been a sweaty, laborious business. When a potential site is identified, and before excavation can begin, it must be surveyed. Traditionally, this has required a team of researchers and assistants to comb and partially clear the forest, and then to mark, measure, and map every fixed, man-made feature, down to the smallest carved stone, while being tormented by mosquitoes, black flies, heat, and the persistent hazard of venomous snakes. Unlike a desert site, which can be mapped in weeks or days, a survey in the jungle can take years, even decades, and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many small features are overlooked, and even the most prominent structures can be surprisingly difficult to see. Years ago, at an unexcavated Maya site in the Yucatan, I stood barely 20 feet from the base of a large pyramid so heavily obscured by foliage that I couldn't make it out.
Lidar has been used by geologists, urban planners, and civil engineers since the 1980s, but only recently has ti improved enough to be applied in fine grained archaeological mapping. Some archaeologists have employed other remote-sensing methods to survey sites, but in areas of dense forest those technologies yield Rorschach-like images that even experts cannot decipher. Now, with lidar, thousands of acres of dense jungle can be finely mapped in a few hours, with greater accuracy than the most painstaking ground survey can provide.
But even with such advanced technological capacity, it was entirely possible that Ciudad Blanca wasn't out there to be found at all, a myth that grew out of the jungle's mystery. "Every ten years or so, somebody finds it," archaeologist Chris Begley wearily tells Preston. Was the LIDAR machine just another false hope? Michael Sartori, a mapping scientist at the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM), told Preston, "Steve Elkins is a film guy." He continued, "Many times, I told my co-workers that this was a bad idea, that this is not the kind of project we should be doing. It just seemed like a crazy shot in the dark."