An Ancient City Emerges in a Remote Rain Forest
Most of the important archaeological sites in Central America were “discovered” by archaeologists who, in fact, didn’t discover them at all but were led to the ruins by local people. I’ve known several Maya archaeologists who routinely started fieldwork in a new area by heading into a dive bar and hoisting beers with the locals while listening to various bullshitters spin tales about ruins they’d seen in the jungle; once in a while, a story would turn out to be true. But, because these sites were long known to local people, they had invariably been disturbed, if not badly looted.
The revelation of an ancient city in a valley in the Mosquitia mountains, of Honduras, one of the last scientifically unexplored regions on Earth, was a different story. This was the first time a large archaeological site had been discovered in a purely speculative search using a technology called LIDAR, or “light detection and ranging,” which can map terrain through the thickest jungle foliage, an event I chronicled in a story for the magazine in 2013. As a result, this discovery revealed something vanishingly rare: a city in an absolutely intact, undisturbed, pristine state, buried in a rain forest so remote and untouched that the animals there appeared never to have seen people before.
After the piece came out in The New Yorker, I returned to the region with a joint Honduran-American archaeological expedition to explore the city on the ground. On February 17, 2015, our helicopter landed in a slotlike zone macheted out of a stand of heliconia, next to an unnamed river in the valley scientists had nicknamed Target One, or T1. There were five of us, along with three British ex-S.A.S. jungle-warfare specialists, whose job was to keep us alive for the next nine days.
We climbed a steep embankment and entered the rain forest through a dark hole freshly cut into the jungle, emerging in a gloomy forest, with trees rising like giant cathedral columns into the canopy. Their trunks, ten to fifteen feet in diameter, were braced with massive buttresses and knees. Many were wreathed in strangler figs, called matapalos, or tree killers.” The air carried a heady scent of earth, spice, and rotten decay. As I wrote in National Geographic magazine, later that year, there was no camp waiting for us; we each had to slash out our own personal clearing with a machete. Purring jaguars prowled about our tents at night along with other unseen beasts. We encountered deadly fer-de-lance snakes almost every day.
Entering the ruins was a disappointment. If the Mosquitia jungle were superimposed on Times Square, the foliage would be so thick that you would have no inkling you were in the midst of a city.
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