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People hadn't set foot in this ancient 'lost city' in the Honduran jungle for 500 years — until now

Erin Brodwin
lost city honduras jungle white city archaeology

(National Geographic/David Yoder)

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 this city, told Business Insider. "What happened to this civilization? Why did they abandon this city so suddenly?"

Preston was part of a research mission launched two years ago to explore the ruins of what is said to be a lost civilization. He wrote about his recent trip through the Honduran jungle in the new 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 vanished 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

(Part of a buried ceremonial seat — one of many ancient artifacts discovered on site in the Honduran jungle.National 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."

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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 true."

Whoever populated the area deep in Honduras' Mosquitia 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 across 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." So 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 viruses. 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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