The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, took steps this week to secure and protect the newly found archaeological site of a “lost city” in the eastern part of his country, after concerns were raised in an exclusive National Geographic article earlier this month about threats from potential looters and illegal loggers.
The site, first identified in an aerial survey in 2012 using a technology called lidar, was confirmed by a ground expedition last month to a remote jungle area of Mosquitia in eastern Honduras. The expedition, which included archaeologists from the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH) as well as American scientists, mapped extensive plazas, earthworks, and an earthen pyramid. They also uncovered a cache of stone sculptures, including a striking “were-jaguar” effigy, which appeared to be untouched since the city was abandoned. The location of the site is not being disclosed.
On Tuesday, Hernández directed his general commander of the armed forces to safeguard the site, thought to date to around A.D. 1000 to 1400, according to Virgilio Paredes-Trapero, director of the IHAH.
“The president told the armed forces to protect the [archaeological] site and the Mosquitia region as a whole,” says Paredes-Trapero.
The military is still working on a strategic plan, which will likely involve deploying soldiers to patrol the remote jungle area and deter any would-be looters and illegal loggers, says Paredes-Trapero.
The National Geographic story reported evidence of deforestation in the region, which experts say could lead to damage of sensitive cultural and natural patrimony. The bulk of the deforestation is land cleared for cattle ranching, reportedly in large part to supply beef to the American fast-food market.
But as a result of the increased enforcement, “there won’t be any burglars,” Paredes-Trapero said of the pre-Columbian site in Honduras.
Protecting a Jewel
Steve Elkins, an American filmmaker who led the 11-day expedition to explore the site, calls the news of the president’s action “fantastic.”
“The Mosquitia is a jewel, for the people of Honduras and for the world,” says Elkins. “And it's disappearing before our eyes.” Satellite images reveal extensive deforestation has occurred in the area in the past few years, he notes.
“But now Honduras is going to put the kibosh on that,” says Elkins. “They’ve even said they’re going to replant the denuded landscape, to bring the jungle back, which is a very bold move.”
Mosquitia is rumored to contain a mythic “White City” or a “City of the Monkey God.” Archaeologists, however, give little credence to the legend. As reported in the National Geographic story, “They believe Mosquitia harbors many such ‘lost cities,’ which taken together represent something far more important—a lost civilization.”
The news of the February expedition has spurred some controversy, with some archaeologists arguing that the discovery of the site has been “exaggerated,” alluding to previous archaeological research in the region and knowledge of the site by local indigenous people. According to a response from the expedition team, the sites identified by the lidar survey and confirmed by the expedition last month do not appear in any academic publications and have not been mentioned in project reports or other documents in the official IHAH archaeological archive. The specific area is a “pristine tropical wilderness” far from any settlements, roads, or other signs of human habitation.
President Hernández’s decision to protect the site “is an amazing starting point that should be followed up by the international conservation community,” says Chris Fisher of Colorado State University, the lead American archaeologist on the expedition. “This clearly demonstrates that the government recognizes the importance of this place, and signals their willingness to work with international collaborators to preserve the unique ecological and cultural patrimony of the Mosquitia region.”