Legend of Lost City Spurs Exploration

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Lidar technology allows researchers to strip away the green forest canopy and reveals features beneath, including this mysterious mound that may be a sign of ancient civilization in the Honduras rainforest.
UTL Scientific, LLC

Deep in the dense rain forests of Honduras, a glittering white city sits in ruins, waiting for discovery. The inhabitants there once ate off plates of gold; the metropolis was, perhaps, the birthplace of a god. A recent high-tech survey of the region by air reveals possible pyramids and other structures. Has the lost city of Ciudad Blanca been found? Or did it ever exist at all?

Probably not, according to archaeologists and anthropologists, who generally agree there was once something in the eastern Honduras rain forest — though likely not a city of mythical wealth and luxury. In fact, the legend of this ancient city may be a relatively new one, said John Hoopes, an archaeologist and specialist in southern Central American cultures at the University of Kansas.

"I think the media is contributing to the growth of a legend," Hoopes, who was not involved in the ruins' discovery, told LiveScience. "And it's one that has really yet to be shown to have any basis at all in the scientific reality." (20 Mythical Worlds: Science Fact or Fantasy?)

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The legend could be dangerous, Hoopes warned: If people become convinced that a gold-laden city is hiding in the Honduran rain forest, it could encourage looting, he said, damaging the real archaeological sites that no doubt lurk among the tropical vegetation.

On the other hand, a legend that spurs conservation could be exactly what this threatened region needs.

A lost city, or simply a myth?

The legend of Ciudad Blanca arose from fragments and snippets of stories. In the 1520s, conquistador Hernan Cortes wrote to the Spanish Emperor Charles V of a reported wealthy province called Hueitapalan in the region. In 1544, another Spaniard, Cristobal de Pedraza, the Bishop of Honduras, claimed to have glimpsed a white city in his travels; he later wrote that his guides told him the inhabitants of the city ate from gold plates, so great was their wealth.

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But only in the last century did the myth of the white city gain steam. Expeditions in the 1930s exploring the remote Mosquitia region where the legendary city supposedly sits turned up local rumors of lost cities, but no actual evidence. Perhaps the most detailed "discovery" of Ciudad Blanca appeared in 1940, when an adventurer named Theodore Morde claimed to have found extensive ruins deep in the jungle. Morde claimed that his guides told him tales of a temple dedicated to the worship of a monkey god. Today, Ciudad Blanca is also sometimes cited as the birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, despite that fact that the Mosquitia region is far from the former Aztec empire in what is today Mexico.

Unfortunately, Morde never revealed the location of his supposed discovery before his death by suicide in 1954. The death spawned conspiracy theories but no answers as to the legend of the lost city.

"It's all a bunch of little stories, and they sort of change depending who you're talking to," said Steve Elkins, a documentary filmmaker whose quest for ruins in the Mosquitia region has spurred the latest round of Ciudad Blanca fever.