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La Ciudad Blanca (pronounced: [la sjuˈðad ˈblɑnkɑ], Spanish for "The White City") is a legendary settlement said to be located in the Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras. This extensive area of virgin rainforest has been the object of study for many people. Archaeologists refer to it as the Isthmo-Colombian Area of the Americas. Due to the many variants of the story as well as the lack of correspondence with current knowledge of the region, most professional archaeologists doubt it refers to an actual city of the Pre-Columbian era.
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés reported hearing "trustworthy" information on a region with "towns and villages" of extreme wealth in Honduras, but never located these. In 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh reported seeing a "white city" while flying over eastern Honduras. By the 1930s, there were rumors of a place in Honduras called the "City of the Monkey God" and in 1940 adventurer Theodore Morde claimed to have found it. However, he never provided a precise location for the site, one that later sources equated with Ciudad Blanca. Morde died before returning to the region to undertake further exploration. Explorer Tibor Sekelj searched for The White City in 1952. His small, unsuccessful, expedition was financed by the Ministry of Culture of Honduras.
Interest in Ciudad Blanca grew in the 1990s as numerous explorers searched for it and news of archeological work in the area was chronicled in popular media. In 2009, author Christopher Stewart attempted to retrace the steps of Morde, with the help of archaeologist Christopher Begley. His book about the search, Jungleland, was published in 2013. In May 2012, press releases issued by a team led by documentary film maker Steve Elkins and by the Honduran government about remote sensing exploration using LiDAR renewed interest in the legend, and the news media asserted that Ciudad Blanca had been found. The association was quickly criticized by archeologist Rosemary Joyce as "hype". In May 2013, additional press releases explained how additional LiDAR analysis had identified large architectural features under the forest canopy. As a result, assertions that Ciudad Blanca had been found appeared again in the popular press.
Hundreds of archeological sites have been discovered and documented in Mosquitia during the last century as amateurs and professionals searched the area. However, only a few have been systematically mapped and scientifically investigated so far. The legend of Ciudad Blanca, a popular element of folklore in Honduras, has been the subject of multiple films and books.
La Ciudad Blanca is said to be located in la Mosquitia, reportedly in or near the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, a protected World Heritage Site located in Gracias a Dios, Honduras in what archaeologists refer to as the Isthmo-Colombian Area. La Mosquitia is a 32,000 square mile stretch of dense forest spanning the Honduras-Nicaragua border. The ecology of this region is primarily a rainforest habitat. Mosquitia is occupied by several different indigenous peoples including the Pech, Miskito, Miskito Sambu, and Tawakha, as well as mestizo populations and those of European and East or South Asian ancestry. The Pech (at one time referred to as Paya) "trace their ancestry to Chilmeca in the Plátano headwaters, near the legendary and lost 'Ciudad Blanca'."
The city's name may derive from the carved white stones it is said to contain or from observations of exposed limestone. Popular versions of the legend claim it was a city of great wealth, while indigenous people of Honduras talk about a city that cannot be entered and (in some versions) is the hiding place of their gods who retreated from the Spanish invaders. Accounts of Ciudad Blanca include allusions to the legend of El Dorado.
Often attempts are made to tie Ciudad Blanca to Central American mythology. For example, popular media accounts sometimes assert that it was the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl. Archaeologist Chris Begley of Transylvania University says such references to mythology were added as "the legend has continued to grow."
The precise origin of the Ciudad Blanca legend is unclear. Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés is often cited as the earliest reference to the story, but he actually never mentioned a "white city" and his geographical references are vague. Begley suggests that elements of the legend probably originated with preexisting Pech and Tawahka stories and that those were conflated with Spanish fables from the time of the Spanish Conquest.
Around 1520, Cortés received "trustworthy reports of a very extensive and rich provinces, and of powerful chiefs ruling over them". For example, Cortés made inquiries about a place called Hueitlapatlán, also known as Xucutaco (written Axucutaco in one copy of Cortés' letters) for six years. In 1526, he wrote to Spanish Emperor Charles V detailing what he had learned. "So wonderful are the reports about this particular province," he wrote, "that even allowing largely for exaggeration, it will exceed Mexico in riches, and equal it in the largeness of its towns and villages, the density of its population, and the policy of its inhabitants." According to Cortés, this place was located "between fifty and sixty leagues" (around 130–55 miles/210–50 km) from Trujillo. Although it is often assumed that Cortés and other conquistadors searched for it, there is no record of such attempts and it was never located.
The publication by Lord Kingsborough of his nine-volume Antiquities of Mexico beginning in 1830 aroused significant interest in cultures of the Pre-Columbian era in Mexico and Central America, contributing to a legacy of romantic speculation about "lost cities" in Latin America that persists to this day. In 1839, just a year after Honduras became an independent and sovereign state, attorney, explorer, and travel writer John Lloyd Stephens visited the remains of Copán, a Maya site in Honduras, as well as dozens of ruins in Central America and Mexico. When he described his discoveries in the best-selling, two-volume Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán, with illustrations by his partner Frederick Catherwood, the public's imagination was ignited. However, early scholars tended to ignore the cultures of the challenging Mosquitia region and little exploration was undertaken. Even so, rumors of lost cities persisted.
In the United States, speculation about Lost Tribes and other connections between the Bible and the Americas, especially as recounted in the Book of Mormon, and the popularity of the Lost World genre of fantasy literature ignited the public imagination. Many people presumed under the Manifest Destiny that the ruins of Mexico and Central America would eventually become the property of the United States.
The earliest mention of the "White City" appears to have been made by pilot Charles Lindbergh, who is said to have reported ruins he saw while flying over Honduras in 1927. However, author Jason Colavito notes, "So far as I know, Lindbergh’s 1927 claim is where many believe the name Ciudad Blanca comes from, but even this isn’t certain since this legend saw print only in the 1950s, some three decades after the fact." Lindbergh is said to have described it as "an amazing ancient metropolis." However, according to Colavito, "The oft-quoted phase 'an amazing ancient metropolis,' attributed in the recent book Jungleland to Lindbergh, is actually another author’s paraphrase of a third author’s 1958 claim."
In 1933, archaeologist William Duncan Strong explored Honduras for the Smithsonian Institution, concentrating on the Bay Islands and northeastern part of the mainland. In his 1935 report on the expedition, Strong reports that "the famed 'White City' of the Paya" is said to reside in the upper Plátano region, according to "local tradition". According to Strong, art historian Herbert Spinden, who visited the area in 1925, "does not describe any ruins but mentions the occurrence of stone bowls with animal and bird heads, and great metates and slabs similar to those at Mercedes in Costa Rica."
Also in 1933, Honduran president Tiburcio Carías sponsored the first expedition of the National Museum of Honduras. The government was planning to open Mosquitia to colonization and wanted to perform an ethnological study of the indigenous peoples before their way of life was disturbed. They contracted with Museum of the American Indian founder George Gustav Heye to perform the study. Explorer R. Stuart Murray was hired to lead the expedition. He brought back a few artifacts, and a rumor of "a great ruin, overrun by dense jungle." "There's supposedly a lost city... which the Indians call the City of the Monkey God", he reported. "They are afraid to go near it for they believe that any one who approaches it will, within the month, be killed by the bite of a poisonous snake." A return trip to complete the study and search for the city was held in 1934, but did not find it.
After 1940, announcements of "finding" Ciudad Blanca have frequently appeared in Honduran and American newspapers. However, it is not mentioned in the 1941 Archaeology of the North Coast of Honduras, a major synthesis of the region's archaeology by Doris Stone.
In 1940, Heye hired American adventurer and future spy Theodore Morde to perform a third expedition. The goal of the expedition was to further study the local indigenous people, explore archaeological sites, chart the upper reaches of the Wampú River, and search for a rumored "lost city."
After four months, Morde and his colleague Laurence C. Brown reported having made a great find, which included ancient razor blades. "'City of the Monkey God' is believed located: Expedition reports success in Honduras expedition" read the headline of the New York Times. According to the letter Morde sent home, the "city" was located in "an almost inaccessible area between the Paulaya and Plátano Rivers." Morde and Brown described their find as the capital of an agricultural civilization of the Chorotega people.
When he returned to the states, Morde described traveling miles through swamps, up rivers, and over mountains before coming across ruins that he interpreted as the remains of a walled city. In an article for The American Weekly, a Sunday magazine tabloid edited by fantasy fiction author A. Merritt, he claimed to have evidence of large, ruined buildings. He said that his Paya guides told him that there once was a temple with a large staircase leading to a statue of a "Monkey God." Morde speculated that the deity was an American parallel to the Hindu deity Hanuman, who he says "was the equivalent of America's own Paul Bunyan in his amazing feats of strength and daring." According to Morde, he was told that the temple had a “long, staired approach” lined with stone effigies of monkeys. “The heart of the Temple was a high stone dais on which was the statue of the Monkey God himself. Before it was a place of sacrifice.” The steps to the dais were said to have been flanked by immense balustrades. “At the beginning of one was the colossal image of a frog; at the beginning of the other a crocodile.” He also said the guides told him the city had been inhabited by the Chorotegas "a thousand or more years ago".
Morde also related a story about a monkey who had stolen three women with whom it bred, resulting in half-monkey half-human children. He claimed, “The native name for monkey is Urus, which translates literally into ‘sons of the hairy men.’ Their fathers, or fore-fathers, are the Ulaks, half-man and half-spirit, who lived on the ground, walked upright and had the appearance of great hairy ape-men.” According to journalist Wendy Griffin, Nahuat speakers repeated a similar story to anthropologist James Taggart many years later. In Morde's version , the hybrid children were hunted for revenge, while in the Nahuat version the child grew up to be Nahuehue, a Thunderbolt god.
Morde and Brown brought back thousands of artifacts, most of which became part of the collection of the Heye Foundation Museum of the American Indian in New York City. These included stone blades, a flute, stone statuary, and stone utensils. Morde and Brown also reported having found evidence of gold, silver, platinum, and oil. The artifacts are now part of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Morde vowed to return to Honduras in January 1941 to undertake further study and excavate the "city," but did not. He died in 1954 from an apparent suicide, never having secured funds to return to the area. He had not revealed the precise location of his supposed discovery, causing later conspiracy theorists to assert that his death was the result of sinister forces. Later authors, including journalists Christopher Stewart and Douglas Preston, have associated Morde's "City of the Monkey God" with Ciudad Blanca.
In 1960, the Honduran government portioned off a 2,000 square mile piece of Mosquitia and called it the Ciudad Blanca Archaeological Reserve. In 1980, UNESCO named it the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. In 1982, it was designated a World Heritage Site.
A 1976 expedition by David Zink and archaeologist Edwin M. Shook was filmed by a television crew. The crew traveled by airplane and helicopter to Mosquitia, where they located ancient mounds over which a local had built his dwelling. They also unearthed several stone monoliths.
Since the 1980s, archeologists including Begley, George Hasemann and Gloria Lara Pinto have explored the area and have documented hundreds of sites, including Crucitas del Río Aner, the largest recorded to date. News of their finds, combined with the ease of spreading information on the Internet, has led to unprecedented interest since the turn of the century.
In the 1990s, explorer Ted Maschal (a.k.a. Ted Danger) undertook various expeditions in search of Ciudad Blanca that were sponsored by an organization he founded called the The Society for the Exploration and Preservation of Honduras (SEPH). His principal interest was in tracing evidence for a historical basis of the myth of Quetzalcoatl and for a Nahuatl presence in the region. It was his conclusion that architectural remains in the region had been built by people of the Pipil culture. Together with Francis Yakam-Simen, Edmond Nezry, and James Ewing, Maschal used the remote sensing method of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images to "identify and locate the lost city" in thick vegetation. They also used "radargrammetric techniques" to produce a digital elevation model (DEM) of the study area and to combine various data sources "to allow visual interpretation of the remnants of Ciudad Blanca by visual photo interpretation". This work sought to "guide a group expedition in the future", but an expedition was not completed.
In 2009, journalist Christopher Stewart, accompanied by archaeologist Christopher Begley (who had written his doctoral dissertation about the archaeology of the region and knew it well), undertook an expedition as the basis of for a book, published as Jungleland (2012), in which he sought to retrace the explorations by Morde. Using Morde's journals as a guide, Stewart and Begley visited a number of archaeological sites in the region. However, they could not be sure they followed Morde's path exactly, and thus were unsure if what they found was what Morde claimed to have seen.
During the 1990s, documentary film maker Steve Elkins became fascinated by the legend and made multiple trips into the Honduran rain forests in search of a "lost city", but did not find it. In 2009, he learned that a team led by archaeologists Arlen and Diane Chase of the University of Central Florida used LiDAR to map a 200 square kilometres (20,000 ha) area covering most of the Vaca Plateau in Belize that includes the ruins of Caracol, a Maya site located in a dense rainforest. LiDAR mapping revealed that approximately 90% of the site's remains had not been identified by conventional ground survey and revealed large structures, roads, reservoirs, and even looted tombs. The mapping was funded by NASA and the data was collected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM), a research center for airborne scientific LiDAR mapping. Ramesh Shrestha, director of NCALM, and William Carter, a co-principal investigator there, are assisting the project. NCLAM is operated in partnership with personnel from University of Houston and the University of California, Berkeley.
Elkins teamed with film maker Bill Benenson to found UTL ("Under the LiDAR") Productions LLC to fund the mapping, later ground searches, and film production focused on discovering settlements in the region where Ciudad Blanca is supposedly located in eastern Honduras. Over seven days in 2012, they flew a Cessna 337 Skymaster carrying LiDAR equipment over four target areas. The LiDAR data, merged with GPS data, was originally interpreted by Carter, who said: "I don't think it took me more than five minutes to see something that looked like a pyramid." He believed that the images showed some pillars, several pyramid-like mounds, and possible human-altered terrain.
When he learned of the find, Áfrico Madrid, the Minister of Interior, informed Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa that he believed Ciudad Blanca had been located. According to Preston, both of them "credited the hand of God", with Madrid remarking: "There are no coincidences...I think that God has extraordinary plans for our country, and Ciudada Blanca could be one of them." On May 15, 2012, Elkins and Juan Carlos Fernandez Díaz, the Honduran LiDAR operator, presented their results live on Honduran television. They qualified their announcement by describing their find as "what appears to be evidence of archaeological ruins in an area long rumored to contain the lost of Ciudad Blanca", but reports in mainstream media announced the city had been found.
Some archaeologists quickly criticized the announcement. Rosemary Joyce, a Mesoamerican specialist and expert on Honduran archaeology from UC Berkeley, called it "big hype" and "bad archaeology". She said: "This is at least the fifth time someone's announced that they've found the White City...there is no White City. The White City is a myth. I'm quite biased against this group of people because they are adventurers and not archeologists. They're after spectacle." However, she confirmed that the images did show what appeared to be archaeological features and remarked there were what seemed to be: "...three major clusters of larger structures, a plaza, a public space par excellence, and a possible ball court, and many house mounds." Preston noted: "She guessed that the site dated from the late- or post-classic period, between 500 and 1000 AD."
In May 2013, Elkins' team announced additional details based on further analysis of the LiDAR data, and news media once again promoted the legend of a "lost city".
The UTL team has not disclosed the exact location of the find due to fears of looting, but has released images that show what appears to be a network of plazas and pyramids. The team had planned to do further exploration by helicopter and ground exploration in the fall of 2013. The expeditions were to be filmed by Elkins for a planned documentary.
Archaeological interpretations of Ciudad Blanca are practically nonexistent. Ciudad Blanca is not mentioned in academic syntheses of Honduran archaeology or Begley's 1999 dissertation on the archaeology of the region. Stories about spotting la Ciudad Blanca from a distance are common in Honduras today. Archaeologist Gordon Willey suggested that people were misinterpreting white limestone cliffs as architecture.
In 1994, George Hasemann, former head of the Archaeology Section of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH), said the 200 or so known archeological sites in Mosquitia may have been part of a single political system dominated by a "huge primate center," meaning a single settlement many orders of magnitude larger than others, that has not yet been identified. Hasemann, referring to archaeological remains of settlements as well as the tales told about them, told a journalist that there might be multiple "ciudades blancas" in Mosquitia.
There have been multiple claims of the discovery of Ciudad Blanca. "Every ten years or so, somebody finds it," says Begley. Most professional archaeologists remain skeptical that the various legends surrounding Ciudad Blanca refer to a specific site. According to Begley, the various version of the legend do not provide "any characteristics, traits, or identifying attributes" making it impossible to say that any given archaeological site is Ciudad Blanca.
In mid-June 2012, archaeologist Christopher Fisher of Colorado State University, a Mesoamerican specialist with expertise in Western Mexico, joined the UTL project. Fisher, who had previously used LiDAR at the Purépecha archaeological site of Angamuco in Michoacán, Mexico, spent six months analyzing Elkins's data. In December, he presented his findings to the team. "There is a big city [at T3]," he said. "It's comparable in geographic area to the core of Copán" (about two square miles). He also identified a large city at T1, numerous small sites, and possible a small city at T2. According to Fisher, the sites at T1 and T3 are as large or larger than the biggest previous finds in Mosquitia. "Each of these areas was once a completely modified human environment," he said. Fisher said each of the sites had clear division of space, social stratification, and had roads leading to farms and outskirt settlements but, unlike Copán and Caracol, which were built around a central core, the Mosquitia settlements were more dispersed.
Fisher and geographer Stephen Leisz, both of Colorado State University, presented their findings at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union in May 2013. When asked if Ciudad Blanca had been found, Fisher laughed and said "I don't think there is a single Ciudad Blanca. I think there are many." The legend may hold cultural meaning, he said, but for archeologists it is mostly a distraction.
Archaeologists have come to realize that societies of what is now referred to as the Isthmo-Colombian Area likely cleared huge areas of land and practiced agriculture. Fisher believes the assumed "inhospitable jungle" was probably more like a "tended garden" of numerous crops mingled together around dense housing settlements. Fisher's view is consistent with other recent interpretations of indigenous agriculture in southern Central America.
Indigenous societies of the region built monumental architecture, plazas, and even parallel-sided ballcourts for playing something similar to the Mesoamerican ballgame. These societies probably built their houses and large superstructures from perishable materials such as wattle and daub and thatching with foundations of rounded river cobbles rather than the cut stone and rubble used in large buildings of the Mayas To date, the most extensive archaeological survey of the Department of Gracias a Dios was conducted by Begley, who documented dozens of sites with significant architectural remains. According to Begley, the region's culture was influenced by both the Maya and Nahuat people but the principal pre-Columbian population appears to have been the ancestors of the Pech, a Chibchan-speaking people.
The legend of Ciudad Blanca is widely known in Honduras. In June 2012, Honduran daily newspaper El Heraldo featured a multi-part series on the legend of Ciudad Blanca and archaeological remains in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve.
To the Pech people of Honduras, "the thing that's 'lost' in this lost city isn't the city itself", explains Begley. "It represents a kind of golden age, their lost autonomy, or hope, or opportunity." In a Pech story called the "Patatahua", collected by anthropologist Lazaro Flores, the people of Ciudad Blanca were "allied with the spirits of the great storms" such as the Thundergods.
In 2012, Honduran filmmaker Juan Luís Franconi directed El Xendra, a feature-length science fiction motion picture filmed in Honduras. In the movie, four scientists experience a series of paranormal events that lead them to a place called Ciudad Blanca. The cast included Juan Pablo Olyslager (Carlos), Boris Barraza (Doc), Rocío Carranza (Marcela), and Fabian Sales (Diego). The marketing of the film referenced the 2012 phenomenon with a plot set in January 2013, after the supposed December 21, 2012 "Maya apocalypse."
In his 2013 nonfiction book Jungleland, journalist Christopher Stewart recounts his exploration of the rainforest habitat of Gracias a Dios in search of Ciudad Blanca. Begley helped lead the trip, which took Stewart to a previously documented archaeological site with monumental architecture. The story climaxes when Stewart and Begley arrive at the large ruins, which may or may not have been what Morde found. It ends on a philosophical note. The site cannot possibly be la Ciudad Blanca, Begley explains, "because the White City must always be lost" by definition.
Luis Reyes, Professor and Researcher