Thursday, June 14, 2012

City of Gold Discovered

A team of scientists using advanced laser mapping have detailed a remote region of Honduras that may have revealed the legendary lost city of Ciudad Blanca, known as the 'White City' of gold.

Researchers from the University of Houston and the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM) flew over the Mosquitia region in a small plane shooting billions of laser pulses at the ground to create a 3D digital map of the topology beneath the jungle canopy.
Compiling their data, the analysts revealed what appears to be man-made elevation changes that are thought to show a forgotten city plaza dotted with pyramids reclaimed by the jungle.
The University of Houston and National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping team produced this 3D digital topological map which when examined shows a man-made plaza ringed in red
The University of Houston and National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping team produced this 3D digital topological map which when examined shows a man-made plaza ringed in red
According to legend, Ciudad Blanca or the 'White City' is full of gold and has been sought out by explorers and treasure hunters since conquistador Hernando Cortes first made reference to it in a 1526 letter to King Charles V of Spain.

Inspired by this legend, cinematographer and Ciudad Blanca enthusiast Steven Elkins sought backing from private investors to pay for the team at NCLAM to use their laser mapping technology to chart the forest floor of Mosquitia.


Over the course of a week, the NCALM and University of Houston engineers flew over 60 square miles of forest in their dual-engine Cessna planes.
And at the end of each day, the data was transferred to Bill Carter, a University of Houston engineer who works with the NCLAM.
The Mosquitia region of the Honduran jungle mapped by the University of Houston and NCALM team
The Mosquitia region of the Honduran jungle mapped by the University of Houston and NCALM team
He discovered the first indications of what appeared to be man-made structures in the jungle.
'I'm the only person right now on the planet that knows that there's these ruins,' said Carter as he recalled his thoughts when he saw straight lines and right angles on the 3D digital map.
'My wife walked in and looked over my shoulder and she was the second person to know.'

This was one of the first times that laser mapping, specifically light detection and ranging (LiDAR) had been used to locate ancient ruins.
One of the Optech Gemini laser pulse detectors which helped to map the topology of the dense jungle of Honduras' Mosquitia region
One of the Optech Gemini laser pulse detectors which helped to map the topology of the dense jungle of Honduras' Mosquitia region
The original uses of the technology were to provide intelligence after earthquakes, military spying and for river erosion detection.
Dr. William Carter who interpreted the data from the LiDAR devices used by the NCALM and the University of Houston
Dr. William Carter who interpreted the data from the LiDAR devices used by the NCALM and the University of Houston
Flying above the intended target area, LiDAR operates by sending out 100,000 short laser pulses to the ground each second.
The University of Houston and the NCALM team blanketed the Mosquitia rainforest with as many as 25-50 laser pulses every square metre that totaled up as more than four billion shots during the entire project.
Like a high-tech version of sonar, the light beams hit the ground and return to the aircraft and the time taken allows researchers to create 3D digital map of the surrounding topology.
Able to differentiate between differences in height of less than four inches, the University of Houston has worked with the NCALM to develop their LiDAR systems.
Ciudad Blanca has played a central role in Central American mythology.
Text's cite it as the birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and previous reported sightings over the years have described golden idols and elaborately carved white stones, leading to the lost city's name.

However, no confirmation of the existence of the city has ever been provided.
If confirmed, the discovery of Ciudad Blanca would be comparable to the popularisation of forgotten sites such as Machu Picchu, which lay ruined for hundreds of years until reintroduced to western eyes in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham.
Machu Picchu was known locally as a significant archaeological site but it was not until 1911 that it was rediscovered for western tourism
Machu Picchu was known locally as a significant archaeological site but it was not until 1911 that it was rediscovered for western tourism
And if the myth is dispelled, any positive identification of the fabled 'White City' of Ciudad Blanca would reignite hopes of finding the legendary 'Lost City of Gold', El Dorado.
While the news of the encouraging results this week were greeted favourably by Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, archaeologists will now have to undertake a trek through the dense forest to visit the site in person.
Myth: The legend of El Dorado and the 'Lost City of Gold' has obsessed historians and explorers for almost five hundred years
Myth: The legend of El Dorado and the 'Lost City of Gold' has obsessed historians and explorers for almost five hundred years

The pervasive legend of the Ciudad Blanca or White City has captured the public's imagination in Honduras and around the world.



The legend of the fabulous lost city of Honduras was first recorded by Hernan Cortes who, in 1526, less than five years after vanquishing the Aztecs, came to the colonial town of Trujillo, on the north coast of Honduras, to regain control of one of his subordinates. He also mentions a mythical city of Hueitapalan, literally, Old Land of Red Earth. This early mention of a mythical city marks the first of a series of conflated and confused legends that gave birth to the modern legend of the Ciudad Blanca. There is no evidence that Cortes thought Huetlapalan existed in eastern Honduras or ever made any effort to find this lost city.

Nearly twenty years later, in the year 1544, Bishop Cristobol de Pedraza, the Bishop of Honduras, wrote a letter to the King of Spain describing an arduous trip to the edge of the Mosquito Coast jungles. In fantastic language, he tells of looking east from a mountaintop into unexplored territory, where he saw a large city in one of the river valleys that cut through the Mosquito Coast. His guides, he wrote, assured him that the nobles there ate from plates of gold.

Since then, the legend has continued to grow.  The White City has often been linked to Central American mythology; for example, it has sometimes been credited as the birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.  Moreover, jungle travelers including hunters and pilots have occasionally reported sightings of a large city lost in the jungle. Some of these reports mention golden idols; others comment on the elaborately-carved white stones that give the city its name.

Several expeditions were launched to find the city, and some thought they did. In 1939, for example, explorer Theodore Morde who may have had ties to the OSS supposedly found the lost city, and later wrote the bizarre travelogue Lost City of the Monkey God just before being run over by an automobile in London, England. Later adventurers have suspected sinister motives in his untimely death, and have argued that the U.S. Government or other forces were trying to silence him in order to retain this incredible find for themselves. Recently, a some non-archaeological experts have claimed to have found the White City, joining a long line of people making the same claim.

Professional archaeologists in the area remain skeptical of these claims for a number of reasons; nevertheless, since the 1940s, announcements of expeditions to find the lost city have peppered Honduran and U.S. papers. Every time it seems the White City has been found, events conspire to conceal its location before its existence is verified. Thus, periodic reports of its discovery have not slowed the search.

Local Indian groups have different versions of the lost city legend. Most of these prohibit entry into the lost city, and some focus on the alienation of indigenous gods who have sought refuge in the sacred city, which is not so much lost as hidden.

Recently, relatively large-scale archaeological projects have been undertaken in the region for the first time. The discovery of some large, impressive archaeological sites in the jungles of the Mosquito Coast fueled an initiative by the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History to explore this region. Word spread quickly to the treasure hunting community, fueled in part by the contemporaneous development of the internet. With the subject discussed on websites and list servers, the furor surrounding the White City reached unprecedented proportions in the last few years. Most recently, a documentary with Dr. Begley and the actor Ewan McGregor was produced and widely aired, highlighting the archaeology and rugged conditions of the region.

Dr. Begley recently published a paper on the White City legend, presented on the legend at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in 2012, and will appear in an upcoming book about the legend by writer Christopher S. Stewart, tentatively titled Jungleland, which should be published in early 2013.

Dr. Begley suggests the following questions be asked of anybody who claims to have found the lost city. First, which version of the legend are you using as a guide? The indigenous legends are very different from the popular versions you hear today. Second, what features of your discovery make you think it is THE lost city? None of the legends have any characteristics, traits, or identifying attributes of the Ciudad Blanca. How, then, can you claim to have found it? Just because it is a large site? Third, are you sure your 'discovery' is not already well known to locals, and possibly even archaeologists? Do you have access to a list of all documented archaeological sites in the region and are sure this is not one of those?


 The Legend of El Dorado

Around 1541, less than half a century after Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas, rumors began to spread among European explorers in South America that somewhere in the hinterland of the vast continent lay a fabulous golden kingdom with riches far greater even than the great treasures of gold and silver Hernan Cortés and Francisco Pizarro had been able to extract from the Aztec and Incan empires of Mexico and Peru during the 1520s and 1530s. For the remainder of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spanish, German, and English soldiers of fortune led expeditions through the jungles and mountains of South America, each hoping to be the first to find and conquer “El Dorado” (The Golden One), an Indian chief so rich that he clothed himself only with gold dust. All the expeditions failed, none able to find a golden chief, his wondrous kingdom, or a lake holding the great quantities of golden offerings which the legend promised. Today the legend of El Dorado is largely regarded as an unfortunate myth, a symbol of the greed that spurred Spanish conquistadors and other European explorers to conquer the land and aboriginal peoples of South America in their mad search for precious metals and easy wealth.
There is some debate among historians concerning the exact origin of the legend of El Dorado. The Spanish conquistadors Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and Sebastián Benalcázar as well as the German explorer Nicolaus Federmann each claimed in their memoirs to have been searching for El Dorado when they converged near present-day Bogatá in the late 1530s; however, the first written description of the legend comes from the Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, who wrote in 1541 in his Historia General y Natural de las Indias, Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Oceano of a story he had heard from the Muisca Indians of Columbia telling of a native leader who each morning had gold dust applied to his entire body, which he washed off each night before sleeping. Although de Oviedo could not confirm the veracity of this story of the chief he dubbed “El Dorado,” he reasoned that it was certainly plausible, considering the enormous quantities of gold that had been found in the previous two decades in Mexico and Peru. The following year another historian, Pedro de Cieza de León, recorded a variation of the El Dorado legend based on stories an expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro had heard from the Quijos Indians. They told of a valley east of the Andes Mountains, where gold was so plentiful that natives commonly wore the metal as ornaments. The legend took on further dimensions in 1589, when Juan de Castellanos published his Elejias de Varones Ilustres de Indias, which claimed that Benalcázar had been told by a native of Bogatá of an Indian chief who regularly performed a sacred ceremony in which he threw golden treasures to the bottom of a lake. Subsequent seventeenth-century Spanish accounts, including Fray Pedro Simón's 1627 Noticias Historiales de las Conquistas de Tierra Firme en las Indias Occidentales and Juan Rodríguez Fresle's 1636 El Carnero de Bogatá: Conquista y descubrimiento del Nuevo Reino de Grenada continued to elaborate the association of El Dorado with a ceremony involving a lake, most commonly identified as Lake Guatavita, a circular lake near the highlands of Bogatá. Twice in the sixteenth century and again in 1801 and 1898, Spanish, French, and British treasure hunters attempted to drain Lake Guatavita in hopes of finding great treasures at the bottom of the lake; besides a few tantalizing finds, these attempts always ended in bankruptcy.
For much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, lured on by the many variations of the legend, numerous expeditions marched over the high mountains and vast jungles of South America, each hoping to be the first to lay claim to the riches of El Dorado. Gonzalo Pizarro, Gonzalo Pérez de Quesada, Pedro de Ursúa, Pedro Maraver de Silva, and Antonio de Berrío led some of the most famous Spanish explorations for the legendary kingdom, nearly all ending in disaster as countless men died as the result of disease, hunger, and clashes with hostile natives. Spaniards, of course, were not the only Europeans who hungered to find El Dorado. The Germans Philip von Hutten and Nicolaus Federmann each vainly sought after El Dorado, as did the English explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, whose 1595 Discoverie of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the Great and Golden Citie of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado) and 1618 Sir Walter Raghleys Large Appologie for the ill successe of his enterprise to Guiana are among the few first-hand accounts published in English that expound the legend of El Dorado. Like so many of the Spanish and German explorers before him, Raleigh's attempt to locate El Dorado cost him his life; he was executed in 1618 after a second unsuccessful voyage to Guiana in search of the land of gold yielded little.

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