Archaeologists unearth mysterious jungle city

Postcards from lost cities: Four great settlements that were abandoned and later unearthed.

Discovered deep in the rainforest of Central America: a ‘lost city’ abandoned by a mysterious civilisation. Should people be kept away from the site to protect its uniqueness?

Humans have scaled the highest mountains, plumbed the depths of oceans and even left the planet’s atmosphere for space and the moon. Yet there are still huge discoveries to be made here on Earth about the human world. In the jungle of Honduras, at a location only accessible by helicopter, boat or several days’ trekking, archaeologists have found an ancient city. A millennium ago, this settlement was home to people from an unknown culture. Their civilisation was lost — until now.

A team of Americans and Hondurans set out into the Mosquitia jungle, a vast region of swamps, mountains and valleys in the remote north-east of Honduras. They were searching for the fabled ‘White City’ or ‘City of the Monkey God’, a quest Western explorers have been making since the days of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.

The inhabitants of this lost city were contemporaries of the classical Maya civilisation. However, unlike the Maya, almost nothing is known about the people of the White City. They do not even have a name.

‘It shows that even now, well into the 21st century, there is so much to discover about our world,’ says Christopher Fischer, the lead archaeologist on the expedition. His team found extensive plazas, earthworks, mounds and even an earthen pyramid. All this had lain untouched since the city was abandoned.

While hardly anything is known for certain about this culture, there have been plenty of rumours: explorers have told tales of the white ramparts of a lost city glimpsed above the tangle of the jungle, while indigenous legends speak of a ‘white house’ where natives took refuge from European conquerors.

And yet, despite this amazing discovery, the exact location of the city is not being revealed. This is to protect it from being looted and from human contact destroying the uniqueness of the site, which lies in the most undisturbed section of rainforest in Central America.

Heart of Darkness

Some say it is quite wrong for the site to remain off-limits. History is the world’s property, not the preserve of a few academics. Being able to visit such a place is crucial for the world to gain a greater understanding of this lost civilisation. Tourism, properly managed, does not have to come at the cost of authenticity.

On the contrary, say many historians: excessive human contact can have devastating effects on historical sites. Rampant tourism has wrought much damage on sites like Machu Picchu, while several important Islamic sites in Saudi Arabia have been lost due to the sheer number of pilgrims who travel there each year. For the preservation of global heritage sites, humans, those great interferers, must be kept as far away as possible.

You Decide

  1. Should tourists be allowed to visit the discovered city?
  2. Do lost civilisations have anything to teach us about the modern world?

Activities

  1. As a class, imagine you are the government of a country where a lost city has been discovered. Hold a debate on what should be done with it. Will you open it up to tourism or keep it a secret?
  2. Why do civilisations decline? Choose an example from history and write a plan for an essay answering this question.

Some People Say...

“Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.”

Frank Borman

What do you think?

Q & A

How can a civilisation that existed 1000 years ago have any relevance today?
Lots of our culture today originates from ancient civilisations. In Europe the Greeks and Romans made enormous strides in science, language and art. In South America, the Incas invented several intricate musical instruments. Who knows — perhaps this particular lost civilisation was much more advanced than many thought.
Surely there aren’t many truly unexplored areas left in the world?
You’d be surprised! While the age of discovering whole islands and continents is long gone, there are still areas of the world we know very little about. Rainforests are particularly unexplored. For example, in the jungle of Papua New Guinea there remain whole tribes who have never had any contact with the outside world.

Word Watch

Honduras
A country in Central America of around eight million people. The capital is Tegucigalpa. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world (by a large margin according to the UN).
Conquistadors
Meaning ‘conquerors’, this is a term to refer to the soldiers and explorers of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires in a colonial sense. The most famous conquistador was Hernan Cortes, whose forces conquered much of Mexico.
Maya
A Central American (or Mesoamerican) civilisation noted for developing the only fully-developed writing system of the era before European colonisation. The Mayan heartland extended over southern Mexico and northern Central America.
Pyramid
Many ancient cultures built pyramid-like structures: there are the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, Teotihuacan in the area that is now Mexico, and several ancient pyramids in South-East Asia. Even some modern skyscrapers — such as the Shard in London — have pyramid-like features.
Machu Picchu
A 15th century Inca site located high in the Andes mountain range. It is the most famous icon of the Inca civilisation and is visited by around half a million people each year.

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