Ancient City Discovered in Remote Honduras Jungle

A man carries bananas as he crosses a river in southern Honduras. Edgard Garrido/Reuters

Deep in the Honduran jungle, in the La Mosquitia valley area, a team of archaeologists has unearthed evidence of a lost city, including an effigy of a half-human, half-jaguar spirit, a plaza and a pyramid, National Geographic reports.

The "City of the Monkey God" had been thought but a myth until a 2012 aerial survey of the valley and a probe of the densely forested region with a laser light detected signs of potential ruins. Researchers on the expedition believe humans haven't been in the area for at least 600 years, because the animals in the region acted "as if they'd never seen people," lead archaeologist Chris Fisher, a researcher from Colorado State University, said in an interview with The Guardian.

The expedition is being helmed by a documentary filmmaker team, Steve Elkins and Bill Benenson, who flew into the remote area via helicopter intent on finding the city. They had used the surveying technology Lidar, which uses infrared beams to allow views of what's inside the thick forest.

Once they arrived, the archaeologists were stunned to find remnants of a past human society, complete with fields of crops, paved roads and houses. Additionally, researchers found 52 distinctive artifacts, including stone sculptures carved in intricate designs bearing snakes and vultures.

The most compelling artifact is what archaeologists are calling a "were-jaguar," a half-human entity that could possibly be a shaman transcending into a spiritual state. Or, it could be an object used in pre-Columbian ball games, given that it is wearing a helmet-like object on its head.

Who were these people? Archaeologists estimate that the city dates to between 1000 A.D. and 1400 A.D., and while the inhabitants could bear a resemblance to their neighbors—the Maya—they've never been studied before, and researchers are stumped on even coming up with a name for them, according to National Geographic.

Researchers are attempting to nail down who they were and how they disappeared from the region; Fisher believes it's possible that diseases from Europe were partially responsible, but it's unclear so far.

It's unknown, too, if this was the "Monkey God" city or the "White City," as it was sometimes referred to. For about 100 years local tales circulated regarding a lost city, a "place of cacao" or a "white house" where the inhabitants found sanctuary from conquistadores. Past searches for the mysterious city proved fruitless; the wily Theodore Morde, an explorer, once claimed to have found the city and bore many artifacts said to be from there, but refused to say where the city was located. Morde committed suicide shortly afterward.

Archaeologists still have much to explore at the site, and while they didn't have the correct permit to allow excavation at the time, they hope to in the future. For now, the exact location of the site remains under wraps to protect it from potential looting--and because it's in the least touched forest in Central America, it's considered highly important to keep the area pristine.

The scientists do face an imminent danger, however: deforestation. Many wooded regions such as this are being turned into farms fashioned to help meet the worldwide demand for Honduras's beef.