Lost City Discovered High Up in Remote Colombian Mountains

Researchers have discovered a previously unknown lost city in Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta—an isolated and difficult-to-access mountain range which hugs the country's Caribbean coast.

The ancient settlement lies atop a steep ridge roughly 5,000 feet above sea level and is hidden by dense forest. It was was likely founded around 800 A.D. and abandoned during the Spanish conquest of South America, according to the team responsible for the discovery.

National Geographic explorer Albert Lin and archaeologist Santiago Giraldo—who has been conducting research in the region for 20 years—uncovered the ancient city using a revolutionary imaging technology known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), which essentially lets you "see through" vegetation.

LiDAR fires hundreds of thousands of laser pulses towards the ground per second from instruments fitted onto aircraft, such as drones and helicopters. This enables the creation of detailed 3D maps that reveal the topography of the land and any ancient man-made features that are not normally visible with human eyes.

The researchers say the settlement was built by the Tairona, a mysterious civilization that once extended across parts of the Caribbean coast and the Sierra Nevada mountains—which reach an altitude of around 18,700 feet at their highest point.

Not much is known about the Tairona, but these people are documented in records made by Spanish invaders—who became fascinated by the intricate gold ornaments that the natives wore after arriving on South America's Caribbean coast at the beginning of the 16th century.

Now, modern technology is providing archaeologists with fascinating new insights into the Tairona and the extent of their influence in this mountainous region.

"It's really one of those things where you don't always expect to find a lost city, but then sometimes if everything lines up just right, that can happen," Lin told Newsweek.

"We were in a part of Colombia where there is a dramatic change of elevation. It goes from basically sea level, to the height of the base camp of Mount Everest within not that many miles," he said. "And as you move up that valley, you get further and further up into the world of this people that were known as the Tairona."

Archaeologists have been spent decades exploring the area to find out more about the people who lived here more than 500 years ago. In fact, the newly discovered settlement was found close to another famous Tairona archaeological site known as "Ciudad Perdida" which was built around 600 A.D.

The city—which likely once had a population of between two and three thousand at its peak (with around 10,000 living in the surrounding area)—was discovered in 1972 by looters who, like the Spanish conquistadors hundreds of years before them, were searching for gold and other treasures.

"[Ciudad Perdida] is just unbelievable," Lin said. "A series of plateaus that look like they're literally popping out of the sky, encapsulated by the most dense jungle you've ever seen in a very, very steep mountain terrain. Then you realize quickly that there is a series of tracks going off in every direction, almost like little pathways and roads," he said.

Ciudad Perdida is a spectacular feat of engineering in its own right boasting an in-built gutter system which, to this day, protects the infrastructure from the vast amounts of rain that the region receives—around 12 feet every year. But at the entrance to the city lies a clue indicating that there may be much more hidden beneath the thick forest canopy of the surrounding area than meets the eye.

Colombia, Sierra Nevada, lost city
Albert Lin and Santiago Giraldo searching for the lost city. National Geographic

This clue is the mysterious "map stone"—a large slab of rock containing various markings which archaeologists think delineate the countless paths that make their way out of Ciudad Perdida into the surrounding areas.

The existence of the map stone and the extensive network of paths has fueled speculation for many years that there are other hidden settlements near Ciudad Perdida. But the steepness of the terrain, the thickness of the jungle and the remoteness of the location—as well as the fact that the area has long been a hub for FARC guerrillas and drug gangs—has hindered any real exploration. In situations such as these, technologies such as LiDAR can prove to be particularly useful.

"So we strapped three different LiDAR sensors on a helicopter, pointed in a bunch of different directions and flew paths up and down those valleys looking for where those tracks led to," Lin said.

The sensors are pointed in different directions to maximize the chance that some of the laser beams will penetrate through the forest canopy to the ground. Using the billions of laser points generated by the LiDAR survey, the team were then able to create a digital 3D model of the area around Ciudad Perdida, revealing never-before-seen man-made plateaus built into the mountains.

After identifying these plateaus, the crew decided to investigate one particularly promising site on foot, accompanied by a Colombian military escort. This was no easy task requiring a grueling 32-mile round-trip trek through the steep, dense forest.

After several encounters with poisonous snakes and scorpions, Lin and Giraldo eventually made it to the target plateau, where they found several pieces of pottery, terracing and stonework, confirming the location of a previously unknown ancient city.

"We hike straight up basically a jungle wall for hours upon hours until we finally made it to where the digital map that we created using lasers was pointing," Lin said. "And sure enough, right there, little plateaus, and at the very top, we started to find pottery just percolating out of the ground. Evidence of a whole city left untouched and un-looted."

"That moment of discovery, where you you come across the plateau that you're looking for, and you see these stone steps just emerging out of the undergrowth, and you reach down and you see somebody's fingerprint embedded on a piece of clay from hundreds of years ago, you can't recreate that, it was amazing," he said.

Lin suggests that this finding is just the beginning. In fact, the researchers have now identified a further six sites which could be the locations of ancient settlements, indicating that the Tairona's reach across this region extended further than previously thought.

"We are in this totally new age of exploration with technologies, such as LiDAR, which are allowing us to look for these hidden stories in our past in completely new ways," Lin said.

The Tairona are renowned for their exceptional skills when it came to working with gold. However, their relationship to the precious metal was very different to that of the Spanish invaders, whose intense lust for gold stemmed from its material value.

"For the Tairona it wasn't about the [value of] the gold. It was about their connection to the Earth," Lin said. "Each part of the Earth or each part of nature was its own deity. So to them, the Spaniards were basically coming and taking away the soul of the earth by taking away these metals."

"The Tairona figured out this unbelievably sophisticated approach to gold plating, so most of their jewellery and pieces were actually mostly [made of] other materials with a little bit of gold plating," he said.

The Tairona were also known to be fierce warriors who resisted colonization by the Spanish for some time despite the superior weaponry of the invaders. However, the growth of Spanish influence over time forced significant numbers to flee deeper into the mountains and by around the mid-17th century, many Tairona settlements had been abandoned.

Nevertheless, the culture of the Tairona still survives to this day among several indigenous groups living in the Sierra Nevada region who are thought to be descendants of the ancient civilization.

"Lost Cities with Albert Lin" airs Sundays on National Geographic.