Exclusive: Lost City discovered in the Hondurian Rain Forest, part 1

grenzwissenschaft-aktuell.de, 16. Februar 2016

von Andreas Müller

Fotos von Dave Yoder, National Geographic (die Fotos habe ich ein wenig aufgehellt)

Verschollene Stadt in Honduras ist nicht die "Weisse Stadt"

Die Archäologen um Chris Fisher bei den Ausgrabungen in der jetzt als „Stadt des Jaguar“ bezeichneten einstigen Siedlung im Urwald von Honduras.

Tegucigalpa (Honduras) – Archäologen haben die ersten Ergebnisse der Grabungen in einer bis 2012 im tropischen Regenwald von Honduras verborgenen Ruinenstadt präsentiert. Während die Forscher lange Zeit hofften, dass es sich dabei um die sagenumwobene verschollene „Ciudad Blanca“ handeln könnte, fehlen offenbar die eine solche Vermutung bestätigenden Funde. Im offiziellen Bericht ist von der „Weißen Stadt“ keine Rede mehr. Das nimmt den Funden in der jetzt als „Stadt des Jaguar“ bezeichneten Siedlung jedoch nichts von ihrer archäologischen Bedeutung.

Wie das Team um den Archäologen Chris Fisher von der Colorado State University gegenüber dem die Grabungen finanzierenden „National Geographic“ (NG) berichtet, wurden in der „Stadt des Jaguar“ mehr als 200 Skulpturen entdeckt, entfernt und wissenschaftlich in einer Forschungsstation in Catacamas bearbeitet und dokumentiert.

„Es ist wie eine Art Schrein“, berichtet Fisher. „Über vergleichbare Funde wurden in der Region zwar schon früher berichtet, aber hier ist es nun das erste Mal, dass ein solcher Hort auch professionell ausgegraben und behandelt wird.“

Wie die Forscher berichten, wurden die Objekte offenbar sorgfältig zusammengetragen und um ein sog. Schlüsselobjekt, eine beeindruckende Statue eines Geiers mit ausgebreiteten Schwingen, plaziert (s. Foto l6, links). Bei den Objekten handelt es sich um dekorierte Steingefäße, deren Ränder mit Dekor aus weiteren „Geiern, Schlangen und einer merkwürdigen menschenähnlichen Figur mit einem dreieckigen Kopf, hohlen Augen, einem offenen Mund und einem verwelkt wirkenden Körper (s. Foto 16, mitte).“ Fischer, so berichtet NG, vermutet, dass es sich hierbei um eine „Todesfigur“ handelt, vielleicht der verbundene Körper eines Ahnen, der für die Beerdigung vorbereitet wurde.

 

Um den zentralen Geier (l.) wurden zahlreiche weitere Artefakte aus Stein, darunter u.a. dekorierte Steingefäße (m.) und verzierte Metates (r.) platziert.

Rund um die zentrale Gruppe von Objekten fanden die Archäologen zahlreiche steinerne und überdimensionierte sogenannte „Metates“. Hierbei handelt es sich eigentlich um Reibemühlen für Mais. In der „Stadt des Jaguars“ dienten diese übergroßen Metates aber wahrscheinlich als Throne da sie zudem reich mit Tierfiguren und geometrischen Formen verziert wurden. Zu dieser Gruppe von Metates gehört auch die bereits zuvor beschriebene Figur des „Wer-Jaguars“. Von dieser glauben die Wissenschaftler, dass sie einen Schamanen in einem Zustand zwischen Tier und Mensch zeigt. Die Artefakte datieren die Forscher in die mesoamerikanische post-klassische Periode zwischen 1000 und 1520.

Anhand offenbar absichtlich zerstörter Artefakte spekulieren die Archäologen darüber, dass es sich bei dem Hort um die Überreste der rituellen Schließung der Stadt handeln könnte, bevor diese – aus noch unbekannten Gründen aufgegeben und verlassen wurde. „Hier könnten die einstigen Bewohner ihre heiligen und wertvollsten Objekte versammelt haben, um so den Göttern einer letzte Opfergabe darzubringen, bevor sie die Stadt verließen. Das Zerbrechen könnte einen Weg dargestellt haben, die Götter und Geister zu befreien.“

 

Exclusive: Lost City discovered in the Hondurian Rain Forest, part 2

National Geographic, 2. März 2015

von Douglas Preston

alle Fotos von Dave Yoder, National Geographic (die Fotos habe ich ein wenig aufgehellt)

See New Discoveries at the Mysterious City of the Jaguar

More than 200 elaborate sculptures hint at the rituals and the tragic end of a lost city in Honduras

Photo: Chris Fisher, the team’s chief archaeologist (center), Rodrigo Solinís-Casparius (left), Ranferi Juarez (background), and Anna Cohen (right) at the site of the cache in Honduras; several exposed “metates,” or seats of power, are in the foreground.

Over the past month, the excavation of an ancient city in Honduras has yielded a trove of remarkable stone artifacts from a mysterious, unnamed Pre-Columbian civilization. A joint American-Honduran team of archaeologists uncovered and removed more than 200 sculptures from the base of a large earthen mound at the center of the site, which is being called the “City of the Jaguar.”

The artifacts, some whole and some broken, were flown by helicopter to a laboratory near the town of Catacamas that was recently built to study and house them .  

“The cache is an ofrenda” or offering, said Chris Fisher, an archaeologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who headed the team. “It’s like a shrine.” Caches of objects have been reported in other areas of eastern Honduras, but this is the first one ever to be professionally excavated. 

Sculptures from the City of the Jaguar

Photo: One of the more remarkable objects spied in the cache during the February 2015 expeditions was the head of a were-jaguar, just peeking out of the ground, almost completely obscured in vegetation. It was attached to this metate, or ceremonial seat.

Photo: Some of the ritual vessels at the site, including this one, sported vulture heads along the rims. The significance of the vulture is not known. The legs show a woven-knot motif whose meaning is obscure.

Photo: A vessel with bird ornaments, possibly vultures, recovered from the cache of artifacts.

Photo: A small ceramic figurine recovered from the cache, badly weathered by the highly acidic rainforest soil.

Photo: A small ceremonial metate left as an offering.

Photo: A simple ritual vessel found in the cache. Residue analysis may eventually show what it might have contained.

Photo: This stone figure of a vulture was found in the center of the cache, in a position of great importance, surrounded by ritual vessels and stone seats.

Photo: Some of the vessels, including this one, had carvings that appear to be a “death figure,” possibly representing the cadaver of an important person in the form of a “mummy bundle” tied up and ready for burial.

Photo: A simple ritual metate found in the cache, too small to have been used for grinding corn.

Photo: This leg of a broken metate has pseudo-glyphs on it that vaguely resemble a Maya sky band, an abstract depiction of the night sky; the knot-like design in the center panel was found on many of the objects in the cache.

The excavation revealed that the objects had been carefully placed together, all at one time, on a prepared floor of red clay. They were arranged around a key object: an enigmatic sculpture of a vulture with partially spread wings. Ritual stone vessels surrounded it, their rims decorated with vultures and snakes. Some vessels had carvings depicting a strange humanoid figure with a triangular head, hollow eyes, and an open mouth on a withered-looking body. Fisher thinks these might depict a “death figure,” perhaps the bundled corpse of an ancestor prepared for burial.

Around the central cluster of artifacts, Fisher and his team exposed many stone “metates,” which look like curved tables with three legs used for grinding corn, but much larger and more ornate. They are believed to be seats of power, and many in the cache were carved with animal figures and geometric designs. This group included the “were-jaguar” head, which gave the city its name, thought to represent a shaman in a half-animal, half-human state. The artifacts probably date to the Mesoamerican Post-Classic phase, between AD 1000 and 1520.

The Pre-Columbian city was discovered in 2012 using an aerial survey method called lidar that uses pulses of laser light to map the ground. The city was hidden under triple-canopy jungle in an unexplored valley, ringed by mountains, in a remote region known as La Mosquitia. Archaeologists first entered the ruins in February, 2015 and happened upon the cache on the second day of exploration. (See „Exclusive: Lost City Discovered in the Honduran Rain Forest.‟)

Photo: The Honduran Air Force transported the archaeologists to the site in a Vietnam-era Bell UH-1 helicopter.

The excavated area encompasses less than 200 square feet of the enormous archaeological site, which includes at least 19 prehistoric settlements, probably part of a single chiefdom, spread along several miles of a river. One of the nearby sites has two parallel mounds that may be the remains of a Mesoamerican ballcourt similar to those left by the Maya civilization, indicating a link between this culture and its powerful neighbors to the west and north. The ballgame was a sacred ritual that re-enacted the struggle between the forces of good and evil, and might also have been a way for groups to avoid warfare by solving conflicts through a match instead. The ballgame was sometimes associated with human sacrifice, including the decapitation of the losing team or its captain.

While the City of the Jaguar is spectacularly isolated now, at its heyday it was probably a center of trade and commerce. “When you’re here today,” Fisher said, “you feel so disconnected. It’s a wilderness, and it’s hard to imagine you’re even in the 21st century. But in the past, it was in the midst of an intense network of human interaction. It wasn’t isolated at all.”

Some of the metate legs have puzzling  markings on them. One set of cross-banded motifs, according to archaeologists who examined it, resemble a Maya “sky band,” similar to depictions of the night sky found under seated figures in sculptures at Chichen Itza in Mexico. Crossed-banded motifs are often associated with gods and objects of power in the Maya world. The metates also display many puzzling pseudo-glyphs on them that have yet to be studied and deciphered. (Pseudo-glyphs are designs with specific meanings that, unlike Maya glyphs, fall short of actual writing.)

Some archaeologists believe the metates may have been used not just as thrones, but also as seats for carrying the bundled and decorated bodies of the dead to their final resting place. Eventually, the jars and metate surfaces will undergo “residue analysis,” which could determine what offerings might have been inside them, or what substances (if any) were ground up on them.

Photo: The archaeological team works on the cache site: Chris Fisher (foreground), Anna Cohen (right), Rodrigo Solinís-Casparius (left), Jason Bush (upper middle), and Iain Matheson (upper right).

What was the meaning behind the cache? Why was it left there? One object in particular gives a vital clue. It is a stone “mano,” a heavy grinding roller carved out of basalt and finely polished. It is more than three feet long, an awkward size to have been actually used for grinding, indicating it was probably a ritual object. The archaeologists found it busted into six pieces, even though it is anything but fragile. This is evidence, Fisher believes, that it was “ritually broken,” which leads him to suspect that other fragmented sculptures found in the cache were also deliberately smashed. Ancient people throughout the Americas engaged in the purposeful breaking of objects and the “killing” of pots (by punching a hole in the bottom), before placing them in graves.

These clues, taken together, suggest the cache might have been created during a ritual closing of the city, at the time of its final abandonment. In this (admittedly speculative) scenario, the last inhabitants of the city gathered their most precious, sacred objects and left them as a final offering to the gods as they departed—breaking them perhaps as a way to release their spirits.

Photo: Archaeologist Anna Cohen works in the central area of the cache, where ritual vessels were found arrayed around a stone vulture.

Why was the city abandoned? While we have no proof, epidemics of European disease were the likely cause. At the time of European contact, Maya and Chibcha traders in giant dugout canoes engaged in far-flung commerce, exchanging goods between Honduras, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands. These same canoe merchants plied the great rivers flowing out of Mosquitia, paddling inland to acquire cacao, macaw feathers, and other valuable forest products. By the early 1500s, European diseases—smallpox, measles, and influenza—were raging across the islands of the Caribbean, killing up to 95 percent of indigenous inhabitants. Native traders very likely brought these diseases up the rivers into Mosquitia, where they escaped into the local populations and burned deep into the hinterlands, reaching areas far beyond the range of actual European contact. In this way, the City of the Jaguar may have been devastated by waves of epidemic diseases. The survivors, shattered and traumatized, eventually abandoned the city, leaving this cache behind, where it remained untouched for 500 years—a tragic memorial to a once great and now vanished culture.

Photo: Honduran soldiers carry one of the artifacts to a helicopter waiting in the small landing zone next to the unnamed river that flows through the valley.

The excavation of the City of the Jaguar is being conducted under a grant from the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council, with the support of the Honduran government and the Honduran Institute for History and Anthropology, and its director, Virgilio Paredes Trapero. The team of archaeologists are: Chris Fisher, Colorado State University; Anna Cohen and Rodrigo Solinis-Casparius, University of Washington; Jerry Smith, museum collections specialist; Jason Bush, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency; and Ranferi Juárez Silva, Norman Martínez, and Santiago Escobar, Honduran Institute for History and Anthropology.

An earlier version of this story misstated when the City of the Jaguar was first discovered. It was 2012, not 2013.

 

City of the Jaguar, part 3

National Geographic, 2. März 2015

By Douglas Preston

Photographs by Dave Yoder

In search for legendary “City of the Monkey God", explorers find the untouched ruins of a vanished culture

Photo: A “were-jaguar” effigy, likely representing a combination of a human and spirit animal, is part of a still-buried ceremonial seat, or metate, one of many artifacts discovered in a cache in ruins deep in the Honduran jungle.

An expedition to Honduras has emerged from the jungle with dramatic news of the discovery of a mysterious culture’s lost city, never before explored. The team was led to the remote, uninhabited region by long-standing rumors that it was the site of a storied “White City,” also referred to in legend as the “City of the Monkey God.”  

Archaeologists surveyed and mapped extensive plazas, earthworks, mounds, and an earthen pyramid belonging to a culture that thrived a thousand years ago, and then vanished. The team, which returned from the site last Wednesday, also discovered a remarkable cache of stone sculptures that had lain untouched since the city was abandoned.

Photo: Honduran troops lead a convoy through a town that served as the base for helicopters ferrying members of the expedition to a location in the Mosquitia rain forest where they examined ruins of an ancient city.

In contrast to the nearby Maya, this vanished culture has been scarcely studied and it remains virtually unknown. Archaeologists don’t even have a name for it.

Christopher Fisher, a Mesoamerican archaeologist on the team from Colorado State University, said the pristine, unlooted condition of the site was “incredibly rare.” He speculated that the cache, found at the base of the pyramid, may have been an offering.

“The undisturbed context is unique,” Fisher said. “This is a powerful ritual display, to take wealth objects like this out of circulation.”

The tops of 52 artifacts were peeking from the earth. Many more evidently lie below ground, with possible burials. They include stone ceremonial seats (called metates) and finely carved vessels decorated with snakes, zoomorphic figures, and vultures.

The most striking object emerging from the ground is the head of what Fisher speculated might be “a were-jaguar,” possibly depicting a shaman in a transformed, spirit state. Alternatively, the artifact might be related to ritualized ball games that were a feature of pre-Columbian life in Mesoamerica.

“The figure seems to be wearing a helmet,” said Fisher. Team member Oscar Neil Cruz, head archaeologist at the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), believes the artifacts date to A.D. 1000 to 1400.

The objects were documented but left unexcavated. To protect the site from looters, its location is not being revealed.

Photo: A stream winds through part of an unexplored valley in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region long rumored to contain a legendary “White City,” also called the City of the Monkey God.

Stories of “Casa Blanca” and a Monkey God

The ruins were first identified in May 2012, during an aerial survey of a remote valley in La Mosquitia, a vast region of swamps, rivers, and mountains containing some of the last scientifically unexplored places on earth.

For a hundred years, explorers and prospectors told tales of the white ramparts of a lost city glimpsed above the jungle foliage. Indigenous stories speak of a “white house” or a “place of cacao” where Indians took refuge from Spanish conquistadores—a mystical, Eden-like paradise from which no one ever returned.

Since the 1920s, several expeditions had searched for the White City, or Ciudad Blanca. The eccentric explorer Theodore Morde mounted the most famous of these in 1940, under the aegis of the Museum of the American Indian (now part of the Smithsonian Institution).

Photo: Former British Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers prepare a helicopter pilot for liftoff from a landing zone cleared for a team of scientists surveying a secret location in the Mosquitia jungle. The helicopter ferried people and supplies from its base.

Morde returned from Mosquitia with thousands of artifacts, claiming to have entered the City. According to Morde, the indigenous people there said it contained a giant, buried statue of a monkey god. He refused to divulge the location out of fear, he said, that the site would be looted. He later committed suicide and his site—if it existed at all—was never identified.  

More recently, documentary filmmakers Steve Elkins and Bill Benenson launched a search for the lost city.

They identified a crater-shaped valley, encircled by steep mountains, as a possible location.

To survey it, in 2012 they enlisted the help of the Center for Airborne Laser Mapping at the University of Houston. A Cessna Skymaster, carrying a million-dollar lidar scanner, flew over the valley, probing the jungle canopy with laser light. Lidar is able to map the ground even through dense rain forest, delineating any archaeological features that might be present.

When the images were processed, they revealed unnatural features stretching for more than a mile through the valley. When Fisher analyzed the images, he found that the terrain along the river had been almost entirely reshaped by human hands.

Photo: Former British SAS soldier Andrew Wood hacks through thick foliage to clear a way for scientists to investigate an archaeological site first identified using an aerial imaging technology called lidar.

Photo: Archaeologist Oscar Neil Cruz of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History examines a building stone discovered during a foray to a location identified by lidar as a place of interest. Several such construction stones, apparently shaped by hand, were found in a row at the top of what appears to be an ancient plaza.

Photo: Former British SAS commando Steve “Sully” Sullivan (right) waits while the scientific team puzzles over a construction stone that they believe was carved by members of a vanished civilization yet to be identified.

Photo: Frequent rains turned the expedition camp into a sea of mud.

The evidence of public and ceremonial architecture, giant earthworks and house mounds, possible irrigation canals and reservoirs, all led Fisher to conclude that the settlement was, indeed, a pre-Columbian city.

Threatened by Deforestation

An archaeological discovery isn’t confirmed until it has been “ground-truthed.” The ground exploration team consisted of American and Honduran archaeologists, a lidar engineer, an anthropologist, an ethnobotanist, documentary filmmakers, and support personnel. Sixteen Honduran Special Forces soldiers provided security. The National Geographic Society sent a photographer and a writer.

The expedition confirmed on the ground all the features seen in the lidar images, along with much more. It was indeed an ancient city. Archaeologists, however, no longer believe in the existence of a single “lost city,” or Ciudad Blanca, as described in the legends. They believe Mosquitia harbors many such “lost cities,” which taken together represent something far more important—a lost civilization.

Photo: Anna Cohen, a University of Washington anthropology grad student, documents a cache of more than 50 artifacts discovered in the jungle. Following scientific protocol, no objects were removed from the site. The scientists hope to mount an expedition soon to further document and excavate the site before it can be found by looters.

The valley is densely carpeted in a rain forest so primeval that the animals appear never to have seen humans before. An advance team clearing a landing zone for helicopters supplying the expedition noted spider monkeys peering down curiously from the trees above, and guinea hen and a tapir wandering into camp, unafraid of the human visitors.

“This is clearly the most undisturbed rain forest in Central America,” said the expedition’s ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin, who spent 30 years in Amazonia. “The importance of this place can’t be overestimated.”

The region also is gravely threatened. Deforestation for ranching has checkerboarded the jungle to within a dozen miles of the valley. Huge swaths of virgin rain forest are being cut illegally and burned to make way for cattle. The region has become one of the biggest beef-producing areas in Central America, supplying meat to fast-food franchises in the United States.

Photo: In addition to looting, another threat to the newly discovered ruins is deforestation for cattle ranching, seen here on a hillside on the way to the site. At its present pace, deforestation could reach the valley within a few years.

Virgilio Paredes Trapero, the director of the IHAH, under whose auspices the expedition operated, spent several days at the site. He concluded: “If we don’t do something right away, most of this forest and valley will be gone in eight years.” He spread his hands. “The Honduran government is committed to protecting this area, but doesn’t have the money. We urgently need international support.”

The expedition was made possible with the permission, partnership, and support of the government of Honduras; Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández Avarado; Virgilio Paredes Trapero, director of the Honduran Institute for Anthropology and History (IHAH); Oscar Neil Cruz, Chief of the Archaeology Division of IHAH, as well as Minister of Defense Samuel Reyes and the Armed Forces of Honduras under the command of Gen. Fredy Santiago Díaz Zelaya, with Gen. Carlos Roberto Puerto and Lt. Col. Willy Joel  Oseguera, and the soldiers of TESON, Honduran Special Forces.

Douglas Preston writes about archaeology for the New Yorker and other publications. His account of Coronado’s search for the Seven Cities of Gold was recently issued as an e-book.