Has the legendary lost ‘White City’ of Honduras been found with lasers?

This LiDAR image may show the location of an ancient lost city
The ancient ruins of La Ciudad Blanca, 'The White City' of Central American legend — reputed to be filled with gold and as the birthplace of the Aztec feathered-serpent god Quetzalcoatl — may have been found by a team of archaeologists and film makers using a high-tech laser-ranging system called LiDAR.

It was the famous Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés that first brought the legend of La Ciudad Blanca to the attention of European scholars, and his tales have inspired the efforts of archaeologists and treasure hunters for over 500 years.

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This latest effort was by a team of scientists from the University of Houston, working with filmmakers Steven Elkins and Bill Benenson, who flew planes over the Honduran rain forest that scanned the ground using LiDAR — Light Detection And Ranging — which is similar to radar, but works by beaming lasers at the target instead of radio waves. This system allowed them to get incredible accurate readings of the terrain, even past the forest canopy that was blocking sight of the ground for eyes and cameras. Their scans of the area revealed what looked like mounds, building foundations, roads, canals and what could even be land used for terraced agriculture.

LiDAR readings of the Honduras location showing with and without the forest canopy

The reason LiDAR works so well for this is because the billions of laser pulses sweeping the area below the plane can slip between the leaves of the forest canopy to reach the ground, and this can return details that would be missed by simple pictures or visual surveys. What the team looked for in the images are any hints of straight lines and the shapes humans typically have used for buildings throughout history — rectangles, squares, etc.

"We use lidar to pinpoint where human structures are by looking for linear shapes and rectangles," said Colorado State University research Stephen Leisz, who used LiDAR to find ancient human structures at Angamuco, in Mexico, according to an American Geophysical Union (AGU) statement. "Nature doesn't work in straight lines."

The University of Houston scientists, William Carter, Juan Fernandez-Diaz and Ramesh Shrestha, were joined by Elkins at a session of the AGU's Meeting of the Americas, which runs from May 14-17 in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss the use of LiDAR in archaeology and other fields.

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The team isn't revealing the location of their find, since they want to protect it from any adventurous treasure hunters. They hope to visit the area on the ground later this year, to confirm the finding and possibly confirm that they have, indeed, found the ancient legendary lost city.

What might they find there? It has never been proven that any of the stories regarding the gold or Quetzalcoatl are true. So, whether they'll simply find an archaeological storehouse of information on the ancient culture that lived in the area, or if they'll find fabulous treasures and ancient monsters worthy of an Indiana Jones story, we'll just have to wait and see.

(Images courtesy: UTL Scientific, LLC)

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