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Deep in the Honduran Rain Forest, an Ecological SWAT Team Explores a Lost World

A little more than three years ago, I joined a team of archeologists on an expedition to La Mosquitia, a remote mountain wilderness in eastern Honduras. For centuries, the region had been rumored to contain a lost city, known as the City of the Monkey God or the White City, and now, thanks to a combination of luck and modern technology, an ancient settlement had been found. Although it was probably not the lost city of legend, it was a very real place, built by a mysterious civilization that flourished long before Columbus arrived in the Americas. Hidden in a densely forested valley, it had never been explored. We helicoptered in, set up a base camp, and spent the next nine days slowly uncovering the city’s remains—large plazas, geometric mounds, irrigation systems, extensive terracing. At the base of a small pyramid, we discovered a cache of ceremonial stone sculptures that, when excavated, in 2016 and 2017, amounted to almost five hundred pieces. Many of them are now on display at a newly opened museum and archeological laboratory, Centro de Investigación Ciudad Blanca, near Catacamas, the closest large city to the ruins.

The valley held other surprises. When we arrived, we found that the animals there appeared never to have seen people before. Spider monkeys gathered in the trees above us, hanging by their tails, screeching their displeasure, shaking branches and bombarding us with flowers. Large cats prowled through our camp at night, purring and cracking branches. A tapir and peccaries wandered about, seemingly unafraid, and the area was overrun with venomous snakes. Here was a pristine ecosystem, as obscure to human knowledge as the lost city itself.

When the discovery of this apparently forgotten world was first reported, Conservation International, one of the world’s leading environmental organizations, sent a team of twelve biologists into the valley to do a “rapid assessment” of its ecology. Most of the biologists were from Honduras or Nicaragua, and many had done research in the Mosquitia region before. The expedition’s leader, Trond Larsen, described it as an “ecological SWAT team.” The group’s goal, he explained, was “to quickly assess as much of the area’s biodiversity as we could in a ten-day blitz.”

Using the old base camp as a reference point, Larsen and his colleagues cut four miles of trail in each of the four cardinal directions. As they slashed their way through the jungle


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