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Many remains from ancient civilizations can be found in and around the rainforests of Honduras. (Ocean / Corbis)

A Lost City, Found?

Scientists discover ancient ruins deep in the rainforests of Central America

By Matt Ringler | April 2 , 2013
<p> TOP IMAGE: Thick groves of trees make La Mosquitia rainforest difficult to explore on foot. (Christian Ziegler / Minden Pictures) </p><p> BOTTOM IMAGE: Hernán Cortés sought the mythical, gold-filled Ciudad Blanca in the early 1500’s. (PoodlesRock / Corbis) </p><p> MAP: La Mosquitia is one of the least-explored rainforests on Earth. (Jim McMahon)</p>

TOP IMAGE: Thick groves of trees make La Mosquitia rainforest difficult to explore on foot. (Christian Ziegler / Minden Pictures)

BOTTOM IMAGE: Hernán Cortés sought the mythical, gold-filled Ciudad Blanca in the early 1500’s. (PoodlesRock / Corbis)

MAP: La Mosquitia is one of the least-explored rainforests on Earth. (Jim McMahon)

La Mosquitia in Honduras is one of the densest, most dangerous rainforests in the world. But a team of researchers from the University of Houston has found a way to penetrate its secrets—not with machetes, but with airplanes and cameras. Using cutting-edge scientific tools, they may have discovered a lost city that has been known only through legend.

The ruins they discovered may be those of the famous Ciudad Blanca, or White City. It is called this because of intricately cut white stones rumored to exist there. The legend of the city dates back to 1526, when Hernán Cortés, a Spanish explorer, heard about a “white city” filled with gold and set out to find it. Explorers have been seeking the remains of the legendary city for centuries.

How were the researchers from the University of Houston able to find the missing ruins? They used Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR). This is a laser-based system that helps create 3-D maps of an area.

EYE IN THE SKY

Scientists sent a plane over La Mosquitia. The plane’s LIDAR system sent more than 4 billion laser pulses down to the surface. The laser pulses bounced back to the plane, telling the scientists the height of the land. Researchers then used this information to make a 3-D map of the rainforest.

On the map, the researchers could recognize a central courtyard surrounded by other possible structures. These are major characteristics of an organized city.

Even if these are not the ruins of La Ciudad Blanca, this is still a major find for researchers using LIDAR. Now archaeologists know exactly where to start exploring so they can study the civilization that lived there.

LIDAR LEADS THE WAY

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “LIDAR systems allow scientists and mapping professionals to examine both natural and human-made environments with accuracy, precision, and flexibility.”

LIDAR can make maps of both land and underwater areas. But as the technology improves, LIDAR could be used in different ways. It is already being used for predicting weather patterns and tracking the position of the moon, and even by police officers trying to make sure that drivers don’t speed.

Historians in Honduras are grateful for LIDAR’s help in finding the ancient ruins. Virgilio Paredes, manager of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, says, “The LIDAR technology . . . enables a whole new level of exploration, one that will bring multiple benefits to Hondurans for generations to come.”

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