National Geographic : 2015 Oct
116 national geographic • october 2015 Which is how Fisher came to be standing on the bank of an unnamed river in T1 in February 2015, staring at the wall of jungle on the other side and eager to plunge in. From the moment Fisher saw the lidar im- ages, he was hooked. He had used the tech- nology to map Angamuco, an ancient city of the fierce Purépecha (Tarascan) people, who rivaled the Aztec in central Mexico from around A.D. 1000 until the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s. While the communities of the Mexican highlands in pre-Columbian Amer- ica were densely packed, those in the tropics tended to be spread out across the landscape— ancient Los Angeleses, as opposed to Manhat- tans. Nevertheless, the sites in T1 and T3 looked substantial—certainly the largest settlements mapped so far in Mosquitia. The core area in T3 was almost one and a half square miles— nearly the size of the central area of Copán, the Maya city to the west. T1’s center was smaller but more concentrated, appearing to consist of ten large plazas, dozens of associated mounds, roads, farming terraces, irrigation canals, a res- ervoir, and a possible pyramid. Because of the evident ceremonial architecture, earthworks, and multiple plazas, Fisher had no doubt that both locations fit the archaeological definition of a city, a settlement showing complex social organization, with clear divisions of space, in- timately connected to its hinterlands. “Cities have special ceremonial functions and are as- sociated with intensive agriculture,” he told me. “And they usually involved major, monumental reconstruction of the environment.” In their quixotic attempt to locate a (proba- bly) mythical White City, Elkins and Benenson apparently had found two very real ancient cit- ies. With the help of the Honduran government, they gathered a team capable of penetrating the jungle to “ground-truth” what the lidar images had identified. Besides Fisher, who had more experience than anyone else in using lidar imag- ery to know where to look and what to look for on the ground, the team had two other archae- ologists, including the IHAH’s Oscar Neil Cruz; an anthropologist; a lidar engineer; two ethno- botanists; a geochemist; and a geographer. Also along were Elkins’s camera crew and a team from National Geographic. The logistics were daunting—aside from hav- ing to contend with snakes, insects, mud, and incessant rain, we would risk contracting ma- laria, dengue fever, and a smorgasbord of other tropical diseases. (The Editor’s Note in this is- sue recounts the impact on the expedition team of leishmaniasis, a potentially lethal parasitic disease transmitted by a tiny sand fly.) To ease the way, Elkins and Benenson had hired three ex-British Special Air Service (SAS) officers who had formed a company specializing in shepherding film crews in dangerous areas. They were dropped first at the site to clear land- ing and camp areas with machetes and chain saws while the helicopter returned to Cataca- mas to shuttle in Fisher and the others. Andrew “ Woody” Wood, leader of the support team, lat- er told me that as they worked, animals—a tapir, jungle fowl, and spider monkeys—wandered about or gathered in the trees above, seemingly unafraid. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “I don’t think these animals have ever seen human beings.” Wood had chosen a raised terrace behind the landing zone as the site for the base camp, set up amid giant trees, accessible by crossing a bridge of logs laid over a mudhole, with a climb up an embankment. Because of the danger of snakes— the highly venomous fer-de-lance, often referred to as “the ultimate pit viper,” are particularly worrisome; they sometimes flee when dis- turbed, but they can also turn around and chase down an intruder—he had forbidden anyone to leave the camp unescorted. But Fisher was impatient; accustomed to dangerous fieldwork at his Mexican site, he threatened to explore on his own. In late afternoon, Wood agreed to a quick reconnaissance of the ruins. The advance team assembled on the riverbank in full jungle kit, wearing snake gaiters and stinking of insect repellent. A Trimble GPS unit, in which Fisher had downloaded the lidar maps, showed his ex- act location in relation to the presumed ruins.