LEXINGTON, Ky.—In the May 6, 2013, issue of The New Yorker magazine, author Douglas Preston writes about the use of a new technology called lidar (light detection and ranging) that allows aerial mapping of both man-made objects and natural land forms that lie beneath dense vegetation.
In the article, titled “The El Dorado machine: A new scanner’s rain-forest discoveries,” Preston first allows Transylvania anthropology professor Chris Begley to describe the rigors of the more traditional methods of mapping archaeological sites in the Honduran jungle.
“It’s mountainous. There’s white water. There are jumping vipers, coral snakes, fer-de-lance, stinging plants, and biting insects. And then there are the illnesses—malaria, dengue fever, leishmaniasis, Chagas’ disease.”
As one of the foremost experts on the region’s archaeological sites, Begley has bushwhacked a good bit of this formidable territory. And he understands that the introduction of this new technology could possibly save years of on-ground exploration amid punishing human hardship.
“This data will certainly make it much easier for archaeologists to target their efforts, and the kinds of month-long jungle treks that I undertook over two decades can be reduced to much shorter trips targeting particular sites. This will make research in the area accessible to many more people who would not have been able to withstand the rigors of work in the area previously.”
Begley has conducted ongoing research in the region, beginning in the 1990s while he was completing graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Most recently, he returned to Honduras to work on a project for National Geographic in 2011. In 2008 he served as a guide for journalist Christopher Stewart, who documented their expedition to the Mosquito Coast in the book “Jungleland,” released in January by Harper Collins.
But Begley recognizes that his motives for pursuing archaeological research in the Honduran jungle differ from the motives of the crew described in the article who used lidar to search for mythical lost cities.
Archaeologists are more interested in asking questions related to the populations who lived in the once thriving cities—questions about their culture and how an obvious golden age came to ruin—as opposed to authenticating a popular legend.
“I hope the data collected is used for something more interesting than simply locating large sites and relating them to the White City myth—which is, by now, a tired and hackneyed exercise, as new claims of ‘discovery’ have been made every decade for the last century,” avers Begley.
Beginning in the 1500s, European explorers to the area heard claims of an ancient city made of white stone—la Ciudad Blanca, sometimes called the Lost City of the Monkey God. Though many intrepid explorers have tried to locate the city, including several expeditions in the 1930s, the nearly impenetrable jungle around the supposed site made ground exploration nearly impossible.
With the aid of new technology, perhaps myth, science and human history will merge to reveal the truth.
PDF produced with permission from The New Yorker.