The pervasive legend of the Ciudad Blanca or White City has captured the public’s imagination in Honduras and around the world.
The legend of the fabulous lost city of Honduras was first recorded by Hernan Cortes who, in 1526, less than five years after vanquishing the Aztecs, came to the colonial town of Trujillo, on the north coast ofHonduras, to regain control of one of his subordinates. He also mentions a mythical city of Hueitapalan, literally, Old Land of Red Earth. This early mention of a mythical city marks the first of a series of conflated and confused legends that gave birth to the modern legend of the Ciudad Blanca. There is no evidence that Cortes thought Huetlapalan existed in eastern Honduras or ever made any effort to find this lost city.
Nearly twenty years later, in the year 1544, Bishop Cristobol de Pedraza, the Bishop of Honduras, wrote a letter to the King of Spain describing an arduous trip to the edge of the Mosquito Coast jungles. In fantastic language, he tells of looking east from a mountaintop into unexplored territory, where he saw a large city in one of the river valleys that cut through the Mosquito Coast. His guides, he wrote, assured him that the nobles there ate from plates of gold.
Since then, the legend has continued to grow. The White City has often been linked to Central American mythology; for example, it has sometimes been credited as the birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. Moreover, jungle travelers including hunters and pilots have occasionally reported sightings of a large city lost in the jungle. Some of these reports mention golden idols; others comment on the elaborately-carved white stones that give the city its name.
Several expeditions were launched to find the city, and some thought they did. In 1939, for example, explorer Theodore Morde, who had ties to the OSS, supposedly found the lost city, and later wrote the bizarre travelogue Lost City of the Monkey God. He died before returning to Honduras. Later adventurers have suspected sinister motives in his untimely death, and have argued that the U.S. Government or other forces were trying to silence him in order to retain this incredible find for themselves. The people behind recent claims of finding the White City join a long line of people making the same claim.
Professional archaeologists in the area remain skeptical of these claims for a number of reasons; nevertheless, since the 1940s, announcements of expeditions to find the lost city have peppered Honduran and U.S. papers. Every time it seems the White City has been found, events conspire to conceal its location before its existence is verified. Thus, periodic reports of its discovery have not slowed the search.
Local indigenous groups have different versions of the lost city legend. Most of these prohibit entry into the lost city, and some focus on the alienation of indigenous gods who have sought refuge in the sacred city, which is not so much lost as hidden.
Recently, relatively large-scale archaeological projects have been undertaken in the region for the first time. The discovery of some large, impressive archaeological sites in the rain forest of the Mosquito Coast fueled an initiative by the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History to explore this region. Word spread quickly to the treasure hunting community, fueled in part by the contemporaneous development of the internet. With the subject discussed on websites and list servers, the furor surrounding the White City reached unprecedented proportions in the last few years. In 2001, a documentary with actor Ewan McGregor and me was produced by the BBC and widely aired, highlighting the archaeology and rugged conditions of the region. It is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMWtRvnrXMY.
I recently published a paper on the White City legend, presented on the legend at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in 2012, and I was featured in a book about the legend by writer Christopher S. Stewart, tentatively titled Jungleland, which was published in early 2013. I also have a book chapter coming out soon about the legend, in a volume titled ‘Confronting Pseudoarchaeology,’ edited by Jeb Card and David Anderson.
I suggest the following questions be asked of anybody who claims to have found the lost city. First, which version of the legend are you using as a guide? The indigenous legends are very different from the popular versions you hear today. Second, what features of your discovery make you think it is THE lost city? None of the legends have any characteristics, traits, or identifying attributes of the Ciudad Blanca. How, then, can you claim to have found it? Just because it is a large site? Third, are you sure your ‘discovery’ is not already well known to locals, and possibly even archaeologists? Do you have access to a list of all documented archaeological sites in the region and are sure this is not one of those?
The realities of the archaeology of the Mosquito Coast are important and interesting without the Lost City hype that ultimately, in every case yet, ends up being just that – hype.