Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mythical Ciudad Blanca

With headlines like Honduras asserts it has found the White City and With a satellite search they proved the existence of the White City, the Honduran press began trumpeting, yet again, the discovery of Ciudad Blanca, the mythical White City supposedly located somewhere in eastern Honduras.

The latest "revelation" that Ciudad Blanca had been located was announced by Porfirio Lobo Sosa in a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

One newspaper article describes the supposed site as being 5 square kilometers. Áfrico Madrid, the Interior Minister, said that the team claiming the discovery could have encountered the legendary (his words) Lost City or White City in the region known as the Mosquitia, and that it could be bigger than the site of Copan, in western Honduras.

Virgilio Paredes, who manages the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, said:
"We know that we have something and that we have to go into this zone to know what culture it was that lived there.

Paredes also is quoted as saying:
We have found what might be, according to archaeologists and historians, what might be the biggest archaeological discovery in the world of the twenty-first century, a lost city.  We don't know what it is, we don't know if it is a structure (building), but its been affirmed by specialists who know this technology and the lay of the land, that there are many man-made structures.

 "The biggest archaeological discovery of the world in the twenty-first century"!

Now that you've heard the hype, here's the facts.

The source of the excitement is a press release put out Tuesday by UTL Scientific and the Government of Honduras, titled The Government of Honduras and UTL Scientific, LLC Announce Completion of First-Ever LiDAR Imaging Survey of La Mosquitia Region of Honduras.

If you read the press release, you'll find it does not claim to have discovered Ciudad Blanca.

LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) bounces lasers off the landscape and makes an accurate image of both the ground surface and the vegetation on it. Processing of the signals allows you to virtually strip off the vegetation and get an accurate model of the topography underneath.

When this was done with the new data from the Honduran Mosquitia, the analysts saw something that looked to them like the architectural remains of old cities, a series of archaeological sites.

The actual LIDAR work was done by the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM) an instrumentation lab at the University of Houston, funded by the National Science Foundation to help facilitate studies of this kind.

Of course, the press release doesn't actually come from NCALM. It comes from UTL Scientific, LLC.

UTL Scientific is a film company making a documentary. It handled the organization and logistics in Honduras for the LIDAR survey. The UTL people, whose brief biographies are included in the press release, are filmmakers, authors, and adventurers, but not scientists.

Tuesday's announcement is not the first purported "discovery" of Ciudad Blanca by adventurers using "science".

In 2006, James Ewing, along with Francis Yakam-Siman and Edmond Nezry, claimed to have discovered Ciudad Blanca using Synthetic Apeture Radar (SAR) images of the Mosquitia.

The end result of using SAR is similar to LIDAR, a model of the topography of a region. The SAR study back in 2006 also appeared to show archaeological remains beneath the forest canopy in the Mosquitia. The newly discovered features might even be the same ones imaged back then. We won't know until they release the geographic coordinates of the region the latest project imaged. All we know is that the project targeted an area marked on a map made by the first Honduran map maker, Enrique Aguilar Paz, as the location of legendary Ciudad Blanca.

That the LIDAR data shows possible archaeological sites in the Mosquitia should come as a surprise to no one. Pioneering archaeological work by Chris Begley in the Mosquitia showed that there were numerous sites along the rivers, and that some of them were quite large.

Begley outlines the myth of Ciudad Blanca on his website.

The Ciudad Blanca story rests on three points of reference, two of them supposed historical mentions, the third based in Pech and Tawahka tradition.

The two historical documents were written by Hernan Cortés (in 1525) and Cristobal de Pedraza (in 1544). While offered as colonial descriptions of Ciudad Blanca, neither actually refers either to a white city, or to a lost city.

Cortés wrote his famous fifth letter to Charles I of Spain after returning from his equally famous trip to Honduras. While in Honduras he stayed close to the coast, reaching no further east than the city of Trujillo. Making an argument for the value of controlling Honduras to the Spanish empire, he wrote:
I have received news of very large and wealthy provinces with wealthy lords, richly attended, especially the one they call Hueytapalan or in another language, Xucutaco which I....have discovered at last is eight or ten days march from Trujillo, that is to say, some 50 or 60 leagues.

The reference is to provinces, not cities. There is no mention of a white or lost city. Since Cortes did not visit the Mosquitia, all this letter could provide would be rumors about areas further to the east.

The source of the wealth of these provinces and their lords is usually inferred from the second historical source cited, an account of the colony of Honduras by its new bishop, Cristobal de Pedraza, in 1544. There, he wrote of standing looking east from the top of a mountain somewhere east of Olancho, Honduras:
We saw a large piece of land, and in the other part of it, to the east, with large towns (or populations) and the land with many rivers.

He sent for some local Indians to ask about the lands that he saw:
and asking through our interpreters what land it was, they replied that it was Taguisgualpa which in their language means the place where they smelt gold because in their most important city there is a gold work where they come from many parts of the land to smelt gold, and from the surrounding mountains that they say are close to Veragua.

The Province of Taguzgalpa, as it became known, corresponded to eastern Honduras. It was occupied by the Tawahka, Pech, Miskito, and Sumo.

"Veragua" referred to the lower Central American coast, from Nicaragua through to the Rio Belen in Panama.  Historically, this was a location of Precolumbian goldworking.

In contrast, Honduran archaeological sites, although yielding many examples of copper alloy objects, were not generally sources of gold. One complete gold figure found in the Ulua River valley was clearly an imported object, made in the Costa Rica-Panama area. Fragments of another such figure were buried below Stela H at Copan. But the gold-producing area was a long way from Honduras. What these pre-hispanic discoveries attest to is a network of exchange and travel reaching from Honduras to Panama-- the same network that conveyed reports about distant wealthy provinces of gold workers to Cortes and Pedraza.

While Pedraza was given a description of a city focused on the production of gold objects (Cibola anyone?) he did not get a mention of a White or Lost City.

Chris Begley has actually written scholarly papers about the White City legend. In "Reading and Writing the White City Legend: Allegories Past and Future", published in 2007 in Southwest Philosophy Review, Begley and Ellen Cox note that Begley has been taken to more than 5 different sets of ruins that informants (non-indigenous people) said were the Ciudad Blanca.

This article also sheds light on what is usually the third source cited by enthusiasts claiming to have found or to be seeking Ciudad Blance. Begley recounts that the Pech and Tawahka people of Honduras have a myth about Wahai Patatahua ("place of the ancestors") and Kao Kamasa ("the white house") at the headwaters of the confluence of two rivers, by a pass through the mountains. In Pech mythology, this location is the place to which their gods retreated after the Spanish came. Begley says the Pech identified this location with the wild and remote part of their lands in the Mosquitia.

Ciudad Blanca, in other words, is not a specific ruin with a charter that runs from the colonial Spanish histories to the present. There is no single place that is Ciudad Blanca. Rather, as Chris Begley demonstrated through hard fieldwork, there are a series of archaeological sites underneath the heavy forest in undeveloped parts of the Mosquitia. That's neither surprising nor news.

SAR and LIDAR are wonderful and expensive tools for finding archaeological sites.  Neither is within the normal budget of archaeologists.

The LIDAR study being touted by the Honduran government, but not, we note, by any Honduran or international archaeologists, was valued at $1.5 million.

The "Ciudad Blanca" story is a great legend. It is hardly surprising that a media company would support the storyline of discovery and (potential) treasure that it represents.

But the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History should be providing reliable knowledge about the past to the Honduran people, and international audiences.


Unknown said...

Very insightful. Thanks!

Narcdog said...

I find this fascinating.
This is a real development in ancient part of civilization in Honduras.

RAJ said...

To be clear here: there may be archaeological sites detected using these methods. But that is not surprising: Chris Begley long ago detected and mapped many sites in the Mosquitia. Unlike the current claims, Begley never senssationalized things by claiming that he found a mythical city; he never tried to claim the sites were larger than they actually were; he never tried to claim they were mysterious.

While these technologies can be useful, as we point out, they are extremely expensive. Archaeologists using traditional techniques not only can locate sites like those reportedly found; they can detect smaller features than are visible in LiDAR; and they can conduct "ground-truthing" to identify the trash left behind, and from that figure out when the sites were inhabited, and what people were doing in them.

So, we do not see this as a real development in understanding the ancient civilization of Honduras. We see it as a major step back from progress that was made from the 1970s through 2009.

It is the responsibility of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History to provide reliable information about the Honduran past. Hyping treasure hunters does not qualify.