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Doc­u­men­tary film­maker Steve Elkins has spent a good chunk of his life try­ing to track down the leg­endary ‘White City’. For years he stud­ied ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­ports, read ac­counts from smug­glers and prospec­tors and ex­am­ined data from NASA satel­lites – all with­out suc­cess. It was only thanks to LIDAR tech­nol­ogy that he got his break­through: helped by a re­search team from the Uni­ver­sity of Hous­ton, Elkins flew over the re­gion and di­rected hun­dreds of thou­sands of laser pulses through the tree canopy to the ground be­low. By dig­i­tally strip­ping away the blan­ket-like canopy cover, the team dis­cov­ered two cities with pyra­mids, plazas and farm ter­races.

from the he­li­copter. Us­ing his ma­chete, the for­mer SAS of­fi­cer clears a land­ing spot and sets up a base camp while the he­li­copter col­lects the rest of the team from Cat­a­ca­mas. A few hours later Elkins and co are also stand­ing in the mid­dle of the ru­ins of the lost city.


Today the ex­ca­va­tions are in full flow. The Lidar tech­ni­cians have al­ready scanned all of the arte­facts and pro­duced 3D im­ages of them. “We be­lieve there are even more trea­sures hid­den in the ground,” Fisher re­veals. “Per­haps even the burial grounds of kings.” These could shed im­por­tant light on the cul­ture that once ex­isted here, as well as pro­vid­ing clues as to why peo­ple even­tu­ally de­serted the city. Fur­ther scans are needed to fig­ure out why that may have hap­pened – and also to get a clearer idea of the true size and scale of the city.

Aside from ven­omous snakes and dis­ease-car­ry­ing in­sects, there’s an­other danger­ous el­e­ment that the team has to con­tent with: the re­gion where the ex­ca­va­tion work is tak­ing place is ruled by drug car­tels. Some 88% of the cocaine smug­gled from

“We be­lieve that there are more arte­facts ly­ing hid­den, po­ten­tially even the graves of kings.” Chris Fisher, Ar­chae­ol­o­gist

South Amer­ica to the US trav­els through Hon­duras. His­tor­i­cally, the coun­try’s jun­gle has been off-lim­its to the po­lice and mil­i­tary. Drug traf­fick­ers have taken full ad­van­tage, clear­ing swathes of for­est to build roads and land­ing strips or to cre­ate plan­ta­tions to be used for money laun­der­ing. Keen to re­dress the balance, and ever mind­ful of the need for good pub­lic­ity, Hon­duran pres­i­dent Juan Or­lando Hernán­dez has now placed the val­leys un­der mil­i­tary pro­tec­tion. But ac­cord­ing to Hon­duran ar­chae­ol­o­gist Vir­gilio Pare­des these mea­sures haven’t stopped the smug­glers, loot­ers or log­gers: “The pres­i­dent promised to pro­tect this area, but he doesn’t have enough money. If we do noth­ing this jun­gle will dis­ap­pear within eight years.”

The re­searchers face a race against time. The map­ping of the val­leys has only just be­gun, and a large num­ber of ru­ins still lie undis­cov­ered. Chris Fisher is con­vinced that they are a small part of a pre­vi­ously un­known cul­ture and that many other lost cities lie hid­den in the jun­gle. Per­haps the real White City has yet to be found. The fact is, they lie in the mid­dle of one of the most danger­ous and heav­ily fought over re­gions in the world, and the drugs trade will not stop for any ru­ins.

Un­like Elkins, the traf­fick­ers are not dream­ing of a White City, but of ‘white gold’: cocaine. The war for the lost city of Hon­duras has only just be­gun.

RE­VEAL­ING TRACES Ex­perts then ex­am­ine the 3D model. They’re look­ing for changes to the land­scape and ev­i­dence of man­made struc­tures.

3D MAP What’s left is a 3D to­po­graphic model of the ground, on which all geo­met­ric forms and shapes can be seen.

FREE VIEW Spe­cial com­puter soft­ware is used to dig­i­tally strip away ob­sta­cles like trees or shrub­bery.

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