BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
You can’t have a pulp adventure without a lost civilization. You might even go so far as to say that no jungle adventure is complete without stumbling on a moldering old jungle city, reclaimed by creepers, vines, and dangerous wildlife. If you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll even get chased by a boulder on the way back out. But how much of these legends are based in reality?
According to local legend, Honduras once hosted a mythical city known as the White City – La Ciudad Blanca in the local tongue— so named for its white stone construction. Though its inhabitants, the legend claims, were wealthy and powerful, the city’s populace vanished without a trace one day, leaving nothing behind but the empty shell of the city that they had mysteriously abandoned. More ominous yet, the city developed a reputation as a “cursed” place, and any who set foot into the legendary ghost town would perish.
It goes without saying that these hyperbolic legends only garnished more interest. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, various swashbuckling explorers set out in search of this lost city. Their hyperbolic stories on returning home rarely turned up any hard evidence of the city, and most of their wilder claims were indistinguishable from your garden-variety tall tale. Did the White City even exist at al?
In the 1990s, filmmaker Steve Elkins – intrigued by the legends and wondering how much veracity they held – set out to uncover the truth about the mythical city. In doing so, he employed the latest (well, for the 1990s, anyway) technology, giving then-revolutionary new mapping techniques such as LIDAR a workout. LIDAR involves firing laser pulses from the air to identify the contours of any given surface over a wide-ranging area: perfect for trying to track down a minute series of manmade buildings in a vast Central American jungle. This was a long, tedious process, carried out intermittently over several decades, but eventually the team struck (white) gold: a series of mounds, plazas, terraces, and even a large earthen pyramid.
In 2015, another team, this one led by journalist and novelist Douglas Preston, actually managed to set foot in what could be the mythical White City. What they found surprised them. Whereas the Mayan culture is generally regarded to have been the dominant culture during the pre-contact days of Central America, the people who had once inhabited this archeological site were culturally distinct from the dominant influence of the Maya. The inhabitants of this city created numerous stone carvings and figurines in the shapes of creatures like vultures and monkeys, which remain even in the present day. Preston and his team believe that the tale of the abandoned city probably started in about 1500 AD, when the population of this archeological site disappeared. Seeing as how that’s right about when the Spanish showed up on the virgin Central American shores toting guns, an expansionistic attitude, and, most importantly, lots of foreign diseases, it’s not hard to imagine the population of the city quickly succumbing to an outbreak of smallpox and, effectively, “disappearing.”
But what about the curse? Preston’s group discovered that in their exploration of the city they all inadvertently contracted a parasitic infection known as leishmaniosis, spread by sandflies and other biting insects. The painful ulcers that the disease spreads can be lethal. In a culture where medical assistance was primitive and hard to come by, the rumors of a mysterious “curse” spreading from the nexus of the ghost city would have had some extra gravitas behind them.
So did Preston and his team actually discover the mythical White City? Ultimately, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever really know. The farther back one goes, the more difficult it becomes to disentangle fact from folklore: just look at the Bible for a study in how tough it can get. No records of the White City exist in any ancient documents we’ve uncovered. The White City might never really have existed; it could have just been a parable intended to warn other villagers about the perils of city life. Or it could still be out there somewhere, a treasure trove just waiting to be discovered…