In 1526 King Charles V of Spain received a letter in which one of his conquistadors, Hernando Cortes, described searching for a white Aztec city full of gold and riches. Cortes, widely credited (and reviled) with bringing about the fall of the Aztec empire, was a reliable observer and not prone to flights of mysticism or exaggeration. The natives believed Cortes was an emissary of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl and he managed to topple the Aztecs with fewer than 2,000 men and superior technology.
Occupied with a war against France at the time, Spain was already looting the new world for all the gold they could get out of it. Shortly after the letter arrived Cortes returned to Spain and his holdings in the new world were badly mismanaged by his proxy governor. Further references to the White City of Gold disappeared from the history books and the city lay forgotten under the dense Honduran jungle. For years explorers and treasure hunters searched the jungle for any trace of the city, with one man claiming he’d found evidence of the city in 1940. The needs of World War II superseded the needs of archaeologists and the city remained hidden, until recently.
In a story that could have come from an Indiana Jones movie, scientists believe they’ve found the ancient city. With money from private backers, the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM) flew over the area of Mosquitia in the easternmost part of Honduras, firing billions of laser pulses at the ground. Despite the thick jungle, enough of the laser pulses found their way to the ground to yield a precise and detailed topographical map of the region. The detailed maps of just sixty square miles of the forest took them a week to produce. Right in the middle the researchers discovered a square depression decorated with pyramid-like structures that were too geometrically precise not to be man-made.
Called Ciudad Blanca, or White City, by the natives, the settlement got its name from the white limestone the natives used in building it; a key feature Cortes noted in his letter. Ciudad Blanca was also called City of the Monkey God, where a jungle god in the form of a giant ape would seduce human women to produce half-human, half-ape minions. Today the only way through the thick jungle was by helicopter and subsequent ground surveys produced evidence that this was indeed the lost city of the Monkey God.
Honduras didn’t waste any time approving a dig to unearth the city. A joint team from the University of Colorado and the National Geographic Society is heading up the effort to uncover the city and recover any lost treasure it holds. The city is fabled to be one of extreme wealth and Cortes believed it to be full of gold treasure.
The Honduran government already has plans for an airstrip and development near the site. While the government would certainly lay claim to any treasure uncovered, the real gem for the government is tourism. The Lost City of the Monkey God would become an instant source of tourism and foreign cash which is worth more in the long-term to the government than the short-term gain from Aztec gold but it’s unlikely the Hondurans will be too picky about where the money comes from. I wouldn’t…
If the treasure is still there, the archaeologists and treasure hunters will find it. Even if all the gold has been looted over the years, the city will be a treasure trove for archeologists and will write new chapters in the history books of the Aztecs. The people who settled in that region, sometime in the late 1300s, called themselves the Mexica, where Europeans eventually derived the modern name for the area. For hundreds of years they thrived and eventually built an expansive empire.
Who they were and how they lived are going to become more clear but no less fascinating in the days and years ahead.
Will Granderson is a regular columnist for Goldco Precious Metals writing on finance, precious metals, and gold as an investment and in popular culture.