We just published much of the Mosquitia data in Plos One – check it out here
(Image, David Yoder, National Geographic)
[first posted on 03/08/15]
Please note: an official letter from the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH) in support of the project appears at the end of this post.
Media FAQ: Under the LiDAR Expedition – February 2015
Over an 11 day period in February, 2015, an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists and other scientists explored and documented a remote valley in the Mosquitia region of Honduras. Over the next few years, the team will be analyzing and publishing its findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
In addition to the upcoming scientific publications that will result from this expedition, the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH) and the Honduran President asked the team to announce its findings immediately. They did so through a short news article written by Douglas Preston, with photographs by David Yoder, and posted on the National Geographic website. The online post highlights the important history, ecological richness, and cultural importance of the Mosquitia region. Honduran officials wanted especially to shine a global spotlight on this highly endangered area, with the goal of protecting it as a vital part of the country’s ecological and cultural patrimony. This is crucial because, at the present rate of deforestation and looting, this valley is estimated to be reached (and therefore plundered) within six to eight years. With over a million views in less than two weeks, the response to this news article has been overwhelmingly positive. The following section presents a FAQ about the project and initial results while appropriate academic materials are being prepared.
What was the purpose of the 2015 expedition?
The purpose of the expedition was to survey and record what appeared to be large, undocumented settlements (“cities” as defined anthropologically) in a remote valley in the Mosquitia. The settlements were first identified in a 2012 light detection and ranging (LiDAR) survey of the area conducted by the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM) and the University of Houston for Under the LiDAR Productions (UTL) with the approval of IHAH. (The May, 2013 issue of the New Yorker Magazine carried a comprehensive article on this discovery, written by its archaeological correspondent, Douglas Preston). None of these settlements had been documented in academic publications, in unpublished project reports, or in any other documents present in the IHAH archaeological archive maintained in Tegucigalpa. Prior to the first airborne survey of 2012, IHAH’s then head of cultural patrimony was consulted in 2011 in order to avoid areas with already registered sites. The sites were not in the Honduran Government database of cultural patrimony.
Who sponsored the expedition?
The expedition was sponsored by UTL and the Honduran government with additional support from NCALM/University of Houston and Colorado State University. It included Honduran and American archaeologists, anthropologists, engineers, and other scientists. It was conducted under the auspices of IHAH, directed by Virgilio Paredes Trapero, with the assistance of the Honduran military and the President of Honduras. All relevant permits were acquired.
Who were the scientific personnel on the expedition?
The expedition included Honduran and American archaeologists from leading universities and organizations, an anthropologist (to analyze the broader cultural context of the site’s material culture and to continue ongoing ethnographic analysis among the indigenous groups of the Mosquitia), two ethnobotanists (to make observations of plants important to indigenous people, especially plants that might be a “legacy” from the time of human occupation), and a LiDAR engineer with a portable Terrestrial Laser Scanner (TLS) provided by Riegl USA to NCALM to document any finds in situ. A full list of expedition personnel appears below.
What did the team find?
Through the 2015 fieldwork the team was able to verify much of the initial 2012 LiDAR findings around one of the larger settlements, as well as document many features not visible in these data by verifying a sample of the overall LiDAR data. Through this work the team demonstrated that these settlements were embedded within a human-modified landscape that includes roads and paths, water control features such as reservoirs and canals, possible river channel modification, and agricultural terraces. This research adds a new chapter to an existing body of evidence demonstrating that the Mosquitia region was densely settled in the past. A pristine, undisturbed, and important cache of 52 ground-stone objects was located and documented both photographically and using the TLS scans to create a 3D image of the cache with a resolution of 1cm or better, without a single object being disturbed. No excavations were undertaken; everything was left in situ.
What does this say about LiDAR technology?
The multi-level tropical forest of la Mosquitia represents some of the densest vegetation cover in the world. The UTL project demonstrates that LiDAR can penetrate even this heavy vegetation cover to produce meaningful results. In many respects this represents the ultimate demonstration of this technology, which was used for the first time to explore an unknown region for archaeological features. It also means that many areas of the world for which little archaeological data exist due to heavy vegetation, rugged topography, or other limitations can now be mapped and explored to record global patrimony and develop preservation plans.
What are the ecological implications of this work?
Though the focus of the UTL team to date has primarily been on the archaeology of the study areas, the implications for the ecology of the region are just as important. The LiDAR record generated by this project includes a comprehensive, three-dimensional, database containing extensive information about the vegetation hydrology, topography, and geology within the regions investigated. This constitutes an extraordinary compendium of data that will prove invaluable for the eventual conservation of this region.
What permits and permissions were obtained?
All relevant Honduran legal regulations were strictly followed and the appropriate permits were obtained from IHAH. No excavations were allowed, and all care and respect was taken to leave the sites as they were found with the goal of returning for long-term systematic investigation by an international research team that will include Honduran researchers and students.
Were Honduran researchers included on the team?
The 2015 field team consisted of seven scientists including two Honduran researchers in lead roles on the project. Oscar Neil Cruz, who is the lead archaeologist for IHAH and who has worked in the Mosquitia region, collaborated with the team throughout the duration of the project and participated in the ground verification efforts and the archaeological interpretation of ancient settlements. Juan Carlos Fernández-Díaz is a LiDAR researcher with NCALM and the University of Houston. Dr. Fernandez has played an important role in the project from the initial LiDAR acquisition in 2012 to the ground verification efforts of 2015
Have these sites been documented before?
The settlements documented through LiDAR and verified by the 2015 fieldwork do not appear in academic publications and have not been mentioned in project reports and other documents present in the official IHAH archaeological archive maintained in the Honduran capital city Tegucigalpa. Importantly the sites have not been previously registered with the Honduran Government in its database of cultural patrimony. Neither the ruins nor the surrounding rainforest showed any evidence of recent human habitation or intrusion.
Were local people, or evidence of modern people, present at the locations investigated?
The specific area investigated is a pristine tropical wilderness with no evidence of modern human settlement, roads, agriculture, pathways, or other presence. This doesn’t rule out the possibility that indigenous hunters have occasionally accessed the area, but no clear evidence of their presence was noted by the research team. Botanists who were part of the team concur with these findings. This is also consistent with the 2012 LiDAR results which clearly show no human-generated clearing, deforestation, or other intrusion. To be able to tread lightly in this tropical wilderness was a privilege that has been acknowledged by every member of the team. By contrast, the team’s ethnographer, Dr. Alicia M. González, met with members of local indigenous Miskito and Pech communities. The overwhelming concern voiced was about the impact of deforestation on their lives, especially those whose livelihoods are dependent on the rivers: “Se están secando los ríos porque cortan los arboles y se van los animales porque no tienen comida, y hay menos pescado.” (“The rivers are drying. They cut the trees and the animals leave because there is no food and there are less fish.) Dr. González also worked with several Honduran special forces soldiers who are Pech, Miskito, Garifuna and Tawahka who were being trained to safeguard the Biosphere. The valley we investigated is approximately 75 kilometers from the nearest indigenous Pech village.
Are the settlements documented through LiDAR and ground verification the legendary la Ciudad Blanca?
At no time in any print or media venue has any member of the team declared that any of the settlements that we have been able to document correspond to the place known in Honduran oral tradition as “La Ciudad Blanca” or that has been popularized outside of Honduras as the “Lost City of the Monkey God”. The news article on the National Geographic magazine website made the point: there are many lost cities. However, the importance of this place called ‘Casa Blanca’ as part of the intangible national heritage of Honduras, and particularly of the indigenous peoples of La Mosquitia, has never been negated.
How have team members recognized previous academic work within the Mosquitia?
In our scholarly work dealing with the Mosquitia region, we applaud and recognize the contributions of previous researchers, both local and foreign. Since 2012, this includes two peer-reviewed academic publications and papers presented at four academic conferences in the United States, Honduras, and Europe. All of this work includes extensive bibliographies with scholarly citations as vetted by the peer-review process. It should be recognized that the short news announcement by Douglas Preston posted on the National Geographic magazine website on March 2nd is not an academic piece, and as such does not include citations. In his longer 2013 New Yorker article on the project in May of 2012, to which the news piece visibly linked, Preston included significant sections on previous work, along with interviews with many scholars engaged in research within Honduras.
What is the current ecological status of the Mosquitia region?
The Mosquitia Biosphere is clearly endangered. From 1990 to 2005 37.1% of Honduran forest cover was destroyed due to illegal logging and deforestation – largely for beef production. In 2011 the reserve was placed on the UN danger list at the request of the Government of Honduras as a result of “Illegal settlement by squatters, illegal commercial fishing, illegal logging, poaching and a proposed dam construction”. In the two years since our three areas of investigation were documented using LiDAR, illegal clearing and deforestation has approached within 12 miles of one valley, and has decimated the floor of a second. Ancient settlements now visible in recently cleared areas of the biosphere are presently undergoing looting and damage. Undoubtedly something must be done to stem the tide of this loss.
What has been the Honduran Governmental response to our work?
After the announcement of the initial LiDAR findings in 2012 former president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa created an archaeological preserve to help protect the cultural patrimony of the region. On 03/10/15 President Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado announced that the Honduran Military will set up a formal protection zone around critical areas of the Mosquitia preserve to initiate efforts to stop deforestation. Additionally Honduran officials will begin a program to reclaim some areas lost to deforestation. This includes protections around the zone visited in 2015 along with other archaeological sites known to be in the region. Virgilio Paredes Trapero, current director of IHAH has stated that international resources are necessary to further protect the extended Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in which the valley we investigated in 2015 is embedded.
Recognition of this official call for assistance is signaled by a formal statement from the United States Senate floor made by Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont that included the following:
“President Hernandez’s commitment to preserve these archeological sites from looters and other criminal activity, and to protect the broader forest area by replanting the jungle and countering deforestation, deserves our support. I look forward to working with the Government of Honduras on how the United States may be able to assist its conservation efforts.”
These announcements signal official Honduran Governmental and International recognition that the Mosquitia is endangered and a new willingness to engage in efforts at preserving the important ecological and cultural patrimony of the region.
What do we envision as the preferred outcome of our work?
It must be emphasized that the ultimate goal of our work is to highlight the rich cultural and ecological patrimony of this endangered region so that international cooperation and resources can be brought to bear to help initiate effective conservation. To lose the rich ecological and cultural patrimony of la Mosquitia to deforestation and associated land perturbation would be a global loss. We are convinced that this sentiment is shared by the many current and past researchers who have worked in the region. The team urges those archaeologists and others concerned about Honduras and its unique cultural patrimony to please join us in this crucial effort, which will take the synergy of collaboration and goodwill among all involved.
We hope our colleagues will realize the enormous contribution and attention that this project has brought, not only to the academic community working in the area but to the people and government of Honduras, and we hope that together we will be able to foster and encourage greater academic research in the area.
To this end the UTL team members propose an academic workshop on the current status of ecological and archaeological work within la Mosquitia, along with future directions for conservation and action, to be held in 2015. Colorado State University has generously offered to host this meeting on the Fort Collins, Colorado, USA campus. Christopher Fisher (firstname.lastname@example.org) will be the point person for this inclusive conference.
Mark Adams, Sound Mixer
Bill Benenson, UTL Scientific L.L.C. Filmmaker
Maritza Carbajal, TAFFS Local Fixer
Anna S. Cohen, M.A., ABD, Anthropology, University of Washington.
Steve Elkins, UTL Scientific, L.L.C. Filmmaker, Project Lead
William E. Carter Ph.D., Professor and Senior Research Engineer, National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, University of Houston
Oscar Neil Cruz Castillo, Lead Archaeologist, Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH)
Mr. Josh Feezer, AC/Media Manager
Juan Carlos Fernandez-Diaz Ph.D., National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, University of Houston
Christopher T. Fisher, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anthropology, Colorado State University
Alicia M. González, Ph.D., Independent Anthropologist & Ethnographer, formerly, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian
Sparky Greene, UTL Scientific, L.L.C. Filmmaker
Stephen Leisz Ph.D., Associate Professor of Geography, Colorado State University.
Ian Matheson, TAFFS Expedition Coordinator
Mark Plotkin Ph.D., President, The Amazon Conservation Team.
Luis Jorge Poveda Álvarez Ph.D., Biologist, Professor, National University of Costa Rica
Douglas Preston, Writer, National Geographic Magazine
Lucian Read, Director of Photography
George Rossman, Ph.D. Professor of Mineralogy, Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, California Institute of Technology
Michael Sartori M.Sc, National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, University of Houston
Ramesh L. Shrestha, Ph.D., Director National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, University of Houston
Abhinav Singhania M.Sc., National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, University of Houston
Stevie Sullivan, TAFFS Expedition Coordinator
Dan Thompson, Ph.D. Archaeologist, formerly Director of Global Projects at The Global Heritage Fund
Julie Trampush, Production Manager
Tom Weinberg, Adjunct Professor, Media Ecology, Columbia College, Chicago
Andrew Woods, TAFFS Expedition Coordinator
David Yoder, Photographer, National Geographic Magazine
Media Contact: Maggie Begley/MBC Maggie@mbcprinc.com
Today United States Senator Patrick Leahy advocated for the preservation of the ecological and cultural patrimony of the Mosquitia. Reacting to President Hernandez’s recent announcement for increased protection in the area, Leahy stated in part
“President Hernandez’s commitment to preserve these archeological sites from looters and other criminal activity and to protect the broader forest area by replanting the jungle and countering deforestation deserves our support. I look forward to working with the Government of Honduras on how the United States may be able to assist its conservation efforts.”
Read the full statement in the Congressional Record.
Please listen to Chris Fisher interviewed by Morning Edition‘s Renee Montagne on the recent UTL visit to one of the sites documented using LiDAR in 2011. More information can be found here on the UTL project media FAQ.
Please see the piece in National Geographic Magazine online by Douglas Preston on our recent work in the Mosquitia
Archaeology, by its nature, is a destructive process. Once material is removed from its original context, that contextual information is gone. It exists only in the form of data recorded by the archaeologist who excavated it. Furthermore, the removal of debris, fill, and sediment from ruins exposes underlying architecture to the elements. Unless additional steps are taken, the effects of mechanical and chemical erosion will damage any features that have not been removed during excavation. In order to preserve sites for future generations, archaeologists must consolidate standing architecture and refill open units once excavations have concluded. As we prepare to begin excavations for the 2014 field season, lets look back at how our preservation efforts from last year have held up.
In 2013, we excavated a large community public building labeled Casa 5128. Below is the structure prior to our excavation. The overlying vegetation has been cleared, but the rubble and wall fall has not been removed.
Below is the same structure towards the end of the 2013 excavations. The rubble from the collapsed portion of the walls has been removed, exposing the standing portion of the walls underneath. Our excavation uncovered several floors and a central hearth, which were recorded and removed to expose the underlying platform fill.
Once excavations were concluded, the rubble from the collapsed wall fall was packed inside to brace the standing portion of the walls, and the excavated sediment was poured back into the interior of the building. This helped stabilize the structure to protect it against erosion. Here’s the same structure one year later:
The forest has largely reclaimed Casa 5128, which is now more protected than it was before excavations began. It is now almost impossible to tell than anyone excvated here at all.
Chris Fisher, along with Steve Elkins – UTL, Juan Carlos Fernandez – NCALM, and Virgilio Paredes Trapero – Director of IHAH, will be speaking on October 20-22 at the Tower of London on results and implications from the Mosquitia Honduras project. At this event CyArk will formally launch the CyArk 500 Challenge to digitally preserve 500 cultural heritage sites within the next five years. As part of their long-standing mission CyArk hopes to save these cultural heritage sites digitally before more are ravaged by war, terrorism, arson, urban sprawl, climate change, earthquakes, floods, and other threats. There isn’t enough money or enough time to physically save every site, but CyArk wants to use 3D technology to digitally save these sites to make them available for generations to come.
Should be a great venue to showcase our LiDAR efforts
A recent press release from Colorado State University
Note to Reporters: Print-quality photos of LiDAR images of the research area and CSU assistant professor of geography Stephen Leisz are available with the news release at www.news.colostate.edu.
FORT COLLINS – Colorado State University professors Christopher Fisher and Stephen Leisz have partnered with an international team of researchers utilizing LiDAR technology to seek ancient settlements and human constructed landscapes in an area long rumored to contain the legendary city of Ciudad Blanca – the mythical “White City” – in Central America.
The project is a collaboration of the Global Heritage Foundation (GHF), UTL Productions, the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM), CSU, and the Honduran government. It is outlined in detail in the May 6 edition of The New Yorker.
Fisher, associate professor of archaeology, and Leisz, assistant professor of geography, have successfully worked with airborne LiDAR to help reveal a lost pre-Columbian city in central Mexico. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing technique used to examine the earth’s surface.
Researchers focused their search for evidence of ancient settlements in the Mosquitia Coast region of Central America. Until now, dense tropical forests and relative inaccessibility of the region have hampered systematic archaeological investigation.
LiDAR’s computer-generated images allow researchers to “see” through the forest canopy to the ground surface, revealing any evidence of ancient settlements or human-engineered landscapes.
“The LiDAR point cloud data clearly show the remains of large settlements that can be characterized as ancient cities based on their spatial complexity, size and organization,” Fisher said. “We may never be able to tell whether any of these are Ciudad Blanca, or whether the legendary city ever existed, but we can clearly see in the UTL data evidence that there was a densely settled region with a human modified environment. These conclusions provide important new insights into the pre-Hispanic settlement of this largely unexplored region.”
Interpretation of the LiDAR data suggests that the largest of these settlements is roughly the size of the central core of Copan, Honduras, though the architecture appears to be much less monumental. Copan was a Mayan city of nearly 20,000 people that thrived from the 5th through 9th centuries A.D.
Fisher and Leisz utilized LiDAR in recent research documenting the extent and spatial organization of the newly discovered ancient city of Angamuco, Michoacán, Mexico, as part of the Legacies of Resilience Archaeological Project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Geographic Society. Fisher, Leisz and several co-authors championed the use of LiDAR in Mesoamerica in a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as a scientific revolution that will fundamentally change the way that archaeologists do fieldwork.
“We were able to use our work at Angamuco to help reveal similar patterns in the Mosquitia data,” said Leisz. “The Honduras LiDAR results add to a growing number of studies using LiDAR point cloud-derived elevation data to analyze the ancient human impacts on the landscape of the Americas.”
Over the next several months Fisher, Leisz, and NCALM scientists will systematically analyze the Mosquitia data in preparation for fieldwork aimed at ground verification and documentation of the results as part of the broader GHF project. Leisz recently traveled to Honduras to sign a memorandum of understanding between CSU and GHF, as well as agreements of collaboration with The Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), and Porfirio Lobo, president of Honduras. Initial results from the project will be presented by Leisz and Fisher in a session on the use of LiDAR at the upcoming American Geophysical Union Meeting of the Americas, to be held May 14-17, in Cancun, Mexico.
In the El Dorado Machine, noted author Douglas Preston outlines the efforts to uncover traces of ancient civilization in the Mosquitia region of Honduras. The Legacies of Resilience Team, including Christopher Fisher and Stephen Leisz, have been involved in this effort. Check out the article here, which mentions the work at Angamuco and has a couple of quotes from Chris Fisher.
This animation shows the area of the Main Platform at Angamuco with and without the overlying vegetation. A static image of this view has been featured in many recent publications.