Plos One article on the Mosquitia

Posted on 25. Aug, 2016 by Christopher Fisher in Cuidad Blanca, Honduras, LiDAR, Mosquitia, Publications, archaeology

We just published much of the Mosquitia data in Plos One – check it out here

Media FAQ for the UTL Mosquitia, Honduras project 2015

Posted on 18. Mar, 2015 by Christopher Fisher in Honduras, LiDAR, Mosquitia, archaeology

Media FAQ for the UTL Mosquitia, Honduras project 2015

(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 ( will be the point person for this inclusive conference.

Project Personnel:

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

Colorado Public Radio interview with Chris Fisher on the Mosquitia Project

Posted on 10. Mar, 2015 by Christopher Fisher in Honduras, LiDAR, Mosquitia, archaeology

Colorado Public Radio interview with Chris Fisher on the Mosquitia Project

Here is an interview that I did with Ryan Warner from Colorado Public Radio about our recent work in Honduras.

Photograph by Dave Yoder, National Geographic

Chris Fisher discusses Mosquitia work on National Public Radio

Posted on 10. Mar, 2015 by Christopher Fisher in Honduras, LiDAR, Mosquitia

Chris Fisher discusses Mosquitia work on National Public Radio

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.

Photograph UTL productions.

New Honduras Work Reported in National Geographic

Posted on 02. Mar, 2015 by Christopher Fisher in Honduras, LiDAR, Mosquitia, archaeology

New Honduras Work Reported in National Geographic

Please see the piece in National Geographic Magazine online by Douglas Preston on our  recent work in the Mosquitia

Photograph by David Yoder.

Chris Fisher Invited Speaker at the Tower of London for the CyArk 500

Posted on 30. Sep, 2013 by Christopher Fisher in Cuidad Blanca, Honduras, LiDAR, Mosquitia, News, Technology, archaeology

Chris Fisher Invited Speaker at the Tower of London for the CyArk 500

The CyArk 500 Conference

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


Angamuco Mentioned in a Recent New Yorker Article

Posted on 29. Apr, 2013 by Christopher Fisher in Grants, LORE-LPB, LiDAR, archaeology

Angamuco Mentioned in a Recent New Yorker Article

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.

May 6, 2013 Issue

Excavating a Purépecha Community Building – Casa 5128

Posted on 22. Mar, 2013 by Christopher Fisher in LORE-LPB, LiDAR, Michoacán, Pátzcuaro Archaeology, archaeology

Excavating a Purépecha Community Building – Casa 5128

Casa 5128 – a Purépecha public building

Casa 5128 prior to clearing and excavation

Excavation is proceeding well at Casa 5128 – one of two areas currently under excavation.  5128 represents a large building that dominates a small neighborhood of residential and public architecture near one of the largest pyramid complexes at the ancient city.

Casa 5128 during initial clearing

Casa 5128 is constructed on a large platform of stone and rubble that served to flatten a small hill that forms one end of the complex.  On top of this platform walls were constructed of uncut stacked stone with simple clay mortar.  We started excavation by systematically clearing rubble and debris to expose the original exterior and interior.  This also fully exposed the interior areas of the house so that they could be excavated.  At the close of the excavation season the walls and platform of the house will be stabilized and reburied.

Excavating through rubble and wallfall at Casa 5128

Exposing the first floor, Casa 5128

Excavation within the house interior shows a clear sequence of debris on top of a Late Postclassic floor (A.D. 1350-1520), with a second possible floor below containing a mixed Early-Middle Postclassic assemblage (A.D. 1000-1350).  This is followed by fill and debris that form the platform itself.

Clearing debris to expose the first floor, casa 5128

Excavating floor 1, casa 5128

Excavating floor 1, casa 5128

As of today (03/21/2013) we have fully excavated the interior of the house and exposed the platform at the base of the floor-area.  Now the hard part, mapping, drawing profiles, and making sure everything is fully documented prior to consolidation and reburial.

Exposing the platform at the base of casa 5128

Platform at the base of casa 5128 after excavation

Second view of the platform after excavation, casa 5128

New Space Archaeology Grant From NASA

Posted on 20. May, 2010 by Christopher Fisher in Grants, Michoacán, NASA, News, Pátzcuaro Archaeology, Uncategorized

New Space Archaeology Grant From NASA

Colorado State University geographers and anthropologists will use satellite imagery to examine ancient societies in Mexico as part of a Space Archaeology grant from NASA.

Long-term consequences of climate change

Satellite imagery from NASA will help CSU Geographer Stephen J. Leisz and colleague Christopher T. Fisher examine the long-term consequences of climate change on ancient societies in Mexico and model long-term human and environment interaction in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin in Michoacán, Mexico.

The high resolution ALOS PRISM satellite data provided to the team through the NASA grant will be integrated with ongoing archaeological and paleoenvironmental investigations to examine relationships between climatic fluctuation, landscape development, land degradation and the formation of complex societies in the west central highlands of Mexico, as part of the Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeological Project.

Remote sensing data

The project uses remote sensing data to better model the ancient landscape in ways not possible with data otherwise available. It is expected that the development of high-resolution, large-area, elevation models from the satellite data will represent an important archaeological tool for the research team.

The Advanced Land Observing Satellite, or ALOS, in orbit above Earth. (Photo courtesy of NASA).

“This research will allow us to create and test high spatial resolution models of linked human and environmental development and collapse over long periods of time that will in turn help current and future conservation efforts throughout Latin America,” said Leisz.

New and innovative technique

Researchers will examine the impact of the Medieval climatic anomaly (A.D. 950-1250) and the subsequent ‘Little Ice Age’ on Central Mexico.

By integrating ALOS PRISM satellite data into their research, Leisz and Fisher are offering a new and innovative technique, with potential for use by other scientists.

“The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin is an important example of coupled human and environmental change,” said Fisher, director of the Legacies project.

“A key aspect of the Legacies project is to create explanatory models to help explain changes in ancient lake level, distribution of agricultural lands and the location of ancient settlements. We want to see how people in the past responded to climate change as examples that can help modern policy.”

Agricultural adaptations

Fisher and Leisz will specifically look at the impact of the Medieval climatic anomaly (A.D. 950-1250) and the subsequent ‘Little Ice Age’ on Central Mexico.

“For the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, the Medieval climatic anomaly likely lowered lake levels and increased the agrarian potential of the region, while the opposite may have occurred during the Little Ice Age,” said Fisher. “This is the opposite impact expected by many researchers.”

How ancient peoples modified their landscape

Researchers will examine the impact of the Medieval climatic anomaly (A.D. 950-1250) and the subsequent 'Little Ice Age' on Central Mexico.

“Through the NASA-supported research we hope to better understand how ancient peoples modified their landscape to mitigate the impact of climatic fluctuation,” Leisz said. “As societies become larger, they have access to increasing amounts of labor that they often invest in the landscape to mitigate environmental change.”

One important outcome of the project will be a better understanding of the timing, form, and function of intensive agricultural features such as terraces that are found throughout the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin.

“Ultimately we hope to focus on environmental change as a long-term process rather then a trigger for social complexity,” said Fisher.

Collect ground reference data in conjunction with satellite

CSU graduate student Jason Bush surveying with Trimble equipment in Michoacán, Mexico.

Fisher and Leisz begin field work on the two-year, $155,591 grant in summer 2010. The researchers will use TrimbleRecon rugged handheld computers as well as the GeoXH and GeoXT GPS receivers, to accurately map every cultural feature they encounter as well as collect ground reference data that will be used in conjunction with the satellite imagery to create high-resolution elevation models of the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin.

CSU graduate student Jason Bush surveying with Trimble equipment in Michoacán, Mexico.

Fisher and his team recently discovered the ruins of an ancient urban center in the heart of the Purépecha Empire in Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, located in the central Mexican state of Michoacán.

Multidisciplinary research project

The multidisciplinary Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeological Project includes archaeologists, geologists and geographers from the United States and Mexico. They explore prehistoric sites to better understand the development of prehistoric societies and relationships between humans and climate change.

Fisher is a fellow with CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability.

Contact: Kimberly Sorensen
Phone: (970) 491-0757