Today, what is a tropical wilderness in Honduras is really just an abandoned garden. Or at least, those are the thoughts of a Colorado State University professor who was featured in National Geographic for his archaeological findings.
Anthropology professor and archaeologist Christopher Fisher, Ph.D., was part of a small team of people, discovered what they call the ancient “City of the Jaguar” and “Valley of the Fortress” in the Mosquitia region of Honduras, which is the largest rain forest in Central America. The interdisciplinary team of archaeologists and other scientists explored and documented the valley over an 11-day period in February.
Fisher said the focus has been on the science of the archaeology of the region, and the scientific investigation of how people in the past occupied that landscape, transformed it and what kind of societies were in it before the European conquest in A.D. 1520.
“So I became fascinated with the idea of learning about this past people, because this area of Honduras occupies the big connection between North and South America,” Fisher said. “Across this landscape, there must have been incredible changes in people, in information, in flows of materials, but we know virtually nothing about it.”
Because of the rugged inaccessibility of the area, the region had been almost entirely unstudied. To find out what was in the densely-vegetated area, Light Detection and Ranging was used in 2012. LiDAR is a device that uses infrared beams and GPS to precisely identify archaeological features on the ground.
Associate professor of geography Steve Leisz, Ph.D, helped with interpreting the LiDAR data. The LiDAR discoveries were highlighted in an article from the New Yorker in May 2012.
“It’s faster,” Leisz said. “If we can automate it, we can tell the computer, ‘Take these parameters, look through the whole area and highlight every part that fits those parameters.’ So you can take large amounts of data and analyze it quickly, rather by doing it all by hand, which is the way they visually look through all of it, which is a way, so far, people have really done it.”
The initial expedition was originally sponsored by a private individuals, Bill Benenson and Steve Elkins. Later, support was received from the University of Houston and CSU. In 2015, the team received funding and resources to go to the areas and verify some of the field results they found from the LiDAR. They ended up finding mounds, plazas, house foundations and many other features. They also found a cache of 52 artifacts on the surface.
“When we did that, it turned out to be absolutely fantastic,” Fisher said. “It was a pristine environment, nobody was living there, at least pristine since it was abandoned.”
The team was given a $100,000 grant by National Geographic in January to systematically excavate the artifacts from the cache.
The environment was completely unexplored, and the area was only accessible by helicopter. The environment holds some of the world’s most venomous snakes and dangerous parasites, including the leishmaniasis. Fisher said there is a balance between the “adventure” aspects and the “scientific” aspects of archaeology, and he said he is not interested in the “adventure” aspect.
“I don’t do ‘adventuring,’ I don’t do risks,” Fisher said. “I’m not out there to push the boundaries — it’s not an extreme sport for me. It’s kind of my job. I don’t have a death wish.”
Instead, Fisher said he is more fascinated by the ecological implications of the findings.
“(The) landscape was completely transformed in a way people wouldn’t suspect,” Fisher said.
The forest area is under pressure and on the brink of deforestation, this specific valley is on the edge of a deforested area. Fisher said the nearest deforestation was about 12 miles away. This deforestation is used for fast-food cattle grazing. Fisher said this beef is even being sold to fast food restaurants in the United States.
“There are companies, big fast food companies involved from the United States, who were buying beef from the nearest city where we fly out,” Fisher said.
He said the valley he was in may contain animals that have not yet been researched.
Currently, there are Honduran special forces guarding the area, but they can only be there for so long, Fisher said. Fisher also said the President of Honduras is very supportive of conservation of the area. Fisher presented the Honduran president the 2015 Latin American Conservation Award on behalf of CSU.
“Many people see archaeology as kind of a vanity discipline, and I would argue that archaeology is front and center in helping to formulate policies to conservation policy to help us deal with impacts of global climate change,” Fisher said. “This is one way that archaeology can help make a real world difference, like a modern difference, even though it’s a discipline rooted in the past. We’re definitely trying to bring in conservation into this effort, but it’s very difficult to bring scientists into the valley because of the threat of parasitic diseases and things like that.”
Collegian Reporter Seth Bodine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Sbodine120.