Ever since the conquest of the Americas in the 16th century, legends have circulated of a mysterious city buried deep in the jungles of Central America. Called “the White City” or sometimes “The Lost City of the Monkey God,” it quickly took on mythic status. It was said to be the great city of a forgotten civilization where artisans created magnificent artifacts of solid gold and priests and shamans wielded mysterious powers. Generation after generation of explorers and treasure seekers disappeared into the jungle in search of it. None ever found what they were looking for, and some died trying. By the 20th century, most people had decided the city’s existence was just a myth.
But the legend still exerted its pull on the imagination of adventurous souls. One such soul belonged to Steve Elkins, an entrepreneurial cameraman with an education in Geo-sciences. Elkins had been in LA since the 70s, and by the early 90s he was looking for new adventures. That was when he first heard about the White City. Almost on the spot, he decided to put together an expedition to go into the jungles of Honduras in search of it.
And that was when he met Mosquitia, the last great jungle wilderness of Central America, one of the densest, most mountainous, beautiful and inaccessible rain forests in the world. After traipsing through its muddy, mosquito-infested, snake-ridden depths for a couple of weeks, he realized that he could spend years doing this and find nothing. But he had been bitten by the bug of Lost Cities and vowed to return. Explorer: Legend of the Monkey God documents his journey tonight at 8/7c.
But Elkins is not the first to be intrigued by the enduring mystique of Lost Cities. Some remarkable explorers have gone in search of them. In the 19th century, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood explored the Maya ruins of Mexico and Honduras and published best-selling books that awakened the world to the marvels of the ancient Maya. Theodore Morde went in search of the White City in 1940 and came out of the Honduran jungles claiming to have found it. Morde promised to tell the world where the White City was located, but committed suicide without ever revealing where it was.
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Not to be put off by the failure of his 1994 expedition, Steve Elkins returned again and again to Mosquitia, always unable to discern the city’s location until 2009 when he heard about LIDAR, the revolutionary landscape scanning technology. It essentially allows you to peel back the layers of jungle vegetation and reveal whatever is beneath it on the ground. He immediately decided to put this technology to use and in 2011 began a LIDAR survey of the region. To everybody’s delight and astonishment, they found what looked like the outlines of a city.
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Explorer: Legend of the Monkey God follows Steve Elkins’ latest expedition to explore the valley pinpointed by the LIDAR to find a lost city. Elkins and the team discover foundations of man-made structures, elaborately carved stonework, pottery fragments, and clear signs of a significant ancient settlement. It was not the White City, which is, after all, only a legend, but it is a city of the relatively unknown ancient civilization of Mosquitia. Now, the team must look to the future of Mosquitia and research in the region.
Don’t miss Explorer: Legend of the Monkey God tonight, Sunday, October 4 at 8/7c on the National Geographic Channel.