Researchers have discovered a previously unknown lost city in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta—an isolated and difficult-to-access mountain range near the country’s Caribbean coast where the legend of El Dorado was born.
The ancient settlement—which was likely founded around 800 A.D. and abandoned during the Spanish Conquest—lies atop a steep ridge at an elevation of around 5,000 feet, hidden by dense forest.
National Geographic explorer Albert Lin and archaeologist Santiago Giraldo—who has been conducting research in the region for 20 years—uncovered the ancient city using a revolutionary imaging technology known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), which essentially lets you “see through” vegetation.
The technology makes use of instruments fitted onto aircraft that fire pulses of laser light towards the ground hundreds of thousands of times per second, enabling the creation of detailed 3D maps that reveal the topography of the land and any ancient man-made features that are not normally visible from above.
The researchers say the settlement was built by the Tairona—a mysterious civilization which once extended across the jungle-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada and parts of the Caribbean coast. Not much is known about the Tairona, but they are documented in records made by Spanish invaders—whose gold lust sparked the legend of El Dorado.
When the Spanish arrived on Colombia’s Caribbean coast at the beginning of the 16th century and first encountered Tairona settlements, they became fascinated by the gold ornaments that the natives were adorned with. Over time, the legend grew to the point where some believed that entire cities covered in the precious metal lay hidden in the mountains.
But while the Spanish never found the fabled El Dorado, modern technology is providing archaeologists with fascinating new insights into the Tairona and the extent of their influence in this mountainous region of Colombia.
“It’s really one of those things where you don’t always expect to find a lost city, but then sometimes if everything lines up just right, that can happen,” Lin told Newsweek.
“We were in a part of Colombia where there is a dramatic change of elevation. It goes from basically sea level, to the height of the base camp of Mount Everest within not that many miles,” he said. “And as you move up that valley, you get further and further up into the world of this people that were known as the Tairona.”
Archaeologists have been spent decades exploring the area to find out more about the people who lived here more than 500 years ago. In fact, the newly discovered settlement was found close to another famous Tairona archaeological site known as “Ciudad Perdida” which experts think was built around 600 A.D.
The city—which likely once had a population of between two and three thousand at its peak, with around 10,000 living in the surrounding area—was discovered in 1972 by looters who, like the Spanish conquistadors hundreds of years before them, were searching for gold and other treasures.
“[Ciudad Perdida] is just unbelievable,” Lin said. “A series of plateaus that look like they’re literally popping out of the sky, encapsulated by the most dense jungle you’ve ever seen in a very, very steep mountain terrain. Then you realize quickly that there is a series of tracks going off in every direction, almost like little pathways and roads,” he said.
Ciudad Perdida is a spectacular feat of engineering in its own right featuring an in-built gutter system which, to this day, protects the infrastructure from the vast amounts of rain that the region receives—around 12 feet every year. But at the entrance to the city lies a clue that indicates that there may be much more hidden beneath the thick forest canopy of the surrounding area than meets the eye.
This clue is the mysterious “map stone”—a large slab or rock containing various markings which archaeologists think delineate the countless paths that make their way out of Ciudad Perdida into the surrounding areas.
The existence of the map stone and the extensive network of paths has fueled speculation for many years that there are other hidden cities near Ciudad Perdida. But the steepness of the terrain, the thickness of the jungle and the remoteness of the location—as well as the fact that the area has long been a hub for FARC guerrillas and drug gangs—has hindered any real further exploration. In this context, technologies such as LiDAR can prove to be particularly helpful.
“So we strapped three different LiDAR sensors on a helicopter, pointed in a bunch of different directions and flew paths up and down those valleys looking for where those tracks led to,” Lin said.
The sensors are pointed in different directions to maximize the chance that some of the laser beams will penetrate through the forest canopy to the ground. Using the billions of laser points generated by the LiDAR survey, the team were then able to create a digital 3D model of the area around Ciudad Perdida, revealing never-before-seen man-made plateaus built into the mountains.
After identifying these plateaus, the crew decided to investigate one particularly promising site on foot, accompanied by a Colombian military escort. This was no easy task requiring a grueling 32-mile round-trip trek through the steep, dense forest—home to numerous poisonous snakes and scorpions.
But despite the obstacles, Lin and Giraldo eventually made it to the target plateau, where they found several pieces of pottery, terracing and stonework, confirming the location of a previously unknown ancient city.
“We hike straight up basically a jungle wall for hours upon hours until we finally made it to where the digital map that we created using lasers was pointing,” Lin said. “And sure enough, right there, little plateaus, and at the very top, we started to find pottery just percolating out of the ground. Evidence of a whole city left untouched and un-looted.”
“That moment of discovery, where you you come across the plateau that you’re looking for, and you see these stone steps just emerging out of the undergrowth, and you reach down and you see somebody’s fingerprint embedded on a piece of clay from hundreds of years ago, you can’t recreate that, it was amazing,” he said.
Lin suggests that this finding is just the beginning. In fact, the researchers have now identified a further six potential settlements, indicating that the Tairona settlements in the area had a further reach than previously thought. Technology like LiDAR even opens up the possibility that the entire extent of this ancient civilization could one day be revealed.
“We are in this totally new age of exploration with technologies, such as LiDAR, which are allowing us to look for these hidden stories in our past in completely new ways,” Lin said.
As for the Spanish conquistadors, they never did find the mythical El Dorado. But perhaps they would have been disappointed, in any case, if they had.
“What the Spaniards didn’t realize is that while there is a little bit of gold up there, there’s not a lot… actually very little,” Lin said. “The Tairona figured out this unbelievably sophisticated approach to gold plating, so most of their jewellery and pieces were actually mostly [made of] other materials with a little bit of gold plating.”
“For the Tairona it wasn’t about the [value of] the gold. It was about their connection to the Earth. Each part of the earth or each part of nature was its own deity. So to them, the Spaniards were basically coming and taking away the soul of the earth by taking away these metals,” he said.
Aside from their exceptional skills when it came to working with gold, the Tairona were also known to be fierce warriors who—protected by the mountainous terrain of the Sierra Nevada—largely resisted colonization by the Spanish for more than 75 years despite the superior weaponry of the invaders.
However, in their lust for Tairona gold, the Spanish helped spread diseases which were new to the Americas, such as typhus, influenza and smallpox. The locals had no immunity to these pathogens, meaning huge numbers were wiped out.
By around the mid-17th century, the Tairona had to abandon their settlements—which were gradually reclaimed by the forest—fleeing deeper into the mountains. The remnants of their culture still survive to this day, kept alive by several indigenous groups who make their home in the rugged Sierra Nevada.
“Lost Cities with Albert Lin” airs Sundays on National Geographic.
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