The Mysterious Lost City of the Jaguar

February 11, 2016

Over the past month, the excavation of an ancient city in Honduras has yielded a trove of remarkable stone artifacts from a mysterious, unnamed Pre-Columbian civilization. A joint American-Honduran team of archaeologists uncovered and removed more than 200 sculptures from the base of a large earthen mound at the center of the site, which is being called the “City of the Jaguar.”

The artifacts, some whole and some broken, were flown by helicopter to a laboratory near the town of Catacamas that was recently built to study and house them .

“The cache is an ofrenda” or offering, said Chris Fisher, an archaeologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who headed the team. “It’s like a shrine.” Caches of objects have been reported in other areas of eastern Honduras, but this is the first one ever to be professionally excavated.

The excavation revealed that the objects had been carefully placed together, all at one time, on a prepared floor of red clay. They were arranged around a key object: an enigmatic sculpture of a vulture with partially spread wings.

Ritual stone vessels surrounded it, their rims decorated with vultures and snakes. Some vessels had carvings depicting a strange humanoid figure with a triangular head, hollow eyes, and an open mouth on a withered-looking body. Fisher thinks these might depict a “death figure,” perhaps the bundled corpse of an ancestor prepared for burial.

Around the central cluster of artifacts, Fisher and his team exposed many stone “metates,” which look like curved tables with three legs used for grinding corn, but much larger and more ornate. They are believed to be seats of power, and many in the cache were carved with animal figures and geometric designs. This group included the “were-jaguar” head, which gave the city its name, thought to represent a shaman in a half-animal, half-human state. The artifacts probably date to the Mesoamerican Post-Classic phase, between AD 1000 and 1520.

The Pre-Columbian city was discovered in 2013 using an aerial survey method called lidar that uses pulses of laser light to map the ground. The city was hidden under triple-canopy jungle in an unexplored valley, ringed by mountains, in a remote region known as La Mosquitia. Archaeologists first entered the ruins in February, 2015 and happened upon the cache on the second day of exploration.

The excavated area encompasses less than 200 square feet of the enormous archaeological site, which includes at least 19 prehistoric settlements, probably part of a single chiefdom, spread along several miles of a river.

One of the nearby sites has two parallel mounds that may be the remains of a Mesoamerican ballcourt similar to those left by the Maya civilization, indicating a link between this culture and its powerful neighbors to the west and north. The ballgame was a sacred ritual that re-enacted the struggle between the forces of good and evil, and might also have been a way for groups to avoid warfare by solving conflicts through a match instead. The ballgame was sometimes associated with human sacrifice, including the decapitation of the losing team or its captain.

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