Colorado State University Scientists Aiding Search for Lost Cities in Central America

Note to Reporters: Print-quality photos of LiDAR images of the research area and CSU assistant professor of geography Stephen Leisz are available with the news release at

Colorado State University professors Christopher Fisher and Stephen Leisz have partnered with an international team of researchers utilizing LiDAR technology to seek ancient settlements and human constructed landscapes in an area long rumored to contain the legendary city of Ciudad Blanca – the mythical “White City” – in Central America.

The project is a collaboration of the Global Heritage Foundation (GHF), UTL Productions, the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM), CSU, and the Honduran government. It is outlined in detail in the May 6 edition of The New Yorker.

Fisher, associate professor of archaeology, and Leisz, assistant professor of geography, have successfully worked with airborne LiDAR to help reveal a lost pre-Columbian city in central Mexico. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing technique used to examine the earth’s surface.

Researchers focused their search for evidence of ancient settlements in the Mosquitia Coast region of Central America. Until now, dense tropical forests and relative inaccessibility of the region have hampered systematic archaeological investigation.

LiDAR’s computer-generated images allow researchers to “see” through the forest canopy to the ground surface, revealing any evidence of ancient settlements or human-engineered landscapes.

“The LiDAR point cloud data clearly show the remains of large settlements that can be characterized as ancient cities based on their spatial complexity, size and organization,” Fisher said. “We may never be able to tell whether any of these are Ciudad Blanca, or whether the legendary city ever existed, but we can clearly see in the UTL data evidence that there was a densely settled region with a human modified environment. These conclusions provide important new insights into the pre-Hispanic settlement of this largely unexplored region.”

Interpretation of the LiDAR data suggests that the largest of these settlements is roughly the size of the central core of Copan, Honduras, though the architecture appears to be much less monumental. Copan was a Mayan city of nearly 20,000 people that thrived from the 5th through 9th centuries A.D.

Fisher and Leisz utilized LiDAR in recent research documenting the extent and spatial organization of the newly discovered ancient city of Angamuco, Michoacán, Mexico, as part of the Legacies of Resilience Archaeological Project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Geographic Society. Fisher, Leisz and several co-authors championed the use of LiDAR in Mesoamerica in a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as a scientific revolution that will fundamentally change the way that archaeologists do fieldwork.

“We were able to use our work at Angamuco to help reveal similar patterns in the Mosquitia data,” said Leisz. “The Honduras LiDAR results add to a growing number of studies using LiDAR point cloud-derived elevation data to analyze the ancient human impacts on the landscape of the Americas.”

Over the next several months Fisher, Leisz, and NCALM scientists will systematically analyze the Mosquitia data in preparation for fieldwork aimed at ground verification and documentation of the results as part of the broader GHF project. Leisz recently traveled to Honduras to sign a memorandum of understanding between CSU and GHF, as well as agreements of collaboration with The Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), and Porfirio Lobo, president of Honduras. Initial results from the project will be presented by Leisz and Fisher in a session on the use of LiDAR at the upcoming American Geophysical Union Meeting of the Americas, to be held May 14-17, in Cancun, Mexico.