1246 GMT November 21, 2019
The ancient settlement — which was likely founded around 800 CE and abandoned during the Spanish Conquest — lies atop a steep ridge at an elevation of around 5,000 feet, hidden by dense forest, newsweek.com reported.
National Geographic explorer Albert Lin and archeologist 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 archeologists 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."
Archeologists 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 archeological site known as "Ciudad Perdida" which experts think was built around 600 CE.
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 archeologists 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 drug gangs — has hindered any real further exploration. In this context, technologies such as LiDAR can prove to be particularly helpful.
Lin suggested 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.