For most of us, long-lost cities exist mainly in fairy tales or childhood movies like The Road To El Dorado. But if you can believe it, these places are far from figments of the imagination. They’re not only real, but in some areas, they’re bountiful.

Recently, one such wonder was discovered in Turkey. Nobody was expecting it, and — astoundingly— nobody in the region had any inkling that it even existed. It took a chance discovery to let them in on the fact that hundreds of residents were living directly above a forgotten city, a metropolitan marvel that had been lost to history for thousands of years.

It all started off with a leak. Anyone would complain about flooding in their apartment, right? But not everybody would come to the same astounding realization that this Turkish resident did.

Construction workers, expecting a routine job, quickly arrived at the site in central Nevşehir province. They got straight to work. But soon, they would discover this was like nothing they’d seen before.

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After hours of searching fruitlessly for the source of the leak, they happened upon an astonishing sight: a cluster of 5,000-year-old buildings, entirely lost to the history books. Little did they know, there were even more exciting discoveries awaiting them.

Turkey Travel Centre

When experts were called onto the scene, they realized the find was even more unbelievable than initially thought: there was more! Long-lost cities are inherently fascinating to begin with, but the one in Nevşehir stood apart from the rest.

To understand the amazing circumstances surrounding this discovery, you first have to understand the storied history of Turkey and just why exactly these ancient people had chosen to make their home there.

The country is, in fact, home to many ancient underground cities, and this development has to do with the type of material the area is made up with. Volcanic rock is quite malleable, which came in handy to these ancient people…

Michael Benanav – The New York Times

Most importantly, it’s easy to carve into. Rock faces provided a convenient way to create shelters that could protect the residents from harsh weather conditions. And all of this would have been found much earlier if it weren’t for one tragic accident.

About 25 years before the discovery of the city in Nevşehir, a young child fell into a tunnel. But this wasn’t just any tunnel. It was part of the lost underground society. Not knowing this — or perhaps not caring— officials decided to seal it off, preventing any others from being harmed.

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It wouldn’t be until decades afterwards, when the previously mentioned citizens began complaining of leaks, that authorities reopened this tunnel. And when they saw the true extent of this ancient civilization, they couldn’t believe their eyes.

The Century Foundation

The first thing that blew them away was its sheer size. According to a local newspaper, “The city, which is partially submerged, is believed to stretch over three miles into the ground.” And as if that weren’t mind-boggling enough, there’s even more.

Daily Sabah

According to the mayor of Çalış, the township in which the city was found, “Those who had been there…say it is some 600 meters by two kilometers.” That equates to about 0.4 square miles. But even more astonishing than its size were the secrets that it held from societies long forgotten.

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Investigators discovered that the city had three floors, with homes and tunnels tucked in between —one passageway connected to the tunnel from the tragedy years earlier. But perhaps the most interesting part of the city was yet to come.

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Looking through the ancient relics, researchers happened upon a place of worship. It was unclear exactly what faith these people had practiced, but they did leave behind a pretty interesting piece of evidence.

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Experts tasked with investigating the location did a double-take when they pointed their flashlights at a statue that resembled a human. They could only guess that it was an icon of some sort, likely religious in nature.

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Astonishingly, as mentioned previously, this wasn’t even the only city of its kind. In 2014, researchers happened upon another underground metropolis, and this one was groundbreaking in an entirely different way. Could there be some connection?

To begin with, this one, discovered near the Nevşehir Fortress, was an impressive four miles long and has tunnels wide enough that an average-sized car could pass through them. But even more interesting to experts were the people who once inhabited it.

It’s believed that this city used to be home to thousands of people. According to Özcan Çakır, who took part in the investigations, they utilized the subterranean tunnels “to carry agricultural products to the city.” Strangely enough, this wasn’t even the most well-known long lost civilization in Turkey.

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That honor goes to a place called Derinkuyu cave, found in the 1960s after a person living in the region found a room hiding behind a wall in his house. Creepy, for sure. But also…kind of cool?

Wikipedia

The mayor of Çalış hoped to make the place discovered in his township into a historical site — a label that comes with many protections. It may even be open to tourism in the future. After all, this Turkish community has to compete with lost cities in other parts of the world.

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Every year, thousands of tourists from around the world flock to the Andes Mountains in Peru. They spend days traversing the rugged terrain — not exactly an ideal vacation for most. But the trek is all worth it in the end.

Lonely Planet

Atop the mountain range, the travelers reach the iconic skyline of Machu Picchu. This breathtaking settlement may take the cake as the most beautiful sight in the world. Oddly enough, however, history entirely forgot its existence for centuries.

Science Magazine

The famed Inca Empire constructed Machu Picchu in the 15th century. 50 miles north of their capital city of Cuzco, the site displayed their immense wealth and technology. Of course, that prosperity attracted more foes than the Incans could handle.

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Seeking gold and Catholic converts, Spaniard Francisco Pizarro swept through South America in 1532. While the native peoples vastly outnumbered the conquistadors, Pizarro had guns and horses on his side.

Encyclopedia Britannica

The Pizarro and his men ruthlessly sacked Cuzco and executed Emperor Atahualpa. Nearly all of Incan civilization lay in ruins, and yet the soldiers never got anywhere near Machu Picchu. The city was already abandoned and forgotten.

In fact, the remote settlement may have remained a mystery forever if not for the efforts of Hiram Young. An esteemed Yale historian, Young left the classroom behind to chase down a myth he couldn’t get out of his mind.

Maps and records saved from the destruction of the Incas indicated the presence of a city high up in the mountains. Many claimed the site was lost or simply fictional, but Young trudged through jungle and mountains to find out.

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The explorer shocked the world by reaching Machu Picchu in 1911. While it was clear that no humans had lived there for many generations, the lofty community remained in remarkably good shape. It was nothing short of a marvel.

“Machu Picchu” roughly translated to “old mountain,” and Young saw exactly why. Its former denizens carved terraces right into the mountainside, where they could farm crops without having to return to the valley.

Flickr / Jill Clardy

Curiously, the couple hundred buildings in the settlement didn’t resemble any other urban layout designed by the Incas. Clear divisions separated groups of stone structures, many of which didn’t appear to be residential.

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Following Young’s discovery, Machu Picchu quickly established itself as one of the marvels of the known world. Archaeologists continued to flock there to figure out why the Incas built a city in the mountains.

Annees de Pelerinage

One of the bigger surprises was the abundance of sacred artifacts scattered throughout the settlement. Though the number of houses indicated that about 750 people lived there, Machu Picchu had entire sections devoted solely to religion.

BBC

More luxurious residences were set aside for Incan nobles, who used them as a retreat while smaller houses likely served as temporary lodging for pious Incas making a pilgrimage. Historians found many references to a chief deity.

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That would be Inti, the Incan god of the sun. The elevation and labyrinthine layout of Machu Picchu reflected his astronomical prominence, though some of Inti’s followers paid tribute to him in the most horrific way possible.

Flickr / Jim & Lynne Weber

Various relics and skeletal remains around the city suggested that residents of Machu Picchu regularly practiced human sacrifice — often with children. Grisly as these killings were, they were only the second darkest mystery buried within the city’s walls.

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Of course, the biggest question asked where all the people of Machu Pichu went. Although it was far from a metropolis, 750 people didn’t just disappear overnight. And the city didn’t show any signs of an attack or natural disaster.

With those options off the table, many theorize that disease is to blame. European contact with the New World unleashed a legion of diseases. The demise of Machu Picchu likely came from a smallpox outbreak, as the Incas had to resistance or medicine for it.

However, the greatest threat to this wonder may just be arriving. Each year, 1.5 million well-intentioned tourists visit Machu Picchu, but their crowded presence tears up the ground and leaves behind litter.

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Recognizing the city as a cash cow, the Peruvian government has also considered building an airport right by the secluded site. Machu Picchu’s excessive popularity could wipe out the last vestige of Incan life. They’d go the way of another lost Mesoamerican society.

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Though much of the history of the Maya civilization remains unknown, these ancient peoples are believed to have popped up sometime around 2600 BCE. Settlements followed in 1800 BCE, and by this time, agriculture had taken hold as the driving force of daily life.

Cities soon began to appear, and from 250 ACE to 900 ACE, the Maya flourished as a dominant power in Mesoamerica. Trade networks were formed, and Maya rulers constructed enormous temples and palaces as a testament to their might.

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But the Maya’s fortunes wouldn’t last, as during the 10th century, warfare and political instability sent the civilization into rapid decline. Cities were abandoned, and by the early 1500s, the Maya were reeling.

The final nail in the coffin came in 1511 when the Spanish made contact with the Maya. Years of war and conquest followed, culminating in the fall of the last independent Maya city in 1697.

Florida Museum of Natural History

But while the legacy of the Maya has persisted since their demise, historians still don’t have a full picture of how advanced this civilization really was. To exist for nearly 4,000 years, the Maya must’ve been more than just another ancient tribe.

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Archaeologists have looked to Maya ruins for clues about the civilization’s shrouded history, though such relics haven’t been easy to find. The jungles of Central America are incredibly dense, making ground exploration difficult.

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The views are no better from above, as the treetops are so thick that sunlight can hardly find its way through. If there truly were hidden Maya treasures waiting on the jungle floor, archaeologists knew they needed a better way to detect them.

Vogue

And so, these scholars turned to a new technology called LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”) for help. Using near-infrared lasers to digitally remove the dense canopy, LiDAR would serve as the archaeologists’ eyes in places they never could’ve reached before.

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There was no telling what they’d find when scholars set LiDAR’s sights on the jungles of Guatemala — after all, these lands had been undisturbed for centuries. When the scans of the area finally returned, however, the archaeologists were dumbfounded.

BBC

Beneath the canopy lie over 60,000 Maya ruins, ranging from small homes to extravagant palaces. With this scan representing only a small portion of the total research area, this meant that the Maya civilization was infinitely larger than most historians believed.

National Geographic

“The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” said Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer.

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Additionally, these results also suggested that the Maya were far more advanced than most thought. In all likelihood, the Maya were more similar to the cultures of ancient Greece and China than to the scattered tribes of early Mesoamerica.

Culture Trip

As they continued scanning, the archaeologists also discovered a complex system of roads and raised highways connecting urban centers and quarries. Irrigation and terracing systems were also present, suggesting an ability to support and mobilize massive populations.

“We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics,” said Tulane University archaeologist Marcello Canuto. “But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America… we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there.”

National Geographic

But the most surprising discovery made by LiDAR was the presence of numerous city defenses, including walls, fortresses, and watchtowers. This may suggest that conflict amongst the Maya cities wasn’t solely limited to the period of the civilization’s decline.

“[We] had a tendency to romanticize Maya warfare as something that was largely ritualized and concentrated toward the end of the civilization,” said Stephen Houston of Brown University. “But the fortifications we’re seeing now suggest an elevated level of conflict over centuries.”

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This information was invaluable to the archaeologists’ understanding of the Maya, though LiDAR also turned up some concerning finds. Looting was evident in the area, as the scans showed thousands of man-made holes where looters were searching for lost treasure.

Environmental degradation was also prevalent, as Guatemala is losing more than ten percent of its forests annually as a result of human deforestation. In light of their discovery, however, archaeologists are hopeful that more efforts will be made to protect these lands.

This initial scan was the first of many, as the overarching PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative is expected to carry beyond 2021. Over the course of the project, more than 5,000 square miles of Guatemalan lowlands will be scanned in the hope of finally unlocking the lost history of the Maya.

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“The ambition and the impact of this project is just incredible,” said Kathryn Reese-Taylor, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary. “[We] never had the big picture that this data set gives us. It really pulls back the veil and helps us see the civilization as the ancient Maya saw it.”

But archeologist Guillermo de Anda and his crew pulled the veil back even further when they arrived in the ancient city of Chichén Itzá. Like the archaeologists before them, Guillermo and his team wanted to better understand the ancient Maya civilization.

More specifically, they wanted to access and study what is called a cenote, a sinkhole the ancient tribes believed were portals of access to the underworld. The cenote they sought was allegedly beneath the Temple of Kukulka.

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Their plans changed, however, when a local told them about “The Cave of the Jaguar God.” Besides a totally awesome name, the cave was steeped in a history Guillermo couldn’t ignore.

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See, archeologist Víctor Segovia Pinto had visited the cave in 1966 and, in an apparently unspecific report, noted “extensive amounts of archeological material” hidden inside. Instead of excavating it, however, he curiously ordered the cave sealed up.

Over the next 50 years, most locals of the former-Mayan settlement forgot about Jaguar God. So Guillermo and his crew were delighted by the opportunity to find what Víctor had ignored. They knew what caves meant to the Mayans.

As Mayan expert Holley Moyes said, because of their believed connection to the underworld, “Caves and cenotes… represent some of the most sacred spaces for the Maya, ones that also influenced site planning and social organization.”

So, refocusing their energies on the potential of Jaguar God, Guillermo and his crew recruited a Mayan priest to conduct a 6-hour purification ritual. This would ensure their safe journey into the potential holy hot spot.

Their offering to the cave guardians was modest: honey, a fermented drink called pozole, and even tobacco, but it got the job done. Officially protected in the eyes of Maya, they entered the long-sealed cave.

Kayla Ortega via NPR

Inside was a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare: for well over an hour, Guillermo crawled on his stomach through narrow, twisting tunnels, only a headlamp illuminating the pathway.

National Geographic

Guillermo didn’t seem to mind. “I’ve analyzed human remains in [Chichén Itzá’s] Sacred Cenote,” he said. “But nothing compares to the sensation I had entering, alone, for the first time in that cave. You almost feel the presence of the Maya.”

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After an hour-and-half of painstakingly slow crawling, his helmet finally illuminated something curious.” I couldn’t speak,” Guillermo recalled of the moment he finally understood what he saw. “I started to cry.”

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It wasn’t that he’d finally reached a chamber with enough room to stand up in that made him cry, either. Rather, he’d stumbled upon the archeological equivalent of a winning lotto ticket.

Piles of ancient artifacts lay before him: grinding stones, decorated plates, and more, all in “an excellent state of preservation,” despite looking like they were caked in a few billion years’ worth of mud.

National Geographic

Impressively, thanks to centuries of dripping water, stalactites formed around some of the ancient artifacts and ritual objects, like this incense burner. All in all, there were about 150 well-preserved items in that cave!

Kayla Ortega via NPR

“Thinking about Maya in ancient times going there, through those passageways, crawling with a big incense burner and a torch,” Guillermo said, “you see how important these caves were for them.”

Along with giving Guillermo newfound respect for the Maya, the cave and the items inside, he knew, would provide invaluable information on the tribe’s rituals — and more.

Karla Ortega / Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History

“Jaguar God can tell us not only the moment of collapse of Chichén Itzá,” Guillermo surmised. “It can also probably tell us the moment of its beginning.”

Viajes National Geographic

“Now we have a sealed context,” he continued, “with a great quantity of information, including usable organic matter, that we can use to understand the development of Chichén Itzá.”

NPR

More than that, though, experts believe further study of the area will shed some light on the region’s climate, and how disastrous droughts possibly led to the Maya’s mysterious first demise.

“By studying these caves and cenotes,” National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert said, “it’s possible to learn some lessons for how to best use the environment today, in terms of sustainability for the future.”

NPR via Karla Ortega

For this reason, Guillermo believed his work in archeology was truly saving the world. By studying Maya, he said, “we can understand the footprints of humankind’s past, and what was happening on Earth during one of the most dramatic moments in history.”

But Guillermo’s profession was noble for reasons beyond that which he listed. Thousands of miles from Jaguar God, for instance, archeologists used science to answer a 14,000-year-old question about some of our earliest ancestors.

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Specifically, the Heiltsuk people, the First Nation indigenous to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, have laid claim to the remote Triquet Island for nearly 5,000 years. But archaeologists dismissed their claim of ownership at first for one glaring reason.

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The continental glacier that formed over Canada during the last Ice Age would’ve also covered Triquet Island, making it uninhabitable. But even with the facts stacked against the Heiltsuk, a small group of researchers took it upon themselves to uncover the truth once and for all.

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The archaeologists began an extensive excavation of the remote island in the hope of discovering traces of a past civilization. What they found there not only shocked the entire archaeological community, but it also changed history forever.

Second Nexus

Beneath several layers of earth, they found remnants of an ancient, wood-burning hearth. But how could this be? According to researchers, it would’ve been impossible for humans to dig their way through the glacial ice to get to the soil below.

As they continued digging, researchers unearthed additional artifacts, including tools and weapons. This discovery stumped the team as the Heiltsuk people traditionally didn’t use tools of this kind.

The Heiltsuk people had derived their food source from fishing and smoking salmon, utilizing small, precise tools to harvest the fish. The tools and weapons found were much larger and likely would’ve been used to hunt large sea mammals, such as seals, sea lions, and walruses.

What’s more, the team also uncovered shards of obsidian, a glass-like rock only found in areas of heavy volcanic activity. This discovery also puzzled the archaeologists, as there were no known volcanoes near that part of British Columbia. So, how did this rock — and these people — get there?

KLCC

The historians deduced that whoever left these artifacts must have traversed the land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska during prehistoric times. Yet researchers still needed cold-hard facts…

Luckily, a closer inspection of the hearth revealed ancient charcoal remains, which the archaeologists quickly brought to the lab for carbon dating. When they received the results, the researchers couldn’t believe their eyes: everything they knew was a lie.

According to the carbon dating report, these bits of charcoal were an astonishing 14,000 years old, making them the oldest carbon remains ever to be discovered in North America.

Even by global standards, this was an extraordinary find. After all, these simple pieces of charcoal were older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and even predated the invention of the wheel! But that’s not the most remarkable fact about this discovery.

The 14,000-year-old discovery placed the earliest Heiltsuk at Triquet Island 2,000 years before the end of the ice age. Therefore, the island couldn’t have been covered by the massive continental glacier. And that’s not all.

Since Triquet Island was surrounded on all sides by water, the early Heiltsuk would’ve used boats to traverse the open waters. Boats, however, were not believed to have been invented until centuries later.

Smithsonian

This meant that the Heiltsuk settled the area 2,000 years before initially believed. If this was the case, then these early men likely crossed paths with some of history’s most formidable beasts.

As the Heiltsuk people made their way south from the land bridge, they likely had to fend off giant creatures like mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant sloths. But somehow, these humans survived, and it’s likely for one crucial reason.

Thanks to the Pacific Ocean itself, the sea level at Triquet Island remained constant for over 15,000 years. So as the sea gradually eroded the surrounding islands, the great beasts of the Pacific Northwest were kept at bay, leaving the Heiltsuk to a peaceful, secluded existence.

The most astounding realization that’s come to light is the fact that the Heiltsuk people were able to preserve their history orally for nearly 14,000 years. However, they are still being deprived of their history’s legitimacy.

When the media caught wind of the story, they seemed to focus more on what the discovery meant for the scientific community rather than acknowledge the rich history of the Heiltsuk. To many, the media’s portrayal of the nation was seen as highly disrespectful.

As a result, University of Victoria student Alisha Gauvreau — who was present during the excavation — has dedicated herself to shifting the focus of the dialogue toward the Heiltsuk people.

The Heiltsuk claim to Triquet Island stands as one of the oldest land-ownership claims in the world. Not only does this discovery speak volumes about the strength of the Heiltsuk people, but it also represents the indomitable spirit of mankind.

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