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The Sciences

5 Ancient Cities That Were Both Found and Lost to the World

The discovery of some “lost” cities could have given explorers hope they’d find unknown places like El Dorado.

By Sara NovakJun 5, 2024 10:00 AM
machu picchu
(Credit: Sharan Prasad Anumolu/Shutterstock)

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These were plenty of legends of societies that once thrived in a distant time and place. Some have been found and excavated so that we can begin to understand how these civilizations of yesteryear might have lived.

But some exist only in legend. Real or fantasy, here are some of the ancient societies that inspired many, and some that were never found. 

1. Machu Picchu

(Credit: Sharan Prasad Anumolu/Shutterstock)

High in the mountains of Peru stands Machu Picchu, a 15th-century citadel that was a summer Incan residence, though the staff likely would have lived year-round. Never claimed by Spanish Conquistadors, the site is home to around 200 structures, likely the home of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, who reigned from 1438 to 1471. Many of the skeletons found there were female and thought to be the “Virgins of the Sun,” an order of holy women known to have lived there.

According to Brian Bauer, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Machu Picchu remained hidden for so long because it was in a remote area, and while the locals knew about it, the world did not until an explorer named Hiram Bingham found it in 1911. He had been seeking Vilcabamba, known as the “lost city of the Incas,” and thought that was what he had finally found. While he wasn’t the first to discover it, he did put Machu Picchu on the map.

“He brought the ruins to the world’s attention,” says Bauer. 

2. Great Zimbabwe

(Credit: Jo Reason/Shutterstock)

Great Zimbabwe is an abandoned city deep in the southeastern hills of Zimbabwe. In the 13th century, it was thought to be the capital of a civilization that thrived during the late Iron Age.

Built by the Shona people, a group still living in the eastern portion of Zimbabwe, this large stone-walled community was home to as many as 13,000 people at its height. The site was abandoned in the 15th century due to the possible exhaustion of local resources like gold, water, and arable land.

3. Pompeii 

(Credit: Tunatura/Shutterstock)

Architect Domenico Fontana first discovered Pompeii in the 16th century. After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., a thick layer of volcanic ash destroyed the city and then largely preserved it.

When it was discovered, the area was under the control of the Bourbon dynasty. “At that time, it was likely a treasure grab,” says Caitie Barrett, an archaeologist at Cornell University. Most of the artworks and treasures they found would have gone to fund the monarchy.

Prior to its discovery, there had been ancient records of its existence, mostly vivid letters written by Pliny the Younger, a lawyer and author living in the area around 69 A.D. His father, Pliny, the Elder, died trying to rescue people from Pompeii after the eruption.

Before the volcano erupted, Pompeii was likely a vacation destination for wealthy Romans, as evidenced by the remains of lavish homes with priceless artworks inside. Pompeii was located close to the trading port of Naples, where Egyptian grain would have been imported to feed a growing and cosmopolitan population. 

4. El Dorado

(Credit: XavierMap/Shutterstock)

El Dorado is one of the most famous cities that has never been found. The infamous city of gold was believed to have existed in the Americas prior to the arrival of European explorers in the 16th century.  

The legend of this lost city of gold likely does include some bits of truth rooted in the tribes that lived high in the Andes in what is now Colombia. The Spanish did find ample gold in South America, which they suspected came from one golden city, but that part is legend. El Dorado hasn’t and likely will never be found. 

5. Lost City of Z 

(Credit: R_Tee/Shutterstock)

Perhaps no tale has captivated so many as that of the Lost City of Z. It’s the name given by British surveyor Percy Harrison Fawcett, who searched in vain to find this Amazonian gem. Fawcett and his son died in search of the city on his second expedition to the Amazon. 

In 1925, the city of Kuhikugu was discovered, and it’s thought that this might have been what locals had been referring to when Fawcett began his search. The series of sites was likely home to around 50,000 people spread over more than 7,000 square miles. Its inhabitants eventually died due to an influx of European diseases


Read More: 5 Ancient Cities That No Longer Exist


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Sara Novak is a science journalist based in South Carolina. In addition to writing for Discover, her work appears in Scientific American, Popular Science, New Scientist, Sierra Magazine, Astronomy Magazine, and many more. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia. She's also a candidate for a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University, (expected graduation 2023).

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