La Unión, a small rural community in Honduras, where residents report an annual “rain fish” and where, four days before, locals recovered silver sardines that had supposedly fallen from the sky. Credit: Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
YORO, Honduras — Things don’t come easy in La Unión, a small community on the periphery of Yoro, a farming town in north-central Honduras.
Poverty is universal, jobs are scarce, large families are crammed into mud-brick homes and meals often are constituted of little more than the subsistence crops residents grow — mainly corn and beans.
But every once in a while an amazing thing happens, something that makes the residents of La Unión feel pretty special.
The skies, they say, rain fish.
It happens every year — at least once and often more, residents say — during the late spring and early summer. And only under specific conditions: a torrential downpour, thunder and lightning, conditions so intense that nobody dares to go outside.
Once the storm clears, the villagers grab buckets and baskets and head down the road to a sunken pasture where the ground will be covered in hundreds of small, silver-colored fish.
Residents of La Unión say that every year during the months of May through August, a heavy storm will form, and the following day fish are found scattered over a field.Credit: Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
For some, it is the only time of the year they will have a chance to eat seafood.
“It’s a miracle,” explained Lucio Pérez, 45, a farmer who has lived in the La Unión community for 17 years. “We see it as a blessing from God.”
Mr. Pérez has heard the various scientific theories for the phenomenon. Each, he says, is riddled with uncertainty.
“No, no, there’s no explanation,” he asserted, shaking his head. “What we say here in Yoro is that these fish are sent by the hand of God.”
The phenomenon has happened in and around the town for generations, residents say, from time to time shifting locations. It migrated to La Unión about a decade ago.
“Nobody elsewhere thinks it rains fish,” said Catalina Garay, 75, who, with her husband, Esteban Lázaro, 77, raised nine children in their adobe home in La Unión. “But it rains fish.”
Some residents attribute the occurrence to the prayers of Manuel de Jesús Subirana, a Catholic missionary from Spain who in the mid-1800s, asked God to help ease the Yoro region’s hunger and poverty. Soon after he issued his plea, the legend goes, the fish rain began.
Mr. Subirana’s remains are buried in the city’s main Catholic church, on Yoro’s central square.
“The people loved him a lot,” said José Rigoberto Urbina Velásquez, Yoro’s municipal manager. “There are so many stories about him that you’d be surprised.”
Scientifically inclined residents posit that the fish may dwell in subterranean streams or caverns. These habitats overflow during big rainstorms, and the rising water flushes the fish to ground level. Once the rain stops and the flooding recedes, the fish are left stranded.
Another theory is that water spouts suck the fish from nearby bodies of water — perhaps even the Atlantic Ocean, about 45 miles away — and deposit them in Yoro. (In that way, fish would indeed fall from the sky, but the hypothesis does not explain how the spouts score direct hits on the same patches of turf year after year.)
If anyone has done a scientific study of the phenomenon, it is not widely known here. And anyway, a fair number of townspeople probably would not want one.
For them, religion provides the necessary explanation.
“The people have an intense faith,” said Mr. Urbina, who embraces the more scientific explanations for the phenomenon. “You can’t tell them ‘no’ because it will anger them.”
Esteban Lozaro and Catalina Garay in their home in La Unión.Credit: Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
Nobody has actually seen a fish fall from the sky, but residents say that is only because nobody dares leave home during the kinds of powerful storms that bring the fish.
“It’s a secret that only our Lord knows,” said Audelia Hernández Gonzalez, the pastor at one of four evangelical churches in La Unión. “It’s a great blessing because this comes from the heavens.”
“Look,” she continued, “people who are least able to eat fish can now eat fish.”
The harvest becomes a communal affair for La Union’s 200 or so homes, and everyone shares in the bounty. Those who collect the most redistribute their fish to families who are unable to get to the field in time to collect their share, the pastor said.
Peddling the catch is prohibited. “You can’t sell the blessing of the Lord,” she explained.
The phenomenon has become intricately woven into the identity of Yoro and its population of about 93,000.
“For us it’s a source of pride,” said Luis Antonio Varela Murillo, 65, who has lived his entire life in the town. “When we identify ourselves, we say, ‘I’m from the fish rain place.’”
“What we don’t like is that a lot of people don’t believe it,” he added. “They say it’s pure superstition.”
Catalina Garay held bones from fish that supposedly fell during the storm a few days earlier and were cooked and eaten by the family.CreditAdriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
For about two decades, the occurrence has been celebrated in an annual festival that features a parade and a street carnival. Young women compete to be elected Señorita Lluvia de Peces — Miss Fish Rain; the winner of the pageant rides a parade float dressed like a mermaid.
Yet, beyond the festival, there are no indicators in town of the phenomena’s central importance: no monuments, no plaques, no fish-shaped souvenirs on sale at shops around town.
Mr. Urbina said that the previous municipal administration had a golden opportunity to do something meaningful. Planners had drawn up a design for a fountain that would be illuminated at night.
But in place of a fountain, officials erected a sculpture of a mushroom — perplexing many.
“I don’t know what happened, but a mushroom appeared,” Mr. Urbina said.
Even if the municipality has underplayed the marketing potential of the fish rain, however, the Catholic Church has not.
In 2007, an office of the Jesuits in St. Louis conducted a fund-raising campaign that included a solicitation letter evoking the fish rain.
Storm clouds gather over La Unión.Credit: Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
“Each gift, each prayer, is like one of the ‘peces’ found during each year’s ‘Rain of Fish,’” the letter said, using the Spanish word for fish. “And every one of these blessings, no matter how large or small, will bring much-needed relief to someone in need.”
The Jesuits have maintained a longstanding mission in Yoro.
The Rev. John Willmering, one of the mission’s current priests, is an American from St. Louis who has been living in Honduras for 49 years, much of that time in Yoro.
When he first moved to the Yoro region, he said, the population was majority Catholic. But since then, he said, the Catholic Church has “lost some ground.” The population is now about a third Catholic, he estimated, with the rest split roughly between evangelicals and those who adhere to no religion.
He is coy on the subject of the fish rain, allowing plenty of room for the townspeople’s religious explanations.
“I think most people who would investigate it would say there is a scientific explanation for it,” he said, choosing his words carefully.
But in the absence of such investigations, he continued, faith can fill the gap.
“It works with natural phenomenon when you need it,” he said, the suggestion of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I mean, God is behind everything.”
A version of this article appears in print on July 17, 2017, on Page A7 of the New York edition with the headline: Every Year, the Sky ‘Rains Fish.’ Explanations Vary.
In search for legendary “City of the Monkey God,” explorers find the untouched ruins of a vanished culture.
A “were-jaguar” effigy, likely representing a combination of a human and spirit animal, is part of a still-buried ceremonial seat, or metate, one of many artifacts discovered in a cache in ruins deep in the Honduran jungle.
By Douglas Preston
Photographs by Dave Yoder
PUBLISHED MARCH 02, 2015
An expedition to Honduras has emerged from the jungle with dramatic news of the discovery of a mysterious culture’s lost city, never before explored. The team was led to the remote, uninhabited region by long-standing rumors that it was the site of a storied “White City,” also referred to in legend as the “City of the Monkey God.”
Archaeologists surveyed and mapped extensive plazas, earthworks, mounds, and an earthen pyramid belonging to a culture that thrived a thousand years ago, and then vanished. The team, which returned from the site last Wednesday, also discovered a remarkable cache of stone sculptures that had lain untouched since the city was abandoned.
Honduran troops lead a convoy through a town that served as the base for helicopters ferrying members of the expedition to a location in the Mosquitia rain forest where they examined ruins of an ancient city. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
In contrast to the nearby Maya, this vanished culture has been scarcely studied and it remains virtually unknown. Archaeologists don’t even have a name for it.
Christopher Fisher, a Mesoamerican archaeologist on the team from Colorado State University, said the pristine, unlooted condition of the site was “incredibly rare.” He speculated that the cache, found at the base of the pyramid, may have been an offering.
“The undisturbed context is unique,” Fisher said. “This is a powerful ritual display, to take wealth objects like this out of circulation.”
The tops of 52 artifacts were peeking from the earth. Many more evidently lie below ground, with possible burials. They include stone ceremonial seats (called metates) and finely carved vessels decorated with snakes, zoomorphic figures, and vultures.
The most striking object emerging from the ground is the head of what Fisher speculated might be “a were-jaguar,” possibly depicting a shaman in a transformed, spirit state. Alternatively, the artifact might be related to ritualized ball games that were a feature of pre-Columbian life in Mesoamerica.
The objects were documented but left unexcavated. To protect the site from looters, its location is not being revealed.
A stream winds through part of an unexplored valley in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region long rumored to contain a legendary “White City,” also called the City of the Monkey God. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
For a hundred years, explorers and prospectors told tales of the white ramparts of a lost city glimpsed above the jungle foliage. Indigenous stories speak of a “white house” or a “place of cacao” where Indians took refuge from Spanish conquistadores—a mystical, Eden-like paradise from which no one ever returned.
Since the 1920s, several expeditions had searched for the White City, orCiudad Blanca. The eccentric explorer Theodore Morde mounted the most famous of these in 1940, under the aegis of the Museum of the American Indian (now part of the Smithsonian Institution).
Former British Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers prepare a helicopter pilot for liftoff from a landing zone cleared for a team of scientists surveying a secret location in the Mosquitia jungle. The helicopter ferried people and supplies from its base. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Morde returned from Mosquitia with thousands of artifacts, claiming to have entered the City. According to Morde, the indigenous people there said it contained a giant, buried statue of a monkey god. He refused to divulge the location out of fear, he said, that the site would be looted. He later committed suicide and his site—if it existed at all—was never identified.
They identified a crater-shaped valley, encircled by steep mountains, as a possible location.
To survey it, in 2012 they enlisted the help of the Center for Airborne Laser Mapping at the University of Houston. A Cessna Skymaster, carrying a million-dollar lidar scanner, flew over the valley, probing the jungle canopy with laser light. lidar—“Light Detection and Ranging”—is able to map the ground even through dense rain forest, delineating any archaeological features that might be present.
When the images were processed, they revealed unnatural features stretching for more than a mile through the valley. When Fisher analyzed the images, he found that the terrain along the river had been almost entirely reshaped by human hands.
Former British SAS soldier Andrew Wood hacks through thick foliage to clear a way for scientists to investigate an archaeological site first identified using an aerial imaging technology called lidar. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Archaeologist Oscar Neil Cruz of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History examines a building stone discovered during a foray to a location identified by lidar as a place of interest. Several such construction stones, apparently shaped by hand, were found in a row at the top of what appears to be an ancient plaza. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Former British SAS commando Steve “Sully” Sullivan (right) waits while the scientific team puzzles over a construction stone that they believe was carved by members of a vanished civilization yet to be identified. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Frequent rains turned the expedition camp into a sea of mud. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
The evidence of public and ceremonial architecture, giant earthworks and house mounds, possible irrigation canals and reservoirs, all led Fisher to conclude that the settlement was, indeed, a pre-Columbian city.
Threatened by Deforestation
An archaeological discovery isn’t confirmed until it has been “ground-truthed.” The ground exploration team consisted of American and Honduran archaeologists, a lidar engineer, an anthropologist, an ethnobotanist, documentary filmmakers, and support personnel. Sixteen Honduran Special Forces soldiers provided security. The National Geographic Society sent a photographer and a writer.
The expedition confirmed on the ground all the features seen in the lidar images, along with much more. It was indeed an ancient city. Archaeologists, however, no longer believe in the existence of a single “lost city,” or Ciudad Blanca, as described in the legends. They believe Mosquitia harbors many such “lost cities,” which taken together represent something far more important—a lost civilization.
Anna Cohen, a University of Washington anthropology grad student, documents a cache of more than 50 artifacts discovered in the jungle. Following scientific protocol, no objects were removed from the site. The scientists hope to mount an expedition soon to further document and excavate the site before it can be found by looters. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
The valley is densely carpeted in a rain forest so primeval that the animals appear never to have seen humans before. An advance team clearing a landing zone for helicopters supplying the expedition noted spider monkeys peering down curiously from the trees above, and guinea hen and a tapir wandering into camp, unafraid of the human visitors.
This is clearly the most undisturbed rain forest in Central America. The importance of this place can’t be overestimated. – Mark Plotkin, ethnobotanist
“This is clearly the most undisturbed rain forest in Central America,” said the expedition’s ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin, who spent 30 years in Amazonia. “The importance of this place can’t be overestimated.”
The region also is gravely threatened. Deforestation for ranching has checkerboarded the jungle to within a dozen miles of the valley. Huge swaths of virgin rain forest are being cut illegally and burned to make way for cattle. The region has become one of the biggest beef-producing areas in Central America, supplying meat to fast-food franchises in the United States.
In addition to looting, another threat to the newly discovered ruins is deforestation for cattle ranching, seen here on a hillside on the way to the site. At its present pace, deforestation could reach the valley within a few years. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Virgilio Paredes Trapero, the director of the IHAH, under whose auspices the expedition operated, spent several days at the site. He concluded: “If we don’t do something right away, most of this forest and valley will be gone in eight years.” He spread his hands. “The Honduran government is committed to protecting this area, but doesn’t have the money. We urgently need international support.”
The expedition was made possible with the permission, partnership, and support of the government of Honduras; Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández Avarado; Virgilio Paredes Trapero, director of the Honduran Institute for Anthropology and History (IHAH); Oscar Neil Cruz, Chief of the Archaeology Division of IHAH, as well as Minister of Defense Samuel Reyes and the Armed Forces of Honduras under the command of Gen. Fredy Santiago Díaz Zelaya, with Gen. Carlos Roberto Puerto and Lt. Col. Willy Joel Oseguera, and the soldiers of TESON, Honduran Special Forces.
Douglas Preston writes about archaeology for the New Yorker and other publications. His account of Coronado’s search for the Seven Cities of Gold was recently issued as an e-book.