A lost city is an urban settlement that fell into terminal decline and became extensively or completely uninhabited, with the consequence that the site’s former significance was no longer known to the wider world. The locations of many lost cities have been forgotten, but some have been rediscovered and studied extensively by scientists. Recently abandoned cities or cities whose location was never in question might be referred to as ruins or ghost towns. The search for such lost cities by European explorers and adventurers in Africa, the Americas, and Southeast Asia from the 15th century onwards eventually led to the development of archaeology.
Lost cities generally fall into two broad categories: those where all knowledge of the city’s existence was forgotten before it was rediscovered, and those whose memory was preserved in myth, legend, or historical records but whose location was lost or at least no longer widely recognized.
Cities may become lost for a variety of reasons including natural disasters, economic or social upheaval, or war.
The Incan capital city of Vilcabamba was destroyed and depopulated during the Spanishconquest of Peru in 1572. The Spanish did not rebuild the city, and the location went unrecorded and was forgotten until it was rediscovered through a detailed examination of period letters and documents.
Troy was a city located in northwest Anatolia in what is now Turkey. It is best known for being the focus of the Trojan War described in the Greek Epic Cycle and especially in the Iliad, one of the two epic poems attributed to Homer. Repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, the city slowly declined and was abandoned in the Byzantine era. Buried by time, the city was consigned to the realm of legend until the location was first excavated in the 1860s.
Other settlements are lost with few or no clues to their decline. For example, Malden Island, in the central Pacific, was deserted when first visited by Europeans in 1825, but the unsuspected presence of ruined temples and the remains of other structures found on the island indicate that a population of Polynesians had lived there for perhaps several generations some centuries earlier. Prolonged drought seems the most likely explanation for their demise and the remote nature of the island meant few visitors.