Every few years, a new group of explorers ‘discover’ a fabulous archaeological site in the Honduran rain forest. It is lauded in the press as a huge discovery, perhaps the mythical lost city in the Honduran rain forest, maybe even a lost civilization.
The problem is that it isn’t a lost civilization, or even a mythical lost city. I know, because I’ve been studying that area for years. Other archaeologists worked there before me. People live nearby and travel through there all the time.
So there is always a lot of hype and sensationalism, and most scholars are disgusted. They write letters complaining about it all. The original team looks silly, like children playing out a movie fantasy. The scholars who complained look humorless, and maybe jealous that they didn’t get to play jungle explorer. And if that’s all it was, it wouldn’t matter much, perhaps. Nobody else would care.
But this kind of careless sensationalism has real consequences. The language used evokes a time where foreign explorers emphasized their superiority at the expense of local knowledge. The hype overshadows real science, and we know that this kind of lost city/treasure hunting mentality puts archaeological resources at risk.
While these things are important, there is a much more human and immediate cost, borne primarily by the most marginalized, least powerful folks in the region: indigenous people like the Pech who are descendants of those who built these sites.
I know this is not a ‘lost civilization’ because I am an archaeologist, and I’ve worked in this ‘unknown’ area for almost 25 years. I lived and worked with the Pech almost exclusively, because I thought it was the right thing to do, and because they know the region better than anyone. They have at least a thousand years of history there.
For the Pech, the past is absolutely essential to their future. Their history is not merely an interesting pastime; it creates and supports the present. They are curious about the archaeology. I’ve talked to impromptu community meetings, looked at artifacts they collected, and listened to their interpretations. I saw them make modern pottery look like the ancient pieces we find at archaeological sites, in a deliberate attempt to connect the past and the present.
I lived with the Pech at various times over the last two decades. We lived in small villages with no electricity or water. We spent all day, every day, together. We sat and talked every night. We played cards. We took trips through the forest for two or three weeks at a time, mapping archaeological sites along the way. All told, the Pech and I documented around 150 archaeological sites.
The Pech already knew where every large site was located. Every single one. They knew where fruit trees grew, or where the good fishing holes were. They could find the little trails that I could hardly see. Sometimes we followed an old trail by looking for grown over machete cuts on branches. They knew the forest like I know my hometown.
The Pech lived in these now remote places as recently as 150 years ago, and they return to hunt and fish, or to harvest sweetgum. They’ve lost traditional lands to encroaching farmers and cattle ranchers. They’ve been moved around, and now live mainly on the edge of the rain forest, in a handful of communities.
I owe a great debt to the Pech. They carried me through the forest. Not literally, except maybe once, but in some way on every trip. They did everything better than I could. It was humbling. Most of the time, I felt like a child. In fact, one of the greatest compliments I ever received was when I overheard my Pech friend assuring somebody else that I could, after many months, finally keep up. If that was ever true, it was only for a moment, but he said it, and he meant it.
The Pech taught me to live in the forest, to build fires in the rain, to find food in the forest, to fish there, to make rafts and shelters. They kept me going when it was all too much to handle. They were gentle and kind, making flimsy excuses to take breaks when they thought I needed one, to avoid embarrassing me. They looked me in the eye and told me to suck it up and keep it together when we had to walk all night to get out of a bad situation.
They showed me archaeological sites. They showed me features such as which hillsides had been reshaped by people, because they could tell and I couldn’t. They explained what they thought it meant. They critiqued my interpretations.
The Pech did all this while facing serious threats to their continued existence. They fought to keep what traditional land they still had, and to keep their language alive. They buried people killed by outsiders who wanted to bully them off their land. I hated those funerals, where those animated faces I knew were rigid. I hated seeing that. Sometimes I didn’t go.
So, what is the harm in this hype and sensationalism? What difference does it make if, in their ignorance, these ‘explorers’ proclaim that they discovered something nobody has seen in 600 years? What is the cost of these newcomers, with no real experience in this forest, claiming, disingenuously, to have discovered a ‘lost civilization?’ Why am I moved to spend a few hours writing something like this?
I write this because these claims, hype and sensationalism invade one of the few remaining spaces in which the Pech, and folks like them, are powerful. These claims strip the Pech of their own history, and deny them the respect they deserve and the acknowledgement for their contribution to our understanding of the past. These sensational narratives, powerful because they are made by powerful people, further marginalize and disenfranchise people. In ignorance and bravado, these discoverers make it hard to hear a crucial voice from some real experts.
revised March 21