The Pech and Archaeology in the Mosquitia

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

26 thoughts on “The Pech and Archaeology in the Mosquitia

  1. Hopefully, the Pech, and yourself, can get the attention that you deserve. Do you think that the Pech also have sites also on the Bay Islands, and other areas of Northern Honduras?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Professor Christian Wells of the University of South Florida, who has conducted recent archaeological research in the Bay Islands, identifies the makers of sites there as Pech. In an article about the return to Honduras of objects from the Bay Islands donated to USF by a local family, Wells said:

      “The Pech are indigenous hunter-gatherers and small-scale farmers that occupied the Bay Islands throughout the eleventh to sixteenth centuries. After being displaced to mainland Honduras by Spanish and English settlers in the seventeenth century, the Pech today occupy parts of the north coast of Honduras. As of 2001, the Pech numbered roughly 3,800, making them one of the smallest ethnic groups in Honduras.”

      The older archaeological literature also identifies the people of the Bay Islands and adjacent coast as likely Pech (or Paya). To the east they bordered the Miskito; to the west, the Tol (Torrupan) and inhabitants of Lenca (Toquequa) speaking towns were their neighbors, perhaps living in multilingual communities. All of these people potentially also spoke languages useful for trade, including Nahuatl and Yucatec Maya.

      On his fourth voyage in 1502, Christopher Columbus encountered a canoe off the Bay Islands. Although popular accounts follow early mistaken identifications of the canoe as coming from Yucatan, scholars in the region agree it was likely from the Bay Islands, sailed by Pech people. In 1995 the historian Hugh Thomas got the likely identification right, but continued to argue that the canoe was “on the way from trading in Yucatan”.

      In fact, the contents of the canoe– cacao beans, cotton cloth, copper bells and axes, and obsidian– are all products of mainland Honduras, which were traded to Yucatan. So if this canoe was part of the vigorous coastal trade with Yucatan, it was on its way to conduct trade, not the reverse.

      Thomas identified the copper objects on this Pech canoe as probably from Michoacan, West Mexico, a major center of metal working. Today we know that Honduras also was a site of metal working in the Postclassic period– especially axes and copper bells– due to research conducted at the site of El Coyote, in the modern Department of Santa Barbara. In 1935, Smithsonian Institution archaeologist William Duncan Strong reported many shrines on the Bay Islands with copper bells. It is possible that the canoe Columbus encountered was carrying products from the mainland of Honduras to the Bay Islands, since three of the things mentioned (obsidian, cacao beans, copper) were not found in the islands or Yucatan.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Thank you. Just browsing and when I come across things like this, I’m glad I did. It stirs up the hours studying Anthro in college, and where my head’s been off and on since it became a road not taken…and I ended up teaching high school English.


  2. I remember in college reading in an archeology textbook that there are no more lost civilizations to discover. At the time I thought it was the height of hubris. Maybe, though, it reflected the experience of archeologists like you, that the native people are in tune and a part of their land that they already know these sites intimately. It’s a viewpoint I had not considered before. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. What you bring up should probably be talked about in every Anthro program, in a way I don’t recall from my college days in the 70’s. Of course it’s likely I forgot it if it was a topic.

    I wonder just how “expert” the descendants of any “lost” population might be. Just because they still live in the approximate places of their ancestors does not mean, to me, that they carry the knowledge of those places as their ancestors had it. The ability to pass on knowledge and practice through the generations may be significantly limited.

    There are buildings in my community that I might see and think are old and I know right where they are, and they are a part of the landscape of my life, and though I like to think of myself as somebody knowledgeable about things in general, and would resent somebody from halfway across the world telling me about the architectural significance of those buildings….s/he might very well be able to tell me things I didn’t know. Then there are the local historians to do know some things I don’t, but that’s another subject.

    Also, I’m reminded of my 20’s when I thought a lot about subjectivity and objectivity…knowing with the heart or the mind.

    While in our science we try to remain objective, we live and experience our lives in our subjective hearts. There is something to be said for the subjective, and I see this love of the Pech people and their lives today as coming from that place.

    And it may be the publicizing, the words, the way a naive audience wants to hear about archaeology and anthropological topics that muddies up the water.

    Thanks for this. I enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is very good and very important. Thanks for bringing this information out in the open.
    And you have indeed been living an interesting life. I value your humility and respect for people in your approach to what you are doing and who you are doing it with.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Your depiction of the Pech people and their fight to keep their past brought me near to tears. I think of my own people, the Taino, who have lost almost every vestige of their existence. Thankfully, archaeologists such as yourself are helping to keep our history alive, instead of buried in a Columbian revision. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I grew up in Venezuela, and realized at a young age that just because its new (our modern world, that is), doesn’t mean it’s better. Many areas are truly awe inspiring, and the only reason they remained so was due to the lack of intrusion from the modern world. In such s small country there are so many beautiful areas: tepuiys, Angel Falls, the Coro sand dunes, plenty of beaches, bat caves, the Andes Mountains, the plains down towards Brazil, the Orinoco river, the rain forest, so many beautiful waterfalls…

    Like so many other places in Central and South American countries (the world, really) it’d be nice to see these places preserved and maintained as they’ve been for centuries so that everyone can appreciate them.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is excellent.
    When any person “knows the territory” They should be respected and given a major credit.
    The city slickers claims rarely impress me. And then, sometimes the lie is eventually revealed. Love it,”finally keep up” good job!


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