Letter from International Scholars: Archaeological Finds in Honduras

March 6, 2015

To Whom It May Concern:

We write to express serious concerns over the recent articles proclaiming the discovery of a lost city or lost civilization in Honduras. We find that these articles: 1) make exaggerated claims of ‘discovery,’ 2) ignore extensive previous research in the region, 3) fail to acknowledge local residents’ familiarity with the region, 4) sensationalize the practice of archaeology, and 5) employ an offensive and dated discourse that is at odds with anthropology’s substantial efforts at inclusion and multivocality. In addition to appearing uninformed and focused on self-aggrandizement, these articles implicitly violate a basic tenet of science, attributed to archaeologist David Hurst Thomas: ‘It’s not what you find; it’s what you find out.”

1) Exaggerated Claims of ‘Discovery’

As in previous articles and press releases, members of the expedition incorrectly claim that this team of filmmakers, former soldiers, and archaeologists have ‘discovered’ a ‘lost civilization’ in the Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras. In reality, as members of the expedition well knew, this region has been the object of archaeological research for most of the last century and especially in the last two decades. Intensive previous research has been conducted by archaeologists, geographers, and other scientists. Far from being unknown, the area has been the focus of many scholarly and popular works, including two Master’s theses, one doctoral dissertation, two popular books, two documentary films, numerous articles and presentations, and a series of booklets recently published by a Honduran newspaper. Furthermore, mentions of a “vanished civilization” are especially offensive given the likelihood that the people responsible for the ancient remains were the ancestors of living indigenous people who have not “vanished” despite genocide, disease, and ongoing injustices.

2) Failure to Acknowledge Previous Research

Archaeologists with expertise in this region contacted team members after earlier press releases and articles in 2012 and 2013, so ignorance of prior research cannot be claimed. Statements in these article suggest a lack of familiarity with previous scholarship. However, easily accessed online resources, such as the Mosquitia website (http://mosquitia.com) and a detailed Wikipedia article on La Ciudad Blanca, makes this indefensible.

3) Failure to Acknowledge Local Knowledge

These articles blatantly disregard significant local knowledge of the archaeological resources in this region. Local indigenous groups and long-time residents of the area have made essential contributions to the location, documentation, and interpretation of archaeological sites. These have been acknowledged in previous published works by archaeologists such as Begley, Hasemann, Lara Pinto, Dixon, and Gomez Zuniga, making them especially conspicuous by their absence in this reporting.

4) Sensationalizing the Archaeology of the Region

By focusing on the White City legend, citing the “Lost City of the Monkey God” (a name invented in 1940 for a tabloid news story), and by presenting the area as ‘one of the last scientifically unexplored places on earth,’ these articles exploit hyperbolic, sensational, and unscientific rhetoric. Explanation of research questions and other essential aspects of a scientific approach are largely ignored.

5) Problematic Discourse and the Trope of Discovery

These articles set up the expedition members as ‘discoverers,’ a common trope in 19th and early 20th century adventure travel writing in which external superiority is emphasized at the expense of local knowledge. The positioning of the expedition members as latter-day explorers who ‘discover’ sites in the jungle, in areas where ‘the animals appear never to have seen humans before’ shows ignorance and disrespect for indigenous Pech, Tawahka, and Miskito peoples and other Hondurans who have lived there all their lives. Archaeologists know that even the most remote areas are routinely visited by hunters and fishers. Claiming to be the first person to discover a large archaeological site, much less a “lost city” or “lost civilization” is not only improbable, but evokes a problematic past when local and indigenous contributions to knowledge were ignored and in which things already known to residents of the region were claimed to have been ‘discovered’ by foreign explorers.

We urge you to make an effort to correct the inaccuracies and damaging rhetoric in these articles and to give more sophisticated consideration to the publication of this and future articles that sensationalize archaeology, make false claims of discovery, show a general ignorance of the region and previous research, and exploit rhetorical elements that represent antiquated and offensive, ethnocentric attitudes.