More than two dozen archaeologists and anthropologists have written an open letter of protest against the “sensationalisation” of their fields, with one accusing National Geographic of reverting to “a colonialist discourse” in announcing researchers had found two city-like sites in the deep jungles of Honduras.
They also say National Geographic has ignored decades of research that suggestsHonduras was home to a vibrant chain of kingless societies, which merged qualities of the Maya to the north with other people’s less stratified, more equal cultures.
The scholars criticise National Geographic and the media for what they describe as the aggrandisement of a single expedition at the expense of years of research by scientists and decades of support from indigenous people of the dense rainforests in Honduras’ Mosquitia region.
John Hoopes, a signatory and professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas, said that National Geographic had shown “a disrespect for indigenous knowledge”. The expedition was co-coordinated by two American film-makers, National Geographic and Honduras’ national institute of anthropology.
“Any words like ‘lost’ or ‘civilization’ should set off alarm bells,” said Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and also a signatory, for the same reasons that the word “discover” is no longer accepted to discuss Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.
“It’s a colonialist discourse which disrespects them,” Hoopes said.
‘Colonialist discourse’ v ‘political correctness’
Joyce, Hoopes and others also noted that, like the Maya, the descendants of ancient Central Americans survive in sizable numbers today, even if researchers do not know who exactly they are and must still piece together what life was like a millennium ago.
Chris Fisher, the lead American archaeologist on the expedition, expressed bafflement at the sudden backlash, largely because “the stakes are so low”.
“We never said it’s Ciudad Blanca or the city of the lost monkey god,” Fisher said, referring to two legendary, likely non-existent sites. “The articles aren’t scientific papers though, and we don’t deny that local people might have knowledge of these sites. But the area was unoccupied and relatively undisturbed after all these centuries.”
National Geographic defended its coverage in a statement, saying in part that “it does not give credence to [the] ‘fantastic’ statements” of the eccentric journalist Theodore Morde, who claimed to have discovered a city in the Honduras jungle around 1940.
Cornell’s Dr John Henderson, who neither signed the letter nor took part in the expedition, said the charge of colonialist rhetoric “strikes me as political correctness”. “The most offensive part is that there’s an awful lot that’s known that National Geographic left out,” he said.
The area is so rich with sites, Henderson said, that “you’re going to point your Lidar” – the infrared surveying device that the expedition used via plane to find the site – “at almost any valley and you’re going to find something like what these guys find.”
“But what they’ve done is modest in comparison with what Chris Begley has done there for all these years,” he said, bringing up the Transylvania University anthropologist hailed by his peers for his 24 years of work in this part of Honduras.
‘Sites in almost every valley’
Rather than being a lone citadel in a untrammeled jungle or some mysterious civilization forgotten to time, almost “every river valley will typically have some archaeological find” in Mosquitia, Begley said.
Begley welcomed the ways Lidar and new technology will help home in on new sites, but said that indigenous people such as the Pech provide invaluable knowledge in explaining ancient life.
“It’s like driving versus flying, or walking versus flying,” he said. “You see all these connections that you’d miss if you’d just gone in on a helicopter. On the ground they always say there’s another place we can see just around the bend, just a few days more.”
“People might say we’re sour grapes, but I think none of us were contacted because most of us object to this kind of presentation,” Begley added. “This time we decided we’re going to call this out.”
“If you asked the Pech, ‘Did you know about this lost civilization?’ they’d say, ‘Well, no, but we know about the ones our ancestors built,’” Begley said, adding that he thought them the likely descendants of people who were eventually scattered by factors including disease, war and slavery brought by the Spanish.
Not Mayan, but who?
With the Pech, Begley has documented many similar sites to those reported by National Geographic last week: communities, dating back from 800AD to 1200AD, somewhere between villages, towns and cities, with ballcourts, terraces, large structures and locations at a “cultural crossroads” of the Americas.
So while the identities of who built the new sites remains a mystery pending excavation, clues abound, the archaeologists said. Many of Honduras’ ancient sites feature Mayan-like ballcourts, paved roadways and large public buildings, but the people who lived there seem to have lacked the Maya’s intense hierarchy of kings and elites, Joyce and Henderson said.
In some of these settlements, artwork and Spanish documents suggest women were as likely as men to have held positions of power, Joyce theorizes. In contrast to Mayan society where men had authority in most roles, women sometimes appear on the ceremonial jaguar benches (whose effigies represented spiritual power), denoting status as “ritual specialists, with knowledge of the supernatural, or healing,” she said.
Joyce also said colonial texts describe men and women both playing the region’s ancient ballgame, and that the surfeit of intricate artwork suggests a prosperous society in which relatively wealthy elites could sponsor craftsmen, in a system not unlike medieval Europe or ancient Greece – without feudal lords or the idea of states.
“It’s like a chain of smaller cities where institutionalized power had not excluded so many people,” she said. “And you look at the Maya and ask how did they manage to do this trick, getting the general population to support such inequality and hierarchy – a question which obviously has relevance today.”
“One of the things that fascinates me about all this is how it’s driven by not having a label for these settlements,” Henderson said. “They’re not Maya so they must be unknown, is the thinking, but the category of Maya really constrains how we think about these questions.”
Nearly all the anthropologists and archaeologists expressed high hopes for increased research in Central America, concern for the deforestation that threatens sites there, and wishes that the steady drain of funding for universities and grants stops and reverses soon. All agreed that it would take years more research, teamwork and debate to find answers to their questions, although they sometimes disagreed how they should work in those years to come.
“Archaeology has a real problem because our funding is drying up, and science in general has a huge language issue because we’re not communicating very well why our work is important,” Fisher said.
“If someone wants to argue with me about the definition of a city, great, I’ll buy them a beer and we’ll talk for hours,” he said. “But this is such a reminder that there’s so much out there that’s still unknown and waiting for us to find out.”