Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

There’s a real archaeological surprise in Honduras…

By Rosemary Joyce

And if you have been following popular science reporting the last couple of days, you probably think you know what I mean.

Well, that’s the surprise: you don’t.

For those who haven’t seen the original report or its follow-ups, supposedly a “lost city” unknown to science, the “untouched ruins of a vanished culture”, has been confirmed in eastern Honduras.

Most news coverage uses the words “discovery” and “lost civilization”. Some coverage explicitly connects this report to legendary cities: Ciudad Blanca, the “White City”, even the “City of the Monkey God”.

(I am not linking to these stories because I don’t want to drive traffic to them: go here if you want to read some real archaeological research about Honduras presented for the public without exoticization.)

1915 redux

Reading these reports, it seems like 1915 has come again and everything actual archaeologists have spent the last century learning has been swept away.

For modern archaeologists who aren’t trying to aggrandize themselves or live a fantasy about tomb raiders, the imagery of “discovery” and “lost civilizations” make this story tragic: instead of knowledge, this story is a message of ignorance.

Chris Begley
Chris Begley

Back when these adventurers first announced this supposed revolutionary discovery, a number of archaeologists with expertise in the region, including me, told them there already was a substantial body of research on the area, and told them who to contact: Chris Begley, a Professor of Anthropology at Transylvania University, with a PhD from the University of Chicago, and the strongest record of research in eastern Honduras of any archaeologist alive today (and in my pretty authoritative opinion, the strongest record of archaeological research in the area of anyone, living or deceased).

No one on this adventure fantasy trip reached out to Professor Begley, whose NSF-funded dissertation research may well have already recorded this site. It wouldn’t have been hard: his research actually has been covered in documentaries and in published popular science books. There’s even a YouTube video.

If they had talked to Professor Begley, they might have read the scholarly article he co-authored back in 2007 taking apart the way that the mythology of a lost city is shaped for modern literary tastes.

They might have found in his writing respect for the living people whose ancestors built settlements in the area, and whose own oral histories are the original sources of rumors of cities in the rain forest, cities never lost to these people.

Narrow story lines

Because of course, the region is far from uninhabited. The indigenous people who live in eastern Honduras today— the Pech and the Tawahka Sumu — likely include the descendants of the builders of the many settlements Begley and others have documented in this area, abandoned around the time of European colonization.

Now, I understand that people want the excitement of novelty. Like every archaeologist in creation, I know we battle against a media appetite for certain narrow story-lines: “discovery” that ignores the inconvenient fact that people living in areas where archaeologists come to work already know about the traces of human beings in their neighborhood; “lost civilizations” that relegate those living people to some kind of relics who have fallen from past glories and so lost the right to representation as living, breathing people whose histories archaeology is privileged at times to explore — not discover — and to seek to understand — not appropriate.

Eastern Honduras, home of more than 200 archaeological sites (courtesy Chris Begley)

But try this for a real surprise; dare I say, an honest to god discovery.

For his doctorate, completed in 1999, Chris Begley test excavated more than a dozen of over 200 archaeological sites he documented in the region that today’s brave explorers are claiming was unknown.

Actual facts, actual science

And he actually found something no one expected. Something really intriguing — not a mystery, but a surprise, one that is still unfolding in the conferences where actual scholars go to debate what really happened in the region before the arrival of European colonists.

A colleague and I were directing our own research project a bit west of Begley’s project area in the early 1990s, and were especially excited at finding multiple ballcourts in the region where we worked (the modern Department, or State, of Yoro).

According to the existing models, these stone courts used for playing games not unlike soccer using a rubber ball shouldn’t have been that far east in Honduras.

And then we saw Chris present his ongoing research from much, much farther east: and not only had he mapped multiple large settlements, many also had ballcourts, even more astonishing in this more distant location.

If you read Spanish, you can read Chris’s report on his work from 2002. Even if you can’t understand Spanish, you can look at the maps and drawings.

And if you find the actual facts interesting, why not read more actual science writing: this report from 2011 (in English) including Begley’s recent archaeological research in another part of under-studied eastern Honduras, work done along with a multi-disciplinary team including Dr. Mark Bonta, a geographer whose research on eastern Honduras is also being ignored by the so-called discoverers of Ciudad Blanca.

Their work is what real science looks like: careful and honest recording, without hype.

And when carried out by people who know the history of research in an area, it can yield surprises — even, yes, discoveries.