In a round valley ringed by steep cliffs lies an ancient community buried beneath the rain forest.
The 1,000-year-old ruins — whose timeline coincides with a legendary “lost city” — were uncovered earlier this month.
When news outlets around the globe got ahold of the story, most portrayed it as though an ancient mystery had been solved. National Geographic ran with the headline, “Exclusive: Lost City Discovered in the Honduran Rain Forest.” NPR announced, “Explorers Discover Ancient Lost City in Honduran Jungle.”
There’s one minor problem, though: The ruins were not the “lost city” of lore, and worse, they may never have been “lost” to begin with.
At least that’s the claim of 24 researchers, archaeologists, and independent scholars who recently signed a public letter condemning the recent coverage. They take issue especially with the National Geographic story, which they say exaggerates the findings and ignores the indigenous people who still live in the region.
National Geographic has responded to the letter by linking to a statement from the research team. It says their story never claims they found the “lost city,” but merely a “lost city” in the same region.
As for it being a “city,” the dissenting researchers say that’s up for debate, too.
The legend of the “Lost City”
Rumours about an ancient “lost city” (or “White City,” as some have called it) of extreme wealth in Honduras circulated among foreigners, conquerors, and aviators in the 1900s. One outsider, a quirky young writer-turned-explorer from Massachusetts, went so far as to claim he’d found it on a trip there in 1940.
Unfortunately, there’s scant evidence that any of these people ever consulted the indigenous people who lived in the area, instead preferring to portray it as basically barren and forgotten.
When the last person who claimed he’d found the site killed himself 14 years later (having never said where exactly it was), the rumours faded quickly.
Outsiders, it seemed, had forgotten entirely about the alleged “lost city” — until a few years ago.
What they found
In 2012, a team of American and Honduran archaeologists returned to the site on a tip from California filmmaker Steve Elkins, University of Houston engineer and one of the team members Ramesh Shrestha told Business Insider. This time, they came with hi-tech, long-distance gear that enabled them to trace a virtual image of the terrain from aeroplanes circling high in the air.
Gazing out of their windows, the team of engineers saw gently rolling hills and sloping mountain ridges. Eventually, they came across a basin that looked something like this:
Within hours, their gear picked up something beneath the surface that didn’t look like it belonged: a sharp-edged, rectangular shape.
Here’s a digital rendering of the finding, provided to Business Insider by the University of Houston:
That rectangular area could only mean one thing, the researchers thought: People. Nature provided land with curving slopes and rounded hills. Only people would have built something shaped like this.
To confirm their suspicions, they sent a team of American and Honduran archaeologists, ethnobotanists, and technicians to explore on the ground.
Sure enough, the team found evidence of the tips of more than 50 objects scattered beneath the Earth, including the tip of a carved construction stone shown here:
Upon close inspection, the archaeologists estimated the people who used these objects lived here sometime between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1400, about the same time as residents of the famed “lost city” would have thrived.
The National Geographic story leads with this tantalising sentence: “An expedition to Honduras has emerged from the jungle with dramatic news of the discovery of a mysterious culture’s lost city, never before explored.”
Problem is, that entire area is rich in ancient ruins, University of Transylvania archaeologist Chris Begley, who has 20 years’ experience in the region and was one of the dissenting archaeologists leading the charge against the National Geographic story, told Business Insider.
You could point lidar technology practically anywhere in the region and find something, Begley said.
Colorado State University archaeologist Eric Fisher and the project’s lead American researcher, doubts this. “There was no evidence that we could see that anyone had been there in modern times,” he said. “If he’s done all this research, where is it? Where are the permits?”
Begley says he and other researchers before him have been studying similar communities that thrived thousands of years ago in the region for decades. “This stuff about this being a ‘big discovery’ — that’s just not true,” he said.
Lost civilisation or merely part of a larger community?
One of Begley’s main issues with the National Geographic piece, he said, is that it didn’t include the perspective of the indigenous people who live in the region.
Begley has worked with the Pech and the Tawahka people for decades and remains a primary contact point for other researchers and tourists. He thinks the researchers ignored their knowledge of the area and instead chose to portray it as untouched and exotic — “a sunken treasure.”
“They didn’t reach out to me,” said Begley, “because they knew what I’d say and what I’d think about what they were doing.”
According to Fisher, that’s not true either. “The directors of the project have a right to choose who they work with,” he said. “We had someone on our team with a decade of experience, and we had other people who reached out to local indigenous people.”
The team’s ethnographer, Alicia González, did meet with some members of local indigenous Miskito and Pech communities, at least in 2014 when they did their on-the-ground research. But when they first started the project in 2012, they may not have been so inclusive.
When I asked Shrestha, the engineer who took lidar images of the site in 2012, for example, about whether they’d been in touch with local indigenous people about their work, he said, “As far as I’ve been told there are no indigenous people there to consult.”
Controversy notwithstanding, the research has certainly turned a few heads.
“This is the most positive attention the region has gotten in the last decade,” said Fisher. “If people want to be critical, that’s fine with me.”
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