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There’s a real archaeological surprise in Honduras…

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | March 3, 2015

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.

Comments to “There’s a real archaeological surprise in Honduras…

  1. Dear scholars, have you read the book written by Preston, how is it possible that an ex-drug dealer and self declared loother was involved in all these ciudad blanca stuff? He is dead already but Preston writes how this guy’s wife was the direct link to Ex-President Lobo and the so called explorers, something fishy here

  2. I don’t understand what the fuss is about. No one is demeaning or diminishing anyone else’s findings. Referring to the site or combined sites as a “lost civilization” is accurate. Though the descendants of the inhabitants may still exist, the societies and the culture that existed at the time of occupation no longer does, in a similar fashion to most of us relating to the ancient cultures from which we descend. I have a lineal relationship to ancient Roman culture, however I have no knowledge of the reality of that culture other than what archaeology and in this case literature informs. Yes, there are many other sites in which hard working archaeologists and anthropologists are documenting societies, and I love to read about them. When I lived in Belize I found out from locals that there were literally countless sites scattered in the forests and jungles. Were it not for the Nat. Geo. article I certainly wouldn’t know of this discovery. Few of us have access to or read scientific papers circulated within the scientific community. Articles like these help the layman to more fully understand human history and may inspire us to seek further information. I hope to read more on this site as the discovery unfolds.

    • Look for a book soon to be released called ” The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston ” makes Chris Begley look foolish…in reading the book for it gives references as to why and how and when certain people in the field are jealous…poor behavior for some people with a degree below the norm of the truth.

    • If there were no books or video I never would have heard of the “Monkey God”. Because of this coverage, I am wondering if a bowl that I purchased in Central America portrays the shamanic transformation of the “Monkey God”. There is what looks like a monkey’s head protruding from one side of the bowl, and pictorials that look like something exiting from the body of a partially reclining man. I’d send pictures, but nobody seems interested.

  3. I am a honduran tv producer. I worked with the Discovery Channel crew on the “Cave of the Glowing Skulls” documentary. Stuff like “lost city” and “monkey god” make good television and generates interest and new momentum to long awaited revelations. Ive been hearing stories about ciudad blancas all my life. I had no idea about all the previous work and discoveries and now I see why. You scholar nerds are selfish, science pharisees who withold your notes within your inner circle, never taking into account the public starving for information. As I read this blog I see that now you are willing to meet other scholars, adventurers, etc., to finally complete the big picture. As a honduran “civilian”, I am relieved to finally know the truth about La Mosquitia. May you all meet in a powow and share your precious information. We welcome NatGeo’s show. Let that be a lesson to you.

  4. The documented discovery of these ruins is simply awesome. And how ironic is it that it was not revealed by some stuffy esteemed professor of archaeology wondering aimlessly through the jungle hoping on a hunch and local lore that they are on the right track, but rather by a determined adventurer and the ENGINEERS.

  5. The Honduran Armed Forces will protect the site from looters, according to this National Geographic link.

  6. I do believe you all did a great job but this really smells like sourgraping. Technically the article is correct since the location of the city is indeed in a new area which was undisturbed (Say you found Detroit and someone else found Los Angeles) but with sensationalized claims (how does a journalist or NAT/GEO intend to sell a story).

  7. Thanks for this post. I am a Mississippian archaeologist and a 2nd year assistant professor in a very small anthropology program at a pretty small regional institution.

    I would never dream of trying to teach details about Honduran archaeology because I know nothing about it. But one thing I am constantly trying to do is find discussion topics that force my students to think in a holistically anthropological way and to engage each other across traditional subdisciplinary boundaries (i.e. getting my archaeology students to really get into sociocultural anthropology, vice versa, and etc).

    It goes without saying that this whole issue is an archaeological one, but it can also be looked at as a sociocultural and linguistic one — regarding the words we use and the way information is communicated. Thank you not only for drawing attention to where it is due, but also for bringing to light a case study that a wide range of anthropology students can learn from.

  8. I love Juan Fernandez’s idea of a conference, bringing together all the scholars who have worked in the Mosquitia over the years. I also like seeing Juan’s voice get out there, as he is a Honduran, a true scientist, and somebody who has done his homework and seems to have a tremendous amount of knowledge about the area.

    Also, to be clear, the great wave of negative reaction from scholars, Hondurans, and others is a response to the hype and sensationalism, not the fact that work is going on in the region – in fact, we’ve encouraged that for years – mentoring, exposing people to the region, giving talks, etc etc.

    One last point – somehow, the conversation got a little bogged down in whether or not these sites had been found before – that only matters if you are hyping it as a lost civilization, etc., and it doesn’t really matter to archaeologists – I can’t, off the top of my head, tell you which sites I documented first and which were already on the topo maps, or found by Peace Corp folks, or by another archaeologist.

    I do know that EVERY SINGLE LARGE SITE I ever visited, even in areas 6 days walk into the jungle, were already known to the Pech with whom I lived and worked.

  9. I’d just like to step in a little moment to commend and thank the community of knowledgeable experts and interested novices (like myself) who have provided this conversation / information to the public. I do look more than the casual poster on FB or social media addict who finds the lure of the Nat Geo headline inviting a bit of adventurous read.

    Thank you, Dr. Joyce, especially. I’ll try to come back to the Berkeley Blog as often as possible. Certainly for resource!

  10. I am not an archeologist. Nor am I concerned about who gets credit for what, in regards to the “discovery” or rediscovery or whatever it is, of the so called Ciudad Blanca. But I do care deeply about the long term preservation of this site and of the entire Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve which surrounds and buffers it from destructive land use.

    I helped to organize an Honduran Department of Natural Renewable Resources survey of the Platano watershed in 1977. I suspect that we tromped or paddled close to this site as we journeyed so far upstream that we had to abandon our pipantes and continue wading on foot into the very upper headwaters. Though we didn’t find any lost city, we found something equally important and precious — one of the world’s great natural areas and the home of an incredible indigenous population.

    Followup expeditions further inventoried natural and cultural values. This led to the creation of the Rio Platano UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (my masters thesis published in 1981 analyzed this process). We also wrote the first management plan for the reserve.

    Though I am now far removed from any involvement in the Platano BR, I have tried to monitor the status of its protection and have been alarmed and saddened by reports of its destruction, particularly in the upper reaches of the watershed. One quote associated with recent press coverage noted that without significant protective measures the site of this recent archaeological “discovery” could be destroyed in just a few years. I have no doubt that this is true. In fact, the entire reserve will be severely degraded in the not too distant future without a concerted, collaborative effort by a number of entities, agencies and individuals working closely with reserve residents, to effectively conserve and manage the area.

    I hope that everyone commenting on this blog, and many others, can agree with this goal, and will refocus their energy toward this end. Recent press coverage represents a terrific opportunity to generate the support and resources needed to, for the first time, secure the long term protection of this fantastic world heritage site. And by that I mean not just these archaeological sites, but also the surrounding wildlands, wildlife and native cultures.

    • Thank You for the work you did in Honduras. So far it has lasted this long. It needs only to keep going!

  11. Thanks for your response Dr. Joyce,

    With due respect, I also went through the process of writing a dissertation. I know that engineering dissertations are in general shorter than dissertations in the social sciences and I do admire all the archeology and anthropology grnd students that go through such extensive and rigorous process, and I see the huge work that Dr. Begley’s dissertation represent and its relevance for Honduras.

    But I know for a fact that much of the work that I did as a grad student at the University of Florida did not made it to my dissertation (thanks goodness); but I know that the most important and relevant results from my work did make it to the dissertation, and any other relevant work I have done after that has made it to either journal or conference papers.

    Dr. Begley has an extensive and impressive internet and media footprint; it is relatively easy to trace his footsteps through the Mosquitia following the information the “faciculos” El Heraldo published in July of 2012, Christopher S. Stewart Jungleland book, the expedition itineraries for his “Exploration Foundation” trips (Of which I only wish I could have partaken) and his own webpage. And I will agree that there is room for undisclosed material (which will rarely will be the most significant relevant finds).

    But at the end, in academia it is what is published that counts for “disputes” like this one regarding if a sites has been recorded or not.

    In any case, will all due respect I think we should move this discussion from the world of opinions and hearsay of the blogosphere to the world of facts and academic discussion. I would like to issue a challenge to all of those that are working, have worked or want to work on the Honduras Mosquitia (or surrounding areas): Lets have a joint session at the 2016 SAA meeting on Northeastern Honduras, similar to the one that was chaired by Dr. Goodwin in 2014.

    Perhaps we should find a neutral chair to organize such session and present current state of knowledge and to begin a constructive academic discussion on how to use the existing information to move forward.

  12. Excelente trabajo no hay mejor forma de informarse de una investigación científica y mas de personas como ustedes que han trabajado en el área y han hecho una verdadera arqueología con carácter científico y no sensacionalistas como muchos. personas como esas que manipulan la información y la acomodan a sus interese; vienen a entorpecer el trabajo de los que en verdad esta asiendo las cosas bien. quiero expresarle que como estudiante de antropología de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras en un proceso de crecimiento que apenas tenemos 4 años no obviamos la situación que esta viviendo el país con respecto a esta noticia claro que reconocemos el trabajo de muchos en la zona como el de Chris Begley y en estos momentos nos estamos pronunciando en toda la universidad aclarando de la manera correcta con respecto a la ciudad blanca que no deja de ser un mito y lo que preocupa es la manipulación de la información pone en riesgo el patrimonio cultural.

    • A translation of the posting by Jonathan Espinal an anthropology student from the recently established program at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH):

      Excellent work, there is no better way to be informed of scientific research and more from people like you that have worked in the area and have done real rigorous scientific archaeology and not sensationalist like many. Persons like these ones manipulate the information to their own interest; this “slows” and diminishes the work of those who truly are doing things the right way.

      I want to express to you as an anthropology student at the National Autonomous University of Honduras in a growth process on which we only have four years, don’t ignore the situation the country is living with respect to this news piece[.] [Clearly we recognize the work of many in the zone like Chris Begley and in this moment we are pronouncing ourselves throughout the university clarifying in a correct way regarding the Ciudad Blanca, which is nothing but a myth, and what is worrisome is the manipulation of the information [that] puts at risk the cultural patrimony.

  13. Charles Lindberg, during one of his flights over the jungles of Mosquitia in Hondurus, claimed he caught a glimpse of what he thought was the “Lost City of the Monkey God” where, legend says that local people worshipped huge “Monkey Sculptures.”

    Theodore Morde – an American adventurer, worked on the tip given by Lindberg and claimed that he had finally found the lost city in 1940. He claimed sacrifices were made by local Indians to a gigantic idol of an ape. However, he was killed by a car in London before he could announce its exact location.

    Morde had originally been looking for the White City, a hidden refuge of gods and gold first reported by Hernan Cortez.

    • Theodore Morde is properly described as an “adventurer.” He was also apparently a teller of tall tales. His story “In the Lost City of Ancient America’s Monkey God” was published in 1940 in The American Weekly, a Sunday tabloid insert in Hearst newspapers that was edited by fantasy writer Abraham Merritt (a friend and associate of the more famous H.P. Lovecraft), who himself wrote novels in “Lost World” genre.

      Morde’s story reproduced imagery that would have been familiar to a general audience due to the success of the 1933 blockbuster film “King Kong.” Morde styled himself in New York society similar to Carl Denham, the film’s human protagonist, and was married to a model (shades of Ann Darrow, Fay Wray’s character?). Morde is reported to have died from an apparent suicide, not a car accident.

      If you read Morde’s 1940 story, you will find that it portrays indigenous people in a profoundly degrading fashion and lacks any credibility by 21st century standards. Citing it today in mainstream media is like citing a story from the Weekly World News. It is embarrassing to see it mentioned as if it were worthy of consideration.

  14. Wow! I have been excited to read the news over the past week, but am even more excited to find a link back to this blog! I heard about your work, Rosemary, while at a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Reunion in Colorado, October 2014. Imagine my surprise today when I find you quoting my fellow RPCV/Former Site mate @Mark Bonta — Dr. Mark Bonta!

    I appreciate the opportunity to review the work of those who came before and to know that others appreciate the gem I know as the Wild, Wild East of Honduras. Viva Olancho Y La Mosquitia

  15. An outsider’s view, from one who has never worked in Honduras. Seems to me there are two issues here–one is a project which has failed to become embedded in existing scholarship/research in the project region. For which they’re now being (not so slowly) roasted.

    But the second is perhaps more troubling — Nat. Geo’s coverage in this case appears to be degrading, or devolving, into something that smacks of archaeology’s colonial/imperial past. We were supposed to be past all that by now.

    • Dan, I have to say that like you, I find the loss of accountability by outlets that used to share reliable science with the public troubling. While National Geographic provide the first version of this, there are a lot of outlets that should know better that are specific to archaeology that have run a version of the story without reflecting on what they were relaying. Archaeologists need to be more proactive about sharing the truth about our research: I speak to public groups as much as possible, including through the Archaeological Institute of America’s lecture program, and I find that the public is well able to understand why what we do is of interest, without our relying on these vestiges of a past that we have tried to move beyond.

  16. Its glad to hear that the Ciudad Blanca, declared by the Honduras Government a national archeological preserve in 1969, has again, been re-discovered. As a young Honduras Air Forcé liutenant, I was first there in the mid 80’s when I flew in 28 researchers of the Honduras National University. We would land our helicopter on the sandy river banks since the jungle there is so dense we couldn’t land anywhere else. Once at the sites, the researchers would study the numerous gliffs and artifacts found there.

    Many local publications regarding this trip, and others before and after, are available at the National and the University Libraries. Last time I was there was in 1998 when I flew the ambassadors of the governments of the Europeas Unión to Honduras…

    • Thank you for the opportunity to share this information with the English speaking readers of this blog. As most Hondurans know, the great Honduran geography pioneer, Jesús Aguilar Paz, who travelled across Honduras in the days when it was a country with a pioneering air transport network that started in 1923, but lacked a railroad to the capital city. Based on his travels, he created a national map that located many sites of archaeological interest. His interest in sites in the Mosquitia was part of a broader interest in Honduras’ precolumbian past that led him to collect some of the earliest objects in the National Museum. In the 1960s, Aguilar Paz was still an active intellectual and one of his interests was having the region where he knew from early pilots that there were ruins visible from the air protected, and its importance known as part of Honduran history. He placed the name “Ciudad Blanca” on the map in this region. In 1969, he published a book in Honduras with his own arguments about what this unexplored settlement might have been.

      The article you link to, which calls attention to an earlier expedition (one of many over the years) seeking an archaeological site in this region of Honduras that resulted in the declaration of a region as a protected archaeological zone in 1969, shows the influence of Aguilar Paz in the name that he argued the site had once carried (although today, scholars would not necessarily agree with his interpretation):

      The route that the expedition members followed was by the Colonia-Cabeceras of the Aner and the Pao rivers, continuing toward the east, and arriving at a stream that they called “Rivera Cáceres”.

      To the south they came on a valley that they called “The Valley of the Geographic Expedition” “here it was that they located the ruins of Ciudad Blanca, known in the ancient language as Tlapal-lan-Huehuetlal-lan that it is though was part of the ancient realm of Payaquí or Hueytlato”.

      As your own experience attests, Honduran scholars, and scholars of Honduras alike, have long known there were sites in eastern Honduras. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  17. This debate evokes one of my earliest Honduran memories — 1991, a talk from George Hasemann to our incoming Peace Corps Volunteer trainee group at the IHAH. I remember being impressed by his insistence that the central, administrative site for a dense network of towns in eastern Honduras had yet to be found, and that it just HAD to be out there, somewhere, like a mirror in the East of what existed in Mesoamerica.

    Years later, in researching Contact-era ethnohistory of the region, what emerged from Spanish friars’ and administrators’ texts was not a network of secondary centers arrayed around some capital city, but instead a multi-ethnic landscape of fiercely independent towns, perhaps grouped into loose confederacies.

    The vague guesses of Cortes and misleading and possibly simply made-up observations of Pedraza, which have been those most influential in bolstering the White City myth, went against the grain of the majority of Spanish on-the-ground observations made by those who actually warred against each other and against the ancestors of the Pech, Tawahka, and others.

    They encountered large communities, such as ‘Peicacura’ and ‘Escamilpa la Grande,’ certainly, but no hint of a capital city–because there never was one. (Even Cortes himself, during his brief visit to Trujillo, did not remark on any central site in the Aguan Valley, where communities of several thousand houses, many made of stone, existed in 1526; his envoys and other Spanish administrators negotiated with ‘papas’ and ‘miangules’ on a town-by-town basis).

    Eastern Honduran societies at Contact — and, as abundant literature shows, well prior to 1502 — appear to have been what Pierre Clastres (1989) has called ‘societies against the State.’ That is to say, as the Spanish found out in their wars against the ‘Taycones,’ these were peoples who actively resisted the dominance of an outside authority; neither did they have permit the rise of an internal authority to rule over them (though sloppy and biased interpretations can cherry-pick archival records to make it seem like the State had indeed arisen).

    This is certainly not unusual in New World political structures, but is, however, somewhat alien to European-American constructions of what is ‘natural.’ The history of the White City myth is a tour of the neo-colonial mind rather than of any exterior reality. Advanced cultures? (whatever that means)–somebody must have been ruling them, administering them, making them pay taxes to a central authority!

    What is more, the idea of the WC is inextricably linked to so-called ‘virgin rainforest’ (or ‘jungle’ in a term resurrected in the press recently). Olancho’s and the Taguzgalpa’s lost cities (there have been more than one) always seem to recede into the depths of what is still ‘virgin’; I have a published report of an expedition to find the White City in the Sierra de Agalta not far from Catacamas in the 1940s that I would be happy to share–now tens of kilometers behind the current deforestation front (in some local lore, ‘white cities’ are folkloric water-origin sites in the cloud forest associated with white limestone cliffs). At the same time, what has already been ‘discovered’ is largely ignored (with the exception of the Talgua Caves); the very large sites at Dos Quebradas, documented almost 70 years ago, and Tayaco, for example, among hundreds of others, both in the region Dr. Begley has worked, and a bit westward, where Dr Pastor Gomez, the Winemillers, and others have worked, completely lack protection and promotion. It breaks my heart to see so many resources invested in a phantasm, whereas very little could be assigned for archeological education at the community level, followed by community- and municipio-level site protection, with outstanding results.

    One final image — picture the dozen of important sites clustered along the rivers of the Valle de Guayape, like San Marcos (documented by Strong); picture them removed by bulldozers to make way for modern ag, and dug away bit by bit, because they are great sources of adobe bricks. How hard would it have been, over the last 20 years of White city frenzy, for influential foreign outfits to preserve these sites?

    • Mark, your comments are most appreciated. There is nothing like having the experts in this area bring to bear the fruits of their knowledge and long term reflection.

      I would doubly endorse your description of how eastern Honduras was organized, and note that it works for most of Honduras further to the west; exploring this alternative way of existing is one of the ways that Honduran archaeology contributes something new, original, and absent in many archaeological studies in regions prized for their evidence of highly centralized governments:

      Years later, in researching Contact-era ethnohistory of the region, what emerged from Spanish friars’ and administrators’ texts was not a network of secondary centers arrayed around some capital city, but instead a multi-ethnic landscape of fiercely independent towns, perhaps grouped into loose confederacies.

      Societies against the state: the kind of situation archaeology and history exist to help us think about today.

  18. Thank you Dr. Joyce and all the other scholars for a reasoned response to this hype. I was skeptical from the original reports. Unfortunately, I don’t expect much from National Geo anymore. One only needs to look at their treatment of the 2012 fiasco and the shows on their TV channel to see how far they have fallen from true research organization.

  19. Detailed background on the speculation about Ciudad Blanca and the history of research on the region can be found in the Wikipedia article on “La Ciudad Blanca”.

    The open-source article can be edited by anyone, so please pay attention to its edit history (click the “View history” tab) and background discussion (click the “Talk” tab and especially “%%1” under Archives). Addition of correct and up-to-date information with citations and sources would be greatly appreciated.

  20. Dear Dr. Joyce,

    Thanks for your response defending previous scholar’s work. As somebody currently conducting research in Honduras, albeit about as far away as you can get from La Mosquitia, I worry about not only the lack of rigorous academic oversight but also the active facilitation of this project by both the IHAH and the central Honduran government.

    From what I understand, this project did not go through the usual process and channels for approval. I get the feeling that some of the media hype and attention has also been facilitated by ties to people like Pepe Lobo, JOH and Africo Madrid. Ultimately I wonder how these figures stand to benefit from both the hype and ongoing work in this area?

  21. Congratulations! I cannot express how excited I am to hear about the recent discovery. When I saw the moss covered aged pendant/charm of the he monkey god, my heart skipped a beat. My father, Dr. Michael Salovesh, a cultural anthropologist, gave me a similar one as a present. The family that gave it to him had explained that it was a family heirloom, had been passed down for generations. It is the exact pendant, but in pristine condition. The edges are worn smooth, from thousands of years of hands caressing it.

  22. I am a Honduran and have been living in the USA for a long time. Congratulations to Dr. Begley and Dr. Joyce and all the others for the work, and science, you do and have done in that area of Honduras.

    My family comes from the Olancho Department, a place I have a hard time describing to my friends in the states—the best I can come up is think Old Texas meets the Alaskan frontier (add vegetation, humidity, and unbearable heat instead of ice and cold). Unless one has seen the jungles and has an appreciation of how remote, isolated, and difficult the access is to this land, then it is easy to dismiss the hard work, dedication, and contribution those who go there have made and are still making.

    Reading this blog taught me one thing and that is to separate the myth of La Ciudad Blanca from the reality of the civilization that was once there—and that after all, the people responsible are still around, just like the Maya people are.
    I also see an overlap in the field work as reported in this blog and the one recently announced, since the reported finding appears to be located further west of what I have read on the articles written by Professor Begley and shared by Professor Joyce.

    I emphasize appears because it not only is clear not all data has been put together, to make sense of it, but it is obvious at some point all this knowledge must be analyzed by all parties to maximize our understanding.

    I used to perform metrology studies in the high technology sector—metrology the science (or art some say) of measuring things is really about putting attention to detail. Accounting for all variables in such a way that the engineer or scientist understands the validity and “goodness” of the data extracted from any studied phenomenon– in such a way that allows us to speak with confidence about our understanding it. In a way with archeology you are gaging or measuring a culture and civilization.

    It is clear you all have done valuable work and in time when the pieces of the puzzle come together legend, field work, expeditions and studies over the years, you will give us the gift of understanding the people that still populate those areas of Honduras–to me that was a revelation, why assume the builders left?.

    As for the hype? In the long run it will be good for archeology, once the excitement settles, and the real work begin all experts (with all credit due to each), and all documentation will be needed. And it will all play out under the scrutiny of social media, which in the end can only be a positive. In fact it may very well be the first time this has happened with an archeological find. The good news about that is, with social media, all voices will be heard—as this post by Professor Joyce shows!

    Thank You for your dedicated and unbiased effort, and especially the field work in Honduras. It is hard work in a tough environment—for example looking up what a “barba amarilla” (yellow beard) viper venom can do serves as a sobering reality check.

    Your contribution to the knowledge of our peoples and our past not only enhances Honduran cultural heritage but that of the world, and it is clear that as scientists that was your aim. Well done!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Until there is a professional publication that goes through the peer review process, it will be impossible for those outside this project to assess whether and how it overlaps with the previous research in the region.

      As an archaeologist, I treat regional distributions of sites that are similar in size range, composition of included elements, and associated material culture– things such as pottery and stone tools– as the basis to determine if sites in a geographic space are part of a single historical set of inter-acting communities. The reporting that has taken place in this case, based on the communications from the project, provides no data on which to go beyond statements about the structures that form the sites. Since I have seen one of the images myself when I initially objected to the way the project was portraying the sites, I can attest that the form of the sites (the apparent structures) resembles those well known from previous research throughout eastern Honduras. I would thus, from the settlement pattern, begin with the hypothesis that this site is related to the known sites of eastern Honduras.

      The precise site may be different. The specific valley may be different. But in archaeology that is conducted as science, you describe the existing archaeological knowledge in the areas closest to or surrounding where you undertake new research, and you compare what you find to what is known.

      You don’t try to dramatize your own work by claiming you found an unknown society.

      • I guess it is important to protect a “general public” ignoramus like myself from drawing false conclusions from Preston’s writing. Let me tell you what I got out of it:
        1. How amazing is the territory! And yet how vulnerable…
        2. Here is yet another example of a site with an evolution, with links to others near and far, and a history, and living local descendants and traditions.
        3. These sites can impress us, if cared for properly, in the same way as sites and networks elsewhere in the “Americas”.
        4. Interesting what LiDAR can do.
        4. Wouldn’t it be a great thing if this sort of thing were more frequently blogged, so as to encourage interest, support, and perhaps even funding, for the full-fledged scientific archaeology that would be so illuminating.
        So, yes – to all the critics – protect me from drawing such heinous conclusions.

  23. Dear Dr. Joyce,

    While I appreciate sound criticism of any project, I must respectfully take issue with some of your criticisms. I was there.

    First, Chris Begley was indeed contacted and his work was reviewed (and I will add that you inserted links to his own forays into mass media hype which seem curiously similar to those you are criticising). The evidence strongly suggests he has not been to the immediate area in question.

    I believe you are conflating second-hand media reports with scientific research or conduct. They are not the same. The specialists involved do not reference the legends, they distance themselves from them. In fact, if you read the National Geographic article, the legends are discounted even by Preston. Perhaps it might a bit more fair to let the specialists publish their work before attacking them.

    The project was supported at the highest levels of the Honduras government, and it was accompanied and overseen by the lead IHAH archeologist in Honduras who has the most experience in the region. Everything was done properly.

    Criticism is welcome, but a little due respect and patience is, too.

    • Thank you for your critique. When this group initially set out, many archaeologists working in the region asked them to moderate their exaggerated claims, and urged them to engage with the existing literature. The press release in the current National Geographic shows no evidence of any engagement, and Professor Begley himself asserts he was not contacted.

      If the participants in this project do not want to be assessed based on overblown claims, they should refrain from making them. It isn’t really hard: they could simply say “research has now confirmed that a site detected by LiDAR consists of” and then describe, without ignoring the broader context established by preceding archaeology in the country.

      It is indeed a fact that the non-archaeologist who heads the Honduran Institute of Anthropology has personally had the lead role in representing this project as revolutionary. One can excuse him as he has no particular expertise. The former lead archaeologist of the Institute, Dr Eva Martinez, now teaching in the university Anthropology program, has been interviewed in Honduras and has expressed the same sentiments I have– and more: she notes that the project ignores the established protocols for conducting research in the country.

      You are right about one thing: the most recent coverage is more cautious about connecting the site to the myth of Ciudad Blanca. But it perpetuates the trope of “discovery”, compounds the claim of an unknown culture, and as a growing number of scholars working in the region have come together to register their shared concern, I think it is about time that anyone associated with this project should pause, and reconsider why they are continuing to use these objectionable claims.

      • Dear Dr. Joyce,

        Thank you for your thoughtful response.

        Please remember that the story published by NG was in no part produced by the specialists on the trip. It was an act of journalism by Doug Preston, who did indeed contact Mr. Begley, and studied his work, for his New Yorker piece. The NG article is a logical continuation of that story by the same author.

        There was quite a bit of research on published papers on the subject. It is not the practice of journalism to include footnotes. The story, and the expedition, focused on very specific targets. To simply claim they have already been discovered or explored because they are in the “area”, whatever that means, is disingenuous, moreover because you don’t even know where they went.

        The Archeologist from the IHAH was indeed an archeologist. And, Dr. Eva Martinez is incorrect; the protocols were observed.

        The vast majority, if not all, of the exaggerated claims are the words of third party journalists who are beyond control (and in some cases scruples). Unless you believe that to remain pure, archeology must not be tainted by the attention of journalists, it would be irresponsible to blame them for someone else’s actions. Here are two salient facts: There are indeed rumours of Ciudad Bianca or the Monkey God. The other fact is that the team that went there has long been distancing itself from that mythology.

        I am asking you to separate the journalists from the specialists. It is the fair thing to do.

        Again, Mr. Begley is equally guilty of putting himself in front of cameras in the Mosquitia, if that is to be regarded as a crime. I do not feel that it is so. I think archeology is exciting, as is exploration, and should be encouraged in our youth. I cannot agree that the consequence of National Geographic accompanying a team of researchers to explore LiDAR finds that you acknowledged to be legitimate in the New Yorker article did more harm than good. And can all the scholars objecting truthfully say they would have refused to go, had they been invited? If the answer is no, which I suspect would be the majority, the complaints are rather weak and smelling of sour grapes. If you object to he style of the prose, that is of course a fair criticism.

        If these are treasure hunters, they are really bad at it, as they found quite a nice cache of artefacts and left it all behind, because to do otherwise would be an abomination to the protocols you champion.

        Say what you will about journalism or self-made explorers. I ask that you suspend judgment on the specialists until their papers publish.

  24. As a Honduran I have a lot of admiration and respect for those like you Dr. Joyce that decide to work in Honduras. I do respect Dr. Begley and others such as Healy, Brady, Clark, Herlihy, among many others. I’m particularly excited about a new generation of scholars such as Dr. Goodwin, the Winemillers and the even new generation in formation that include the two Hasemann-Lara-Pinto offspring .

    As an academic researcher in formation, my CV is dwarfed by your extensive works Dr. Joyce and by the work of persons who I cited before. Im an PhD engineer that has been working with the above criticized project, while I don’t have formal qualifications in Archaeology and Anthropology I have been involved with more than 10 large scale archaeological mapping projects that use airborne LiDAR to understand the modification of the landscape by ancient cultures from the US southwest to Mesoamerica (Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Guatemala).

    While I understand and respect your frustration and criticism with the way these stories appear in the media, I just want to ask for scientific fairness in that is not words but facts and evidence what counts on the academic field. Thanks for listing most of Dr. Begley’s works and let me point out that on his 1999 Dissertation, specifically on page 80 where he summarized his field results he refers to 125 sites, of which most were located in the Culmi Valley and 10 in the head waters of the Rio Platano. In appendix 2 which covers pages 341 to 428 he presents site diagrams of 88 sites. In the dissertation he also presents information on the Roatan burial dig he participated as well as an overview of the other contextual archeological sites of the area such as the cuyamel caves, Rio Claro, the previous surveys of the rivers: Negro, Platano, Patuca, Paulaya, the sites of Crucitas de Aner, Talgua caves and villages. With this background on Dr. Begley dissertation I want to make 2 points:

    1) So if the dissertation you refer to only documents 125 sites, where has Dr. Begley documented the other over 75 sites that are needed to compete the “over 200 archaeological sites he documented” claimed in your blog post? Where is the academic fairness, truthfulness?
    2) You write: “No one on this adventure fantasy trip reached out to Professor Begley, whose NSF-funded dissertation research may well have already recorded this site.” This is very easy to say, but not necessarily true, and well in science I don’t need to talk personally with Einstein to understand relativity, likewise no body needs to reach to professor Begley to understand where and what he has surveyed and documented, one can read his dissertation and other publications that you refer to know that what we have seen in the LiDAR images has not been documented by Dr. Begley. The 2012 LIDAR images have been presented both to the public and the academic community (, and none of the sites documented by Dr. Begley matches the scale, layout and extent of the sites documented by the LIDAR survey. Furthermore Begley or anyone else have recognized or acknowledged that the 2012 LIDAR survey was conducted in areas that are between the Platano and Patuca rivers, and far from these rivers where the past archaeological prospection surveys have been conducted and sites have been identified.

    Perhaps, if the conversation was more friendly and with open minds, maybe it would be easier to include Dr. Begley in an adventure fantasy trip such as the one himself has taken the media in multiple ocassions. If perhaps the conversation was more respectful together we could be advancing the state of the knowledge of the people that inhabited the Northeast of Honduras. Perhaps if we were not so protective of our own work and can see the value of the work and effort of other people including the story writers, film makers, adventurers, amateur archaeologist, biologists, ecologists we would realize that we all have common goals albeit perhaps not common motivations, and that perhaps the Mosquitia is not an exclusive academic playground for a selected few… not like in a western where the town is not big enough for both of us, the Mosquitia and its mysteries it very large for all of us to study; and it requires the attention of all of us so that its natural and cultural patrimony can be acknowledged, documented, protected and preserved.

    I say this with full respect to you Dr. Joyce, your readers and all the academics that want to work in the area. And in full belief that in academia truthful and respectful discussion irrespective of the strength of points of views and origins should allow us to reach the truth, I say thanks for your time and effort keeping up this blog and the discussion.

    • Thank you for your comment. I have addressed some of the points you make in the previous response. Here, I will reiterate three points for clarity:

      (1) yes, one can read a dissertation. But as every trained archaeologist knows, there are field notes and specifics about location that are not included in the dissertation. This is why one does not ignore the ongoing work of others in a region.

      (2) Ongoing work. Professor Begley’s work did not end with, nor was it limited to, the dissertation.

      (3) Even if we accept the argument (which I do not) that there is no reason to engage with the rest of the archaeological community (including Honduran archaeologists who are not employees of the Institute, who have publically criticized the project in the same terms I have), the project has to take responsibility for how it promotes itself. Lost civilizations is not acceptable contemporary archaeology.

      The criticism of Professor Begley’s engagement in popularization of archaeology, which includes his work explicating how a “Ciudad Blanca” story got so elaborated, is predictable. I linked to his popular sites in order to demonstrate that it is possible to tell the story of what archaeologists find that has previously been unreported, without making exaggerated claims.

  25. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Having worked with both Dr Begley and Mark Bonta I can testify to their abilities and professionalism! I have been down the Rio Platano twice with Jorge Salaveri and seen many archeological sites. It is a shame that some feel the need for sensationalism at the expense of real science. I bet if the guys at CSU had their work ignored by others that claimed they found what they went to document, they might be a bit mad.

    Robert Hyman Honduran Conservation Coalition

    • Thanks for giving me a chance to re-emphasize three things:

      (1) I emphasize Chris Begley’s work in this particular blog post as the most obvious example. But I am equally bothered by the erasure of the almost century-long history of other researchers in eastern Honduras. A case in point: the photo of a sculpture of a jaguar head, offered as if it were unprecedented, actually is entirely compatible with published work by Samuel Lothrop and Doris Stone showing pieces of stone metates or benches in sites in eastern Honduras. These have long been the basis to identify links between eastern Honduras and Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

      (2) since project participants have now chosen as their defense that this site isn’t right in the exact same spot as the area surveyed by Professor Begley in his doctoral dissertation, I would re-emphasize that the point is broader: this project acts like no one knows anything about archaeology in this region. There actually has been a lot of work by many different people that places this site in context– and while the press report is unclear about how they assigned dates to the site, the most likely thing is that they are using object-based chronologies generated by researchers in the broader region before them.

      (3) while I have been speaking for the oversight given to archaeology, it is also an oversight of the knowledge generated by natural scientists of all kinds, and the indigenous knowledge that anthropologists working in the region have respected and collected.

  26. Hola Ms. Joyce….Funny thing, when I did my research, I came to you and Chris, and the Paz family, and the Morde family, and even met these fine fellows that are no longer with us: Yes, I contacted the IHAH, Professor John W. Hoopes, Professor William Clay Poe and dozens of others that are interested, and have worked in and researched the area. I was still treated with disdain… Now, El Heraldo news programs in Honduras are showing footage from our trek in stories about this Nat Geo story…

    • Yes– this is a good counter to those who would claim that this is simply dog in the manger. Even if people differ in their interpretations, ignoring previous research (and I realize they are ignoring you as well) is not acceptable in science.

  27. Thank you, Dr. Joyce! This region is truly interesting and the real discoveries don’t need the hype! The fact that the NatGeo article was written by famous fiction author Douglas Preston says a lot. To call these settlements evidence of a “lost civilization” and deny links to modern populations is reminiscent of the damage done by the ongoing Mayanization of so many Honduran indigenous groups!

    • And another archaeologist experienced in Honduras weighing in is important. We all need to push forward on this– thanks for reading, sharing, educating others.

  28. Thank you for this, Dr. Joyce. I truly hope that Nat Geo folks (especially Douglas Preston) will read this and Begley’s work and revisit their article. False claims to discovery such as those hurt both local communities, nation-states, and the academic milieu. It seems curious to me that Preston is the author of that “scientific” article for Nat Geo, since he is primarily a fiction author. Yet, somehow, it makes sense.

    • Mr. Preston has been part of this project since its beginning, and it is entirely within his rights to create dramatic stories about mystery and adventure. What is not helpful for the general public and for the discipline of archaeology is for the lines between stirring tales of adventure and scientific knowledge to be blurred.

  29. You incorrectly linked “this report (2011) which was supposed to be in English to the first link “read Chris’s report” which is in Spanish – both links are Spanish.

  30. Excelente Rosmary, una explicacion clara sobre como desgraciadamente se desacreditan los trabajos rigurosos de cientificos, lastima que se desperdician recursos de esa maner y no en apoyar a investigadores serios.

  31. There was a similar situation where I work in Cambodia. However, in that case the responsibly reported research was sensationalized by the press coverage. This also involved LIDAR and the concept of a lost city. I wrote about it on my blog:

    I was working on an excavation project at a major site in Cambodia at the time that was using some of the LIDAR results to inform our excavations. We were visited by several reporters, however our work did not generate the same excitement that the concept of a “lost city” did. It was eye-opening to see how the process of media-reporting on archaeology works.

    • Yes, it is absolutely normal for press reports to run ahead of what a real archaeologist says– have had the experience myself.

      In this case, though, this project is driven by a non-archaeologist lead and the narrative of discovery, of empty space and lost cities and hints of treasure all come from the project itself. That there is an archaeologist specialist in the technology involved has not, unfortunately, led to a less primitivizing and exoticizing storyline.

      As I emphasize in another blog post elsewhere, this is especially offensive to archaeologists in Honduras who have in recent years developed the first university major in anthropology, many of whom are among the first Honduran archaeologists to earn the PhD (outside the country), none of whom want the rest of the world to think there is no knowledge about eastern Honduran archaeology.

      • I too was reading the interesting dialogue on this page and drawing parallels between what’s happening here and the situation that Alison mentions in relation to Cambodia from a couple of years back.

        On the one hand it’s true when archaeologists claim that they have no control over the media narrative, and that journalists are prone to sensationalise these kinds of things… but on the other hand, it kind of misses the point, and is also a little disingenuous.

        The thing is to try and make sure that nothing gets out in the media before a peer-reviewed paper is released (which all of the top-tier journals will require of you anyway) because this ensures that there will at least be some commentary in the mainstream media that is sensible and informed, and that people who are so inclined can look up source material that’s (hopefully) been vetted by critics like Prof Joyce and evaluate the evidence on its merits.

        I’m glad that in the case of the Cambodian results in 2013 we at least managed to keep a lid on the stupid stuff until our paper was published (although just barely, and after that it was basically a festival of stupidity).

        In this case, however, all we have to work with is the cringe-inducing NG article with the ex-special forces guys and their machetes and whatnot. Good grief.

        It seems like there’s something about applications of lidar in tropical forest environments that brings out the worst of this kind of thing, I suppose because you’re right at the point where cutting-edge technology meets all of these Hollywood fantasies about archaeologists.

        Also, when people (including scholars) who don’t have a whole lot of experience with archaeological remote sensing suddenly get enthusiastic about seeing patterns from the air, the results often turn out to be pretty unenlightening.

        It’s a shame, because as I argued in this op-ed piece in The Diplomat a couple years back lidar truly is an exciting technology for a number of really important reasons, and episodes like this just invite scepticism and scandal and draw the rest of the field into disrepute.

  32. So many other scholars have also contributed – Pastor Gomez, Gloria Lara Pinto, George Hasemann, Boyd Dixon, Paul Healy, Carrie Dennett, geographer like Mark Bonta, Laura Herlihy, Peter Herlihy.

    And many folks who aren’t professional scholars, like Pancho Bueso – a guy who grew up in the region, and really sees the big picture – or Cipriano Carrasco, who knows every inch of the Platano, Pao, Aner, and other rivers. Folks like Jorge Salaverri, who is a naturalist, forester, and can name every plant and animal in English, Latin, Spanish, Miskito, and often in Pech. THAT is what is being overlooked in order to create some B-movie image of this ‘expedition.’

    • And I knew you would want to acknowledge all the other voices– but in this case, you have to be the illustration, because your work is available, you made the effort to share it widely, and others of us in the archaeological world have consistently directed this project to just please talk to you.

      But of course the point is: this is truly not terra incognita. It is a difficult place to work, which means we truly need to acknowledge all those who have done so. And the knowledge about the area that exists has exciting implications about which no one who studies the region should be unaware.

  33. Thank you for this excellent post!

    I was shocked to see that National Geographic fell to the typical “click bait” types of headlines that are not only misleading, but unprofessional. I’m equally surprised that Douglas Preston and others did not include Dr. Chris Begley in their research. What could have been a fascinating report on new techniques and discoveries turned out to be reporting of the type of hype that we now expect from the History Channel, etc.

    I worked with Chris Begley in the mid 1990s in Honduras. I agree completely with Dr. Rosemary Joyce’s assessment: Dr. Begley is THE expert in this area, especially in the Mosquitia.

    I spent the day explaining to my students the REAL story.

    Please, we all expect better from National Geographic!

    • Like old home week! and that makes Chris’s point above even sharper– for everyone who led a project in the past forty years, there are multiple others who gained experience in archaeology in eastern Honduras, and who are out there now teaching and doing research, whether in Honduras or elsewhere.

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