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Did a Recent Expedition Really Discover a “Lost City” in Honduras?

Controversy surrounds the recent announcement of a re-discovered ancient settlement in the jungles of Central America

A view of part of Honduras' rainforest. (Keren Su/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Last week, the internet was enthralled by the story of a mysterious and ancient abandoned city buried in vegetation and rediscovered by a scientific expedition. But since the release of the story, which was first reported by National Geographic and covered by news outlets including Smart News, there's been backlash from parts of the scientific community. Researchers who've worked in the region say the find and its coverage was sensationalized and omitted both local knowledge and previous research.

The story focused on stone ruins identified in a largely isolated rainforest region of Honduras. Called La Mosquitia, the area has long been rumored to be the location of a “White City” or “City of the Monkey God,” and for the last century has fielded multiple expeditions (of varying credibility) hunting for the “lost” settlement. But the expedition reported by National Geographic was hunting a different lead—a recent high-tech scan of a certain stretch of jungle showed signs of previous human occupation.

What they found when they trekked into the jungle, they said, was not the White City—and Honduran archeologists agree. Instead, National Geographic, which sent a writer and photographer on the expedition, reported that “many such ‘lost cities’” likely exist in the region and that their discoveries represent “something far more important—a lost civilization.”

But critics, many of whom voiced their concerns in an open letter from international scholars regarding the controversy, say that not only did the expedition not find the White City—it also didn’t find a “lost” city. The indigenous people of Mosquitia, it's been reported, are aware of the site, and some researchers suspect they are likely the descendants of the people who once lived there.

“They inhabit (the area), they use it and they’re the ones that should be credited,” geographer Mark Bonta, who has conducted research in the area, told The Star.

“Any words like ‘lost’ or ‘civilization’ should set off alarm bells,” Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology noted to the Guardian. She and others argue that characterizing archeological finds in this way perpetuate, as another anthropologist said, “a colonialist discourse” because it suggests that only when certain people or cultures recognize a site is it actually “discovered.” (Just like how Columbus didn't really "discover" North America.)

Another grievance lodged against the expedition and National Geographic’s coverage is that it largely excludes mention of extensive previous research conducted on Mosquitia and its various ancient sites. Though it doesn’t appear that the abandoned city in question has been examined prior to recent efforts, some argue that the work of many, including anthropologist Chris Begley, who the Guardian reports has spent 24 years studying this region of Honduras, should not be glossed over.

Christopher Fisher, the expedition’s lead American archeologist, has defended his and his colleagues’ work. To the Guardian, he pointed out specifically that “the area was unoccupied and relatively undisturbed” when they came upon it and that they “never said it’s Ciudad Blanca or the city of the lost monkey god,” nor did they deny local peoples’ knowledge.

No one appears to be arguing that the find isn’t significant, and both sides of the controversy agree the publicity around the site may lead to more, much needed, scientific research on Mosquitia. But the debate comes down, in part, to how to best discuss the complexities of sciences like archeology and anthropology both in and out of the academy.

“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 told the Guardian.

Update, March 20, 2015: Douglas Preston, the author of the National Geographic news item, who also writes for Smithsonian, wrote us to point out that, even though the National Geographic piece itself did not cover the extensive research in the Mosquita region, it did link to previous reporting (published in the New Yorker) Preston had done on the research conducted by Chris Begley and Rosemary Joyce.

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