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Looters, Tourism, and Racism: Controversy Surrounds 'Discovery' of Lost City in Honduras

A US-led expedition claims to have found the legendary White City in the Honduran rainforest, but local archeologists say they've always known where it was. They kept it a secret to protect it.

by Gabriela Gorbea
Mar 31 2016, 2:21pm

Photo via Honduras Presidential Office

Dario Euraque sounded fed up as he explained how the academic community is no stranger to the archaeological gems hidden in La Mosquitia, a rainforest region in the easternmost part of Honduras.

"A lot of the archaeological sites there have already been identified in the past, but they were kept a secret out of preservation efforts, and because the people who found them were not interested in attracting tourism," said Euraque, a historian and former head of the Honduran Institute for Anthropology and History.

Euraque's criticism is directed at an ongoing US-led archaeological expedition that claims to have found an ancient city hidden in the Honduran jungle. The report on their findings was published in National Geographic last year, and the team returned to Honduras to continue their expedition in January 2016.

The possibility that the archaeologists may be taking credit for a discovery that is not theirs is just one of the controversies swirling around the team. It also faces accusations of overplaying the significance of the discovery, offending local indigenous groups by using racist dialogue, and leaving the area vulnerable to looting.

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La Mosquitia, where the expedition is currently underway, holds the largest rainforest in Central America, and it is often depicted as an unexplored territory, flush with the remains of long-forgotten civilizations.

A 2012 survey of La Mosquitia first revealed the existence of ruins in a remote area. Researchers thought they could be the White City, a legendary settlement that has captivated Spanish conquistadors, adventurers, and archaeologists for centuries due to rumors about the extreme wealth of its inhabitants. And so the search began.

The US-led team first arrived in the region in March 2015, and, after surveying and mapping the region, they concluded that they had discovered the tracks of an unnamed civilization. The team recorded the findings, but did not disclose the exact location or plans for the site, or say whether they thought it was the mythical location.

Like many other Latin American jungles, legends of riches and lost cities have existed in La Mosquita since European conquerors first set foot on the continent.

According to the legend, the White City is built entirely of white stone, filled with riches, and contains a gigantic statue of a monkey god. The myth fell dormant for many years, until an American journalist named Theodore Morde reawakened it in the 1940s. After making a trip to the Honduran jungle, Morde claimed to have found the White City, but nobody believed him. It wasn't until last year's expedition that the place was brought up again.

Many specialists, like Dario Euraque, believe the so-called discovery is no big deal.

"The only 'new' thing about the expedition is that they are planning to put what they've found inside a museum," Euraque said, criticizing the media's coverage of the ruins.

"The Honduran government does not have enough resources to protect these sites, so publicly announcing their existence only makes them vulnerable to looting," Euraque added. That's why, despite knowing about their existence and location, specialists prefer to keep them a secret.

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Local indigenous groups are also angered by the way the US-led team and the Honduran government have handled the situation.

On January 13, the union of indigenous people of La Mosquitia wrote an open letter to President Juan Orlando Hernández stating their objections to his actions. Both the president and the team that published the report in National Geographic failed to ask the people of La Mosquitia to approve the exploration and the extraction of archaeological artifacts, the letter read. The locals asked to keep the findings within their lands, arguing that they have always known about the existence and location of the White City.

The letter also asked the media to stop referring to the area as the "City of the Monkey God," saying that they considered it "racist" and "insulting."

A group of more than 24 archaeologists and anthropologists also wrote an open letter challenging the alleged discovery. The expedition is yet another representation of "colonialist speech," and an offense against the indigenous people's knowledge, the experts said.

"The people who signed that letter have dedicated their lives to archaeology and love Honduras. They don't want the country to turn into a reality show. The so-called specialists from National Geographic are not serious," said Euraque, who worries that the added exposure could turn the tranquil area into a media circus.

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President Hernández was seemingly unaware of the turmoil sparked by the expedition, but he appears to have developed a sudden interest in the nation's archaeological past.

"The White City could attract scientific tourism," the Honduran president said during a press conference in La Mosquitia on January 30. "We will need years to fully understand every detail of what we have found, but we need to promote it and make sure the world knows about it, so that we can share this knowledge."

Euraque believes that trying to create a tourism industry in La Mosquitia is pure nonsense, as the area is hard to access and filled with many dangers for travelers.

"It's not like getting off the plane and landing in Cancun," he said.

The US-led team, which also included Honduran researchers, released a statement defending their work and denying any mishandling of information.

"We hope our colleagues will realize the enormous contribution and attention that this project has brought, not only to the academic community working in the area but to the people and government of Honduras, and we hope that together we will be able to foster and encourage greater academic research in the area," the statement said.

Meanwhile, they continue to work in the region, and with the government's support, the team has begun to unearth artifacts, including a crow-headed vessel, and handmade statues depicting jaguar and human heads.

Perhaps they did not solve the mystery surrounding the White City, but some archaeologists believe the expedition still deserves some credit.

"The feeling you get when you find an ancient settlement is hard to explain, especially because the search involves difficulties and struggles that not everyone is willing to endure," said Dr. Ivan Šprajc, a Slovenian archaeologist who specializes in unearthing ruins and has discovered three major ancient settlements in the Mexican jungle.

"The findings in Honduras could cast light on important matters that have to do with the development of pre-Hispanic cultures in the area, as well as their relationship with the Mayans and other Mesoamerican cultures," Šprajc said.

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