“La Ciudad Blanca” (“the White City”) is a legendary “lost” city, deep in the rain forests of the Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras. Charles Lindbergh reportedly spotted it from the air in one of his excursions and explorer Theodore Morde supposedly found the “City of the Monkey God,” which some have speculated to be Ciudad Blanca, in the same approximate region in 1939. However, Morde died without passing on the location of his supposed find, so his story was not verified. Nevertheless, interest in the legend of Ciudad Blanca has remained high among the public and the popular media. Numerous subsequent expeditions have gone in search of this lost city, all to no avail.
But according to Douglas Preston (yes, THAT Douglas Preston) in an article for National Geographic published in March, the legend of Ciudad Blanca has been vindicated and the “lost city” is lost no more.
“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. The team was led to the remote, uninhabited region by long-standing rumors that it was the site of a storied ’White City,’ also referred to in legend as the ‘City of the Monkey God.’”
“The expedition confirmed on the ground all the features seen in the lidar images, along with much more. It was indeed an ancient city. Archaeologists, however, no longer believe in the existence of a single ’lost city,’ or Ciudad Blanca, as described in the legends. They believe Mosquitia harbors many such ’lost cities,’ which taken together represent something far more important—a lost civilization.”
Not just a lost city….an entire lost civilization! Amazing! Fortunately, National Geographic had camera crews on hand for this discovery, and put together a National Geographic Explorer program “Legend of the Monkey god” that captured this exciting find, which aired earlier this week.
But there’s one slight problem….the “lost” city is anything but “lost”. In fact, it’s just one site—and probably not even the largest—of many in a region that has been occupied for millennia and has been well-studied by archaeologists. How well studied? According to a group of scholars who have actually studied the region,
“Intensive previous research has been conducted by archaeologists, geographers, and other scientists. Far from being unknown, the area has been the focus of many scholarly and popular works, including two Master’s theses, one doctoral dissertation, two popular books, two documentary films, numerous articles and presentations, and a series of booklets recently published by a Honduran newspaper.”
There’s a website created and maintained by Dr. Christopher Begley (who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the archaeology of the region) devoted to making archaeological findings from here accessible to the interested public. There’s even a freaking Wikipedia entry on this mythical site. Strangely, none of these sources were featured in the National Geographic articles or program (and any previous research was de-emphasized in favor of the “Lost City” story).
But it gets worse. Read through Preston’s article again. Notice his use of these phrases:
“never before explored”
“remote, uninhabited region”
Never before explored? Lost? Uninhabited region???? What about the people who live in the area, who told the expedition team about sites in the region?
Do you see the problem? The framing of this story not only excludes the scientists who have been working in the region for decades, it treats the indigenous people who have lived there for generations as if they don’t exist. The Chibchan-speaking Pech people, likely descendants of the inhabitant of the abandoned villages in this regions, are not “lost” in any sense of the word. This is unfortunately not a unique case, but it is one of the more blatant ones I have seen, and is particularly disappointing coming from a generally respected science news source.
We (and I certainly am no exception) are fascinated by the “Lost City” trope. Inevitably it features a lone scholar/explorer who, despite ridicule and disappointment and the odds stacked against him/her, persists in following his or her convictions, and through adventure, sharp wit, and dogged research actually finds the lost city and the ancient knowledge contained within. It’s integral to the plot of numerous movies (Indiana Jones, Aliens vs. Predator, Congo), games (Uncharted, Tomb Raider), and books (The Lost World, The Land that Time Forgot, King Solomon’s Mines). It’s a terrific story that works.
And when it comes to real world archaeology, the “Lost City” trope is highly effective and convenient—it draws out that shared sense of wonder and excitement among viewers (and reels in ratings). Unfortunately, it is all too often applied in cases, like this one, where it’s a complete fabrication. When such stories are so blatantly inaccurate, they cross over the line that separates journalism from hype. They generate ratings, but they paint a misleading portrait of events, and exclude the very real, genuinely exciting archaeological work that has been done. Worse, by pretending as if the people who live near these sites don’t exist, they send the message that Indigenous people don’t “count” as explorers and adventurers, nor are they portrayed as being well-informed about their own history and surroundings. It sends the message that only outsiders on expeditions count. This viewpoint is a legacy of colonialism, as is pointed out by several archaeologists (among them, the chair of my department at the University of Kansas, John Hoopes) in a letter protesting how this story has been presented:
“These articles set up the expedition members as ‘discoverers,’ a common trope in 19th and early 20th century adventure travel writing in which external superiority is emphasized at the expense of local knowledge. The positioning of the expedition members as latter-day explorers who ‘discover’ sites in the jungle, in areas where ‘the animals appear never to have seen humans before’ shows ignorance and disrespect for indigenous Pech, Tawahka, and Miskito peoples and other Hondurans who have lived there all their lives. Archaeologists know that even the most remote areas are routinely visited by hunters and fishers. Claiming to be the first person to discover a large archaeological site, much less a “lost city” or “lost civilization” is not only improbable, but evokes a problematic past when local and indigenous contributions to knowledge were ignored and in which things already known to residents of the region were claimed to have been ‘discovered’ by foreign explorers.”
National Geographic and writers like Douglas Preston can write about sensational finds without sensationalist tactics. Writing well about good science is more than enough–archaeology is exciting on its own without invoking ugly tropes in order to sell ratings!
(This list will be updated as more is written on this topic)