Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why Claims that Lost Cities exist in Abandoned Land are Dangerous for Indigenous Hondurans

The hype about the supposed "discovery" of Ciudad Blanca in eastern Honduras is dying down in English-language media.

A little good came out of this incident: a number of Honduran academics registered their skepticism about the claims. Honduran university students in the young Anthropology major held a public event to educate Hondurans about the reality of archaeology of Eastern Honduras. And a letter taking the National Geographic to task for publishing a sensationalized account, signed by an international group of archaeologists, got enough attention to warrant corrective reporting in some mainstream media.

Predictably there has been push back: don't be such kill-joys, isn't Indiana Jones the spirit of archaeology? and isn't this just another example of politically correctness?

The PC criticism suggests that scholars questioning the promotional stories' claims that the area was uninhabited because this ignores the indigenous people whose own oral histories are our best historical indication that eastern Honduras was once densely settled with larger towns cannot possibly actually be motivated by real people's real situations. It is just an attitude scholars adopted to look good.

Now, a new blog post by Chris Begley, an archaeologist who has one of the most extensive records of archaeological investigation in this area, addresses this question directly, and personally. We would love to reproduce his whole blog post, which you can find here; but short of that, pay attention to what he says:

The language used evokes a time where foreign explorers emphasized their superiority at the expense of local knowledge...there is a much more human and immediate cost, borne primarily by the most marginalized, least powerful folks in the region: indigenous people like the Pech who are descendants of those who built these sites.

I know this is not a ‘lost civilization’ because I am an archaeologist, and I’ve worked in this ‘unknown’ area for almost 25 years. I lived and worked with the Pech almost exclusively, because I thought it was the right thing to do, and because they know the region better than anyone. They have at least a thousand years of history there.

For the Pech, the past is absolutely essential to their future. Their history is not merely an interesting pastime; it creates and supports the present. They are curious about the archaeology. I’ve talked to impromptu community meetings, looked at artifacts they collected, and listened to their interpretations. I saw them make modern pottery look like the ancient pieces we find at archaeological sites, in a deliberate attempt to connect the past and the present.

I lived with the Pech at various times over the last two decades. We lived in small villages with no electricity or water. We spent all day, every day, together. We sat and talked every night. We played cards. We took trips through the forest for two or three weeks at a time, mapping archaeological sites along the way. All told, the Pech and I documented around 150 archaeological sites.

The Pech already knew where every large site was located. Every single one. They knew where fruit trees grew, or where the good fishing holes were. They could find the little trails that I could hardly see. Sometimes we followed an old trail by looking for grown over machete cuts on branches. They knew the forest like I know my hometown.

The Pech lived in these now remote places as recently as 150 years ago, and they return to hunt and fish, or to harvest sweetgum. They’ve lost traditional lands to encroaching farmers and cattle ranchers. They’ve been moved around, and now live mainly on the edge of the rain forest, in a handful of communities....

They showed me archaeological sites. They showed me features such as which hillsides had been reshaped by people, because they could tell and I couldn’t. They explained what they thought it meant. They critiqued my interpretations.

The Pech did all this while facing serious threats to their continued existence. They fought to keep what traditional land they still had, and to keep their language alive. They buried people killed by outsiders who wanted to bully them off their land. I hated those funerals, where those animated faces I knew were rigid. I hated seeing that. Sometimes I didn’t go.

So, what is the harm in this hype and sensationalism? What difference does it make if, in their ignorance, these ‘explorers’ proclaim that they discovered something nobody has seen in 600 years?  What is the cost of these newcomers, with no real experience in this forest, claiming, disingenuously, to have discovered a ‘lost civilization?’ Why am I moved to spend a few hours writing something like this?

I write this because these false claims, hype and sensationalism invade one of the few remaining spaces in which the Pech, and folks like them, are powerful. These claims strip the Pech of their own history, and deny them the respect they deserve and the acknowledgement for their contribution to our understanding of the past. These sensational narratives, powerful because they are made by powerful people, further marginalize and disenfranchise people. In ignorance and bravado, and in pursuit of the unworthy goal of celebrity and attention, these faux discoverers make it hard to hear a crucial voice from some real experts.

No comments: