AÂ new expedition to ruins in the Honduran jungle has prompted skepticism from archaeologists and fury from the countryâ€™s indigenous people, who say President Juan Orlando HernÃ¡ndezâ€™s embrace of a legendary lost city of the Monkey God is â€œoffensive, discriminatory and racistâ€.
Last week, HernÃ¡ndez swept down by helicopter to the site, which was first visited by archaeologists with a National Geographic team last year. HernÃ¡ndez showed off artifacts discovered at the site and told reporters that Honduras was obliged to protect its â€œnational patrimonyâ€ â€“ for tourism as much as history.
â€œOur country will offer at low prices and terms the archaeology of the Maya and the White City, the cultural life of the GarÃfuna, Lenca, Miskito and all the other native people. And also sun, sand and beaches,â€ he said.
Chris Fisher, of Colorado State University and an archaeologist with the National Geographic, told the Guardian the site is â€œnow called the City of the Jaguar and they are referring to the region as the Ciudad Blanca [White City] preserveâ€. Fisher also warned of â€œmuch misinformationâ€ in the press; early Honduran andÂ international reports have used the names interchangeably.
The legend of the White City largely derives from Theodore Morde, an eccentric American who in 1940 told the New York Times that he had found an incredible â€œcity of the monkey godâ€.
Morde returned from Central America with artifacts and fantastical stories but without a shred of proof, dismaying archaeologists and native people ever since.
â€œThe whole enterprise strikes me as a boondoggle,â€ archaeologist Geoffrey McCafferty told the Guardian. â€œThis is not terra incognita, but has been subject to previous scientific investigation.â€
The University of Calgary professor, currently doing research in neighboring Nicaragua, noted that there are hundreds of similar sites in the region, most from around 1000 to 1500 AD and built by non-Maya people. But that the artifacts shown so far are not unusual, McCafferty said: â€œIf some archaeological information comes from it, terrific. But this is not going to rewrite history.â€
Even archaeologists excited about new research are discomfited by the expedition, which has kept the location a secret and not disclosed any plan for what will happen to artifacts. Neither of the organizations involved in the dig â€“ the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH) and National Geographic â€“ answered questions about the siteâ€™s future.
DarÃo Euraque, a historian at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and the former head of the IHAH, dismissed the mission outright: â€œItâ€™s irrelevant. Itâ€™s publicity.â€
Euraque said that since a 2009 coup against the leftwing president Manuel Zelaya â€“ after which Euraque was forced to resign from his post â€“ the government has given up on the serious study or preservation of any site that doesnâ€™t draw tourists.
Accessible only by helicopter or arduous hiking through a jungle provinceÂ dominated by drug traffickers, the excavation site makes an unlikely attraction. Euraque found it hard to believe HernÃ¡ndez would commit millions to sustained research, winning back archaeologistsâ€™ trust, or even to building roads to the site.
â€œThis is like finding some major archaeological remains in the Algonquins,â€ Euraque said, â€œand then President Obama flies in with no archaeologists of any name, but with the military and helicopters. And then he says weâ€™re going to build a museum in Poughkeepsie and plop some pieces there.â€
Archaeologists with the excavation have not invoked any legends when they talk about the dig: to them the sites are simply T1, T2 and T3. But their project has still angered native people, as has their cooperation with an unpopular president and his promises of profit and jobs.
Masta, an organization of the indigenous Miskito, denounced the mission on a number of grounds, including the talk of mythical cities and the idea that the sites could be â€œofficially discoveredâ€.
â€œThey have never been lost for the children of the Mosquitia,â€ Masta leaders wrote in an open letter last week, using the name of the region. â€œWe completely disagree with the arbitrary and unilateral decision of the government to explore, excavate and illegally transport archaeological pieces,â€ they continued.
â€œWe also demand respect for the names our ancestors gave this sacred site for our people.â€
The most likely descendants of the people who built these small cities are a native people called the Pech, according to anthropologist Chris Begley and geographer Mark Bonta, who have both worked extensively in the region.
â€œThereâ€™s an enormous amount of heritage thatâ€™s waiting to be reclaimed,â€ Bonta said, â€œbut most of the Pech I know donâ€™t think of the people who created these places as their ancestors.â€
Most are never taught about the non-Maya people who crisscrossed the region, he said. â€œImagine the Greeks were never told about the Parthenon. This is the way you take away peopleâ€™s land: by saying they canâ€™t be the people who built it, by still using the lingo of the â€˜White Cityâ€™.â€
The Pech have already lost enormous tracts of land to deforestation by cattle ranchers and illegal gold mining, he added. And despite better security in the last year, the region is still rife with narco traffickers, poachers and antiquity looters.
â€œTourism is the big hope because it brings money, and a lot of tourism is really good,â€ he said.
â€œVast areas of the country could be excavated, it could support small communities, and it could improve the overall image of the country. But if the past is an indicator of the future, Iâ€™m sorry, nothing is going to happen.â€