Essay: Controversy Over Honduras Archaeology by Charles Rector

The Lost City of the Monkey God. The White City. The Lost City of Mosquitia. These are names that are associated with a legendary city of the Mosquitia region of Eastern Honduras that is nowadays associated with a daunting combination of mountains and rain forest. This city was a major metropolitan area back in the days before Christopher Columbus discovered America. However, sometime after the coming of Columbus but before the incursions of the Spanish conquistadors reached the area, according to legend, the city was abandoned because the people came to believe that the gods had forsaken them.

The origins of the legend of the White City are fascinating. In 1526, fresh from the conquest of the Aztec Empire, Hernan Cortes wrote the Emperor Charles V about a civilization that he had heard stories about that was even richer than that of the Aztecs and had at least as many inhabitants that was what the natives called it the “Old Land of the Red Earth.” Cortes asked for reinforcements sent to him so he could mount a proper expedition to investigate these reports. Due to a combination of lack of interest by the emperor combined with trouble on the home front in Mexico, Cortes was never able to engage in a new round of conquest in the New World. About twenty years later, the first Catholic Bishop of Honduras, Christobal de Pedraza, was on a journey when he reached a high mountain bluff overlooking a sizable prosperous looking city in a river valley. Although his native guide told him that this was a wealthy place, he chose to continue on his journey without venturing down to the city. He subsequently made a report to the Emperor Charles V who, as with Cortes’s earlier report, chose not to investigate the situation further.

There have been two recent books covering the search for the White City. One book covering the search for the lost White City is Jungleland by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter and editor Christopher S. Stewart. Jungleland is a popularization type of work about archaeology in Eastern Honduras, specifically the region known as Mosquitia. Mosquitia is a mountainous region much of which is also rain forest. Much of the rain forest has been cut down by deforestation during the past few decades. A great deal of this deforestation has been illegal since it has occurred in what is officially a "biosphere reserve." However, the Honduran government has failed to police this preserve with the result that deforestation has not halted. In the process, a great many archaeological sites have been found and subjected to systematic looting. This should not be surprising since, given the fact that deforestation is illegal, the people responsible for it would not feel any compunction about also breaking the laws concerning the looting of archaeological sites.

As it happens, Jungleland has little of the depth of Preston's book. Basically, Jungleland reads like a nonfiction adventure novel. It concerns the efforts of Stewart, archaeologist Christopher Begley of Transylvania University, and some helpers to use the journals of Theodore Morde to recreate the explorer's 1940 trek and find the place that Morde had identified as being the White City. This took some real creativity especially since Stewart came to the conclusion that Morde had not written down the whole truth about where the White City was found in his journals. The best part of Jungleland is the fact that it includes several maps of Eastern Honduras and is a good source of background information. However, much of the value of Jungleland was dampened by the author's failure to include either an in-depth bibliography or an index at the end of the book. Basically, Jungleland is really a work of journalism rather than history and as such it is of limited use for historical research.

The best of these books is The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston. Preston is a longtime writer for prestigious high circulation magazines such as National Geographic and The New Yorker. He has written a number of significant articles concerning archaeology and has done a great deal to educate the American people about archaeology. Preston's book is the gold standard for works written at the popular level about archaeology.

Preston's book is about the efforts, over a twenty-year period, of filmmaker and self-described "adventurer" Steve Elkins to search for the White City. Although he does not have any degree in archaeology, Elkins is an enthusiast for the field. When he was a student at Southern Illinois University, he and some friends discovered some Indian artifacts in a cave that lead to an excavation of the cave that made some significant finds including even more artifacts. It is this enthusiasm that has enabled him to do wonders for archaeology in the Mosquitia region of Eastern Honduras. It is this enthusiasm for Mosquitia and its history that helped attract others such as filmmaker Bill Benenson and writer Douglas Preston to his cause.

Elkins hit the ground running in his search for the White City. First, he studied the historical records looking for clues to the White City and where it may be located. He found that there were mentions of both cities and temples in Maya records that did not correspond to any places that archaeologists had been able to find. He then went through Honduran government records concerning exploration and surveys and found that there were four areas within the region in Eastern Honduras known as Mosquitia where there was a dearth of official records. There was no evidence of people even living in any of these areas in recent times let alone archaeologists investigating them. Elkins called them target areas and gave them the alphanumeric tags T1-T4. Additionally, Elkins hired a team of researchers who went through archives in both Honduras and the United States searching for records and other materials about Mosquitia. There was one area that especially interested him since its geography was like a bowl or a crater. He reasoned that since this area was shaped like a natural fortress, it made sense that this would be where the capital of the lost civilization was. Additionally, the area did not have a single navigable river in it. All this being the case, Elkins gave it the designation of Target 1 or T1 and made its exploration his highest priority.

In addition to all this, Elkins discovered the work of Sam Glassmire. Glassmire was a geologist who had been hired by American companies to prospect for gold. As a side project, Glassmire organized an expedition to search for the White City. Glassmire explored a rugged and remote region of Honduras where there had been little, if any, previous exploration by archaeologists. On March 10, 1960, Glassmire discovered what he believed to be the White City and brought out a sizable number of ancient artifacts. This was a major discovery on his part. However, nobody followed up on this discovery which led, as we shall see, to tragic consequences down the road. This may have been due to the fact that, unlike Steve Elkins, Glassmire is not a self-promoting publicity hound. Other than writing an article that was published in the Denver Post in 1960, Glassmire did little to publicize his findings. When Elkins went through the Honduran government archives, he could not find anything relating to Glassmire’s lost city that he had given the designation of T4.

Around this time, Elkins learned about a new radar mapping technology called Light Detection and Ranging or LIDAR. LIDAR is capable of sending out laser beams than can penetrate even the thickest jungle coverings and reveal the features that lie on the ground beneath the jungle. LIDAR is so precise it is possible to differentiate man-made features such as buildings from natural features. Elkins learned all he could about LIDAR and then decided on securing both a LIDAR device, an airplane, and a crew to help him. Douglas Preston was one of the crew members. The flyover was a complete success and it revealed T1 to be a place of numerous buildings. It was a place that was clearly a center of the lost civilization of Mosquitia, though not necessarily the capital of that civilization. On the other hand, the LIDAR revealed that the area that Elkins had designated as being T4 had been ruined for archaeological purposes by illegal logging. Since looting also happens when illegal logging intersects with archaeological sites, that meant many of the artifacts and ecofacts that archaeologists are interested in along with the context in which they were found were lost to archaeology. This was disappointing given the fact that T4 was almost certainly where Glassmire's lost city was. Even worse, all of Elkins’ target areas were either near or within areas that the Honduran government had designated as being “biosphere reserves” where such things as logging and cattle grazing are supposed to be off limits. It showed just what a poor job that the Honduran government has done of protecting the country's archaeological and historical heritage.

Soon after the LIDAR survey was done, both The Atlantic magazine website and the Live Science website published articles about the LIDAR survey and its discoveries. The Live Science article by Stephanie Pappas has illustrations showing how a “complex of mounds and ancient building foundations” is covered by extremely dense jungle. According to Pappas, the LIDAR survey’s images showed what “could be ancient ruins, including canals, roads, building foundations and terraced agricultural land.” The Atlantic magazine website’s article was entitled “Are These the First Ever Pictures of Honduras’s Lost Ciudad Blanca?” and was by Rebecca J. Rosen. This piece was both longer and more detailed than the Pappas article. What both articles did was show how LIDAR had the potential to revolutionize archaeology and also educate the public about the hidden wonders of Mosquitia. Douglas Preston also had a major article about the LIDAR survey and its findings that had the title of “The El Dorado Machine.” Among other findings, Preston revealed that in 1997, NASA scientists had seen satellite images of T1 that showed what appeared to be man-made features. However, these images were all “blurry and ambiguous.”

Sometime after the LIDAR survey was completed, the lead archaeologist on this project, Christopher T. Fisher of Colorado State University and eight other authors published what, at least as far as can be determined, is the one and only academic article yet published about this project. This is nothing sort of surprising given the controversy concerning the project and the expedition that its findings led to. This article was published in the online journal PLOS One and is 47 pages long. It is heavily illustrated which helps the reader better understand just what its dense prose is all about. Basically, this article presents the evidence that T1 was a major urbanized region with a dense population and agricultural production to support the people there through a “network of terraces and water control features.”

Following the LIDAR study of T1, Elkins spared little effort in his quest to secure the necessary funding, permits, and personnel needed to undertake a proper expedition to fulfill his larger quest for the White City. Finally, by February 2015 all the necessary preparations were in place. It was decided that it would be best to reach the site via helicopter since the mountains encircling T1 were pretty steep and it would take weeks for a land expedition to reach the site. Another problem is that as it turned out the rain forest vegetation was so thick it took the explorers a full day of constantly hacking away with machetes just to advance a few hundred yards. The jungle was home to a number of dangerous predators including jaguars and snakes, such as the Fer-de-lance. What was really striking was how the animals that the expedition behaved just like they had never seen human beings before. Insects, such as sand flies, were also a major problem. These particular insects were the transmitters of the dreaded disease known as leishmaniasis that several expedition members, including Preston himself, came down with. There is no known cure for this disease that reportedly afflicts 12 million people worldwide. Overall, about half of the expedition’s members came down with diseases of some sort.

Following the Elkins-Preston expedition, Douglas Preston wrote about it in an article for the National Geographic website that was published on March 2, 2015. This piece was entitled "Exclusive: Lost City Discovered in the Honduran Rain Forest." Preston quoted the expedition's lead archaeologist, Christopher T. Fisher of Colorado State University, as saying that the "pristine unlooted condition of the site was 'incredibly rare.'" Preston's piece made it clear that the expedition's discoveries in the area it called T1 were of major importance especially since it seemed clear that the long lost White City had been found at last.

Clearly, a major city of the past had been discovered, but was it the White City? The White City figures in legend as the single most important city in a brilliant civilization. Elkins had come to the conclusion that T1 was likely where the capital of the mysterious civilization was since it was located in a geographic feature that could be described as being either a bowl or a crater. Such a feature facilitates defense from outside aggression. Unless written records can be discovered that prove otherwise, it should be assumed that T1 is indeed the capital of the mystery civilization and as such is the White City.

However, not all archaeologists were overjoyed by the discovery of a lost civilization. One such is Rosemary Joyce of Berkeley who apparently created the “Real Honduran Archaeology” blog at on WordPress. This blog, which has hardly been updated since an initial flurry of posts in 2015, gave as its reason for being, “[a] place to come when the archaeology of Honduras makes the news, or just to find out what real archaeologists have to say about Honduran archaeology.” The bit about “real archaeologists” is quite condescending especially since Elkins’ obsession led to more discoveries than what else has been found in Honduras during at least the past decade or so. The post on this blog that gained the most attention at least in Preston’s book was posted on March 6, 2015, entitled, ““Letter from International Scholars: Archaeological Finds in Honduras,” that was signed by 26 professional archaeologists. Far from being happy over a major advance in archaeological knowledge, this was a piece of work that was full of condescension and hostility towards people who the signatories clearly regarded as being nothing more than meddling outsiders. It also showed ignorance of what Steve Elkins and his collaborators, no fewer than 10 of whom had PhD’s themselves, were doing. If you knew nothing about Elkins and his work before reading this letter, you would never have any idea of the sheer amount of work and research that he and others did for this project. This letter makes it seem like what Elkins and his teammates did was all on the fly and done in abject ignorance of the subject. This was ironic given how the letter showed itself as being ignorant of the fact that, as Elkins told Preston, “There’s no record of anybody ever being in T1.”

Two years later, Preston followed this article up with the publication of his work The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story. This book was written in a way that it demystified both archaeology and the role of the emerging technology of LIDAR in finding ancient ruins in rain forests. It also re-ignited the White City controversy.

As with the letter of the “international scholars,” much of this controversy was fueled by what appeared to be jealousy on the part of academics, some of whom had the opportunity to join the project, but chose not to. Some of this criticism was either mistaken or dishonest. Preston wrote about how John W. Hoopes of the University of Kansas "misread the scale bars on the LIDAR image by a factor of ten. What he thought was a hundred meters was actually a kilometer." What Hoopes was doing was attempting to minimize the size of the T1 in order to diminish the scale of the magnificent discoveries that resulted from Elkins’ obsession.

One academic who made himself conspicuous in his vociferous criticism of the results of Elkins’obsession is Christopher Begley of Transylvania University. Begley’s criticisms led to the expedition’s lead archaeologist Christopher T. Fisher telling Preston, that Begley was basically a fraud. Quoth Fisher as reported by Preston: “Where are Begley’s peer-reviewed publications? Where’s his scholarship? I can’t find a single peer-reviewed article he’s published. And if he claims that he’s visited these ruins, where’s the map? Where’s the site report?” According to Preston, Begley has failed to file any reports with the Honduran government concerning his archaeological activities in that country since 1996 “in violation of Honduran regulations.” Preston makes an interesting case that the reason for these attacks stems from the fact that most of the critics of the expedition and its findings were supporters of the former “leftist” president of Honduras, Jose Manuel Zelaya who was ousted after attempting to violate the Honduran constitution. According to Preston the attacks on the expedition were really a “proxy attack on the present Honduran government.” (Preston 2017, 66, 190-193). Preston’s evidence is that one person who signed the letter but who wished to remain anonymous told him that he could not support anything done by the current government in Honduras, so that’s why he opposed the expedition. Preston notes that many of those who signed the letter were supporters of Zelaya.

One article covering the controversy is "Digging Politics" by John J. Miller that appeared on the National Review website on May 1, 2017, when the controversy was dying down. Miller's essay concerned the fact that the reaction of all too many professional archaeologists to the Elkins-Preston expedition and its results. As Miller put it, these archaeologists behaved like a bunch of elitist "sanctimonious moralizers" who look down on non-academics. They trashed the expedition despite the fact that it included many scientists with PhDs and it enforced strict rules against looting. For instance, Miller quoted archaeologist Christopher Begley of Transylvania University as accusing the members of the expedition of being "children playing out a movie fantasy." This accusation came as poor grace considering that as far as can be determined, between the LIDAR scanning and the actual expedition itself, the results of Steve Elkins' obsessive quest for the White City are far greater than the sum total of anything that Begley has ever done. Miller also gave his opinion how "petty jealousies seemed to drive much" of the criticism by professional archaeologists.

In the end what are we to make of the controversy surrounding the magnificent obsession of Steve Elkins and the results that it wrought? One the one hand, there was a successful use of LIDAR to find archaeological sites for excavation in the Mosquitia region of Eastern Honduras. This survey was a tremendous success that led to three out of four sites being picked for exploration. As we have seen, T1 was a bonanza of an archaeological site that has only recently started being excavated. The other sites have not yet had anything done with them although the LIDAR indicates that both of them are potentially on at least the same scale as T1.

That this major discovery should be the subject of attacks by academics is nothing sort of shameful and reflects poorly on higher education and on the archaeological profession. What needs to be done is for archaeologists to come together and work to exploit these discoveries to uncover the mystery of Mosquitia and the mysterious civilization that once flourished there, but which vanished following the arrival of smallpox and other European diseases but well ahead of the Spanish conquistadors. Some things are more important than politics and uncovering the past of this significant region is definitely one of them. That being said, what archaeology needs most is for more obsessive people with an interest in the field to become active and find a specialty of their own.