Nat Geo posts an “exclusive” stinker about a non-“lost city” in Honduras

Nat Geo presented a not “new” finding and forgot they had done this before! Why? They did it for the Nookie, I mean, the hype, the clicks, the attention.

Exclusive: Lost City Discovered in Honduran Rain Forest.

In search for legendary “City of the Monkey God,” explorers find the untouched ruins of a vanished culture.

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.”

Archaeologists surveyed and mapped extensive plazas, earthworks, mounds, and an earthen pyramid belonging to a culture that thrived a thousand years ago, and then vanished. The team, which returned from the site last Wednesday, also discovered a remarkable cache of stone sculptures that had lain untouched since the city was abandoned.

In contrast to the nearby Maya, this vanished culture has been scarcely studied and it remains virtually unknown. Archaeologists don’t even have a name for it.

Not so fast. Nat Geo is getting hit with claims this story is seriously flawed.

Buried in the piece, they note that these ruins were first identified in May 2012, during an aerial survey of a remote valley in La Mosquitia, which is a vast region of swamps, rivers, and mountains. National Geographic funded Chris Begley to explore this site already. (Does this sound familiar? We’ve talked about it before. Ciudad Blanca folktale used to hype LiDAR discovery in Honduras.) But he’s not mentioned in this piece and he’s justifiably miffed about it.

These guys ‘confirmed’ the presence of externsive pre-Columbian ruins in the Mosquitia? I guess that wasn’t accomplished when I recorded 200 sites all over the Mosquitia. Or when Hasemann, Strong, Stone, or Healy reported on the sites there. Or when archaeological sites were included on the topo maps of this region you buy in from the Honduran Geographical Institute. Or when this area was examined in a doctoral dissertation, 2 master’s theses, 2 books, or 2 documentaries about the region? Perhaps this is what happens when no archaeologist with experience in the region is included in this ‘expedition.’

It’s sad that this is discourse surrounding all of this – finally, somebody else takes an interest in the region in which I worked for 20 years, but the focus appears to be to recreate B-movie language and position the participants as heroic discoverers.

Are we surprised? Discovery Channel/News and History Channel have chosen hype over reliable science and solid content. Why not Nat Geo? For shame. Begley notes that the researchers involved should have known better. Why is this written as it is?

I know Oscar from way back and reached out to this whole team – not to be a part of it (I don’t want to contribute to the sensationalization of all this) but to offer advice, etc – nobody got back to me – partly, I think, because they know I am critical of this approach. Plus, we were all in the New Yorker article together!

Rosemary Joyce makes a pertinent point that archaeology is not about discovery but about knowledge. Discovery is shallow, knowledge is deep and lasting. She has worked in Honduras and is not at all surprised at new discoveries.

In mid-May (2012), Spanish-language news sources in Honduras reported an announcement by the president of the country that LiDAR images had possibly revealed a “lost city”, Ciudad Blanca. One government official went so far as to say it “might be the biggest archaeological discovery in the world of the twenty-first century”.

Hurray! except that isn’t good archaeology — it’s hype.

There was a press release – it was about “the legendary lost city of Ciudad Blanca.” But those with knowledge knew that Ciudad Blanca is a legend. Chris Begley had already looked into this but the hype machine did not mention this. Why? For clicks? That’s a shame. Joyce notes all the errors and exaggerations, which is unfair to those who have done such good and careful work. Those researchers are not mentioned. The silly headlines and hype about monkey gods and legends continue, as if science is lifting up a rock or folding back the leaves to reveal something stunning and shocking. It doesn’t work like that. It’s slow, it’s careful, it’s cumulative. By being so callous and sensational, Nat Geo misses the point of archaeology and the true value of discovery – knowledge and understanding, not attention.

Serious archaeologists are wondering what they can do about this disappointing coverage and ignorance of past work. More to come…

Tip: Jeb Card

  11 comments for “Nat Geo posts an “exclusive” stinker about a non-“lost city” in Honduras

  1. Eric
    March 3, 2015 at 7:55 PM

    Mixed feeling on the message of this article. Not everything needs to be a dry acedemic journal type article. If folks writing about science (astronomy, archeology, etc etc) are targeting the general public I don’t think its a bad think if they “sex it up” a bit and make it a little more flashy. Now obviously it shouldn’t lie or change the facts. But I think if it gets more eyeballs on science and more interest out of the general public than that’s not a bad thing.

    Just my 2 cents c

  2. March 4, 2015 at 8:23 AM

    I believe this stuff (and what normally appears on TV’s History Channel and previously on Discovery Channel) crosses the line into deception. It gives viewers too many mistaken impressions on how the way the world was and how we find out about it. I don’t think that’s positive. I feel the same way about the IFLS website – glorifying bits and pieces distorts the big picture. Misinformation can be worse than no information in many cases.

  3. spookyparadigm
    March 4, 2015 at 11:48 AM

    Top Honduran archaeologists such as Ricardo Agurcia have also denounced this for the same reasons, and others involving government regulation, already mentioned

  4. Bill T.
    March 4, 2015 at 1:30 PM

    I quit watching Geographic years ago. Everything is the “oldest”, “biggest”, “deadliest”, … . Content is thin, like much of programming, aimed at the lowest common denominator. Pretty much all producers are scared to death that content is going to be presented that someone, somewhere, won’t have the education to understand.

  5. Harrow
    March 4, 2015 at 4:20 PM

    [Virgilio Paredes Trapero, the director of the IHAH, under whose auspices the expedition operated, spent several days at the site. He concluded: “If we don’t do something right away, most of this forest and valley will be gone in eight years.” He spread his hands. “The Honduran government is committed to protecting this area, but doesn’t have the money. We urgently need international support.”]

    This goes a long way toward explaining the motivation behind Honduran local support for this farce.

  6. Nick
    March 4, 2015 at 9:16 PM

    That’s the thing. It is a lie. Claiming that it is a new discovery ignores years of work by other people. They aren’t sexing it up. What they are doing is closer to plagiarism. Rosemary Joyce’s piece is a good summary and she points out there is already material out there written for the public that Nat Geo also ignored.

  7. March 5, 2015 at 1:04 AM

    Thanks for the spot-on commentary. National Geographic decided to go for a “viral” story without being concerned about whether it was based on fact or fantasy. Note that the author of the story is Douglas Preston, a techno-thriller and horror novel author who does a great job of writing imaginative works but whose archaeology reporting leaves a great deal to be desired. The best in-depth source on this story is actually the article on Ciudad Blanca in Wikipedia, where you can find documentation of the long and sordid history of this legend.

  8. March 5, 2015 at 8:50 AM

    While I have only been working in Honduran Conservation for 12 years, I have been to Mosquitia twice and have seen plenty of archeological sites. I know Dr Begley and have worked with him in the past. It is a shame that those who choose to work in this region do not acknowledge nor credit those who have worked before them and paved the way.

    Shame on Nat Geo….

  9. Jonathan Hamm
    March 5, 2015 at 12:46 PM

    I think the many critics in the scientific community have a an important point to raise about this.

    However, I think they cloud the issue by painting it “more objective than thou” rhetoric which distracts us from the issue at hand, since the real issue here is one of journalistic integrity.

  10. Robin Barker
    March 5, 2015 at 3:20 PM

    I’ve had the same experience with the magazine. My editor kept wanting me to soup up my article and I kept explaining that what he wanted was inaccurate and disrespectful to the people I was writing about. In the end, the piece was scrapped and I was relieved. Then my sister-in-law had the same experience. She asked that her name be taken off the piece and they rewrote it.

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