I have to say I admire some of the work that the Smithsonian Magazine has been doing lately… between this an their recent Amelia Earhart cover story, they’ve been doing an excellent job of questioning recent historical ‘discoveries’.
On March 2nd, National Geographic reported the possible discovery of a long-lost city, alternatively known as the “White City” or the “City of the Monkey God.”
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… For a hundred years, explorers and prospectors told tales of the white ramparts of a lost city glimpsed above the jungle foliage. Indigenous stories speak of a “white house” or a “place of cacao” where Indians took refuge from Spanish conquistadores—a mystical, Eden-like paradise from which no one ever returned… 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.
But Smithsonian Magazine has now raised a number of questions about the story.
Last week, the internet was enthralled by the story of a mysterious and ancient abandoned city buried in vegetation and rediscovered by a scientific expedition… Researchers who’ve worked in the region say the find and its coverage was sensationalized and omitted both local knowledge and previous research.
Smithsonian Magazine isn’t alone in the critique of the story. On March 6th, an open letter appeared in the blog “Real Honduran Archaeology,” which stated, among other issues:
We write to express serious concerns over the recent articles proclaiming the discovery of a lost city or lost civilization in Honduras. We find that these articles: 1) make exaggerated claims of ‘discovery,’ 2) ignore extensive previous research in the region, 3) fail to acknowledge local residents’ familiarity with the region, 4) sensationalize the practice of archaeology, and 5) employ an offensive and dated discourse that is at odds with anthropology’s substantial efforts at inclusion and multivocality. In addition to appearing uninformed and focused on self-aggrandizement, these articles implicitly violate a basic tenet of science, attributed to archaeologist David Hurst Thomas: ‘It’s not what you find; it’s what you find out.”
It’s a little hard to tell how much of the criticism is motivated by political correctness and academic infighting–inclusion and “multivocality” may be important tenants for modern archaeological and anthropological practice, but a little nuanced for glossy magazines. That being said, exaggerated and uncritically repeated claims have hit a tipping point, and I’m very happy to see Smithsonian Magazine do their part to tamp down on the nonsense.