The Danger of Lost City Tropes

Archaeology enjoys a place of some prominence in popular media.  Major news outlets often pick up and run stories about recent archaeological discoveries, perhaps as light hearted asides between more serious stories, but nonetheless these stories form the core of what most popular audiences see as serious archaeological research.

Media outlets, however, have developed an obsession the trope of lost cities.  Most recently we have seen stories claiming the discovery of the “Lost City” of Etzanoa in the news.  But, this is far from an isolated issue.  A veritable media obsession has swirled around Ciudad Blanca, an alleged lost city in Honduras, which also goes by the admittedly sexier name of “The Lost City of the Monkey God.”  And just last summer, we were inundated by media claims that a Canadian teenager discovered a lost Maya city.  (This sad story deserves more attention than I can give it here, but I would urge you to check out my piece in Skeptic Magazine for more)

In the Americas, at least, we can trace most lost city myths back to the story of El Dorado, a fabled city chock full of golden treasures.  This story, like most good stories, has some basis in fact.  In the early 16th century Spanish conquistadors had encountered the Muisca culture in what is today the nation of Colombia.  The Muisca carried out a ritual where in a man (El Hombre Dorado) was first covered in gold dust.  This figure then proceeded to raft out to the center of a lake where he hurled piles of golden objects into the dark waters.

A story of wealth so great that it could be thrown away (potlatch style for the Anthropology nerds!), fired the imagination of Europeans.  When this story was coupled with the very real wealth of the Inca empire, many conquistadors felt there was good reason to believe that somewhere out in the immense stretches of the “New World,” there must be a city of great wealth.

Over the subsequent centuries, many stories of fabled cities of wealth cropped up.  If you read a handful of these stories a notable pattern quickly develops.  European explorers were not necessarily the best mannered house guests.  When they rolled into town, one might expect at best huge stocks of food to be consumed, and at worst for violence to be meted out against the local population.  Indigenous populations quickly discovered the trick to getting rid of these bothersome strangers.  It turns out if you told them that “Over the next hill, down that river, deep in the woods, there is a whole city of shiny yellow stuff,” the strangers would pack up and ship out!

Lost cities make for fun an engaging tales, but the reality is that they are very different from archaeological research.  Lost city claims rely on a non-falsifiable hypothesis.  That is to say, anyone who sets out looking for a lost city will either find it, or presume they just haven’t looked hard enough.  And, much like the Finding Bigfoot show, it turns out that most lost city hunters just aren’t looking hard enough.  Archaeological survey is an entirely different methodology.  In a good survey, any and all sites within a region are documented and studied, regardless of adjacent mythologies.

The danger of the lost city media trope is that it blurs the line between myth and research.  Members of the casual reading public begin to assume that all archaeologists are engaged in a hunt for legends, rather than carrying out serious and well planned research.  We need to speak out against this slippage, and tell the media NO MORE LOST CITIES!

P.S. Lost City of Z, I’m looking at you!

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