Distraction Free Reading

So long, Indiana Jones, or who owns “El Mirador”?

The rule of “finders, keepers” has held true for most archaeological discoveries at least since museums, as we now know them, have existed. Collectors of foreign objects have been around, of course, as long as war, but the officialization of plunder for the purpose of exhibiting foreign treasures in public spaces dates back to the Enlightenment (mid 18th to early 19th centuries), when feeding museums was part of anthropologists’ tasks, an expectation that survived until very recently. Explorers and discoverers were romanticized and immortalized in literature and, later, film. The debate over ownership of archaeological sites and objects has followed a similar arch; now the decolonization of knowledge and critiques of cultural appropriation are central to anthropological debates. Despite growing public questioning of ownership of the past and its objects, the ghost of Indiana Jones continues to capture and seduce many. The battle over who decides over the Mayan archaeological site “El Mirador” in northern Guatemala exemplifies both how the myth of the white male explorer and treasures’ rightful keepers remain alive today, and the scale of its consequences.

It used to be that whoever “discovered” an archaeological site acquired rights not only to research it, but over its findings. “Discoveries” were not, of course, actual discoveries, since, in the majority of cases, local populations knew about these sites; they just did not know about their value to foreign eyes and interests. What made the difference was not what was discovered, but by whom. This is why some of the most valuable and unique findings of Maya archaeology are still kept in museums far from Guatemala and why the credit for discoveries still goes mostly to foreign names. This phenomenon holds true for every site around the world that was every explored, discovered, or found by scientists or curious travelers coming from what we have come to call the West. I do not intend, however, to delve into the more global debate, since authors such as Craig Childs[1] have broached the issue amply, and more and more countries, including Guatemala, have demanded that those “keepers” return items to their countries of origin[2]. My intention in this essay is to focus on El Mirador and discuss why claims over its protection and management exceed a framework of Indiana Jones versus Guatemalans.

The Explorer’s Myth

I grew up browsing my grandfather’s copies of National Geographic. My favorite articles were those about archaeological sites and their amazing treasures. I wanted to be a discoverer; the pictures were fascinating. Discoverers were all white and male. Living cultures described in other articles had nothing to do with those ruins and treasures these brave men found for all of us to admire. I carried those truths with me for many years. National Geographic, founded in 1888[3], contributed to my decision to become an anthropologist.

I would like to say that the myth of the white male explorer-hero disappeared when I entered college and took a good number of archaeology courses as an undergraduate at Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, but I can’t. Most of the authors we studied were white and male, with a sprinkling here and there of women, who, in my imagination, had elbowed their way into a mostly male field. I did, however, understand why the Indiana Jones saga had always made me somewhat uncomfortable. He was not an archaeologist; he was a plunderer. As naïve and obvious as this conclusion may seem, the Guatemalan academic environment of the 1990s was still not overly critical, and access to new perspectives was limited to whatever our college professors had access to.

The hierarchy of the archaeological site, back in the 1990s appeared to be: foreign, male archeologist with—perhaps—a Guatemalan counterpart, students from the lead archeologist’s university and students from local universities, and local field assistants. This structure followed a palette of colors that started white and ended brown. Apart from phenotypes, other indicators seemed to reinforce who mattered the most in the field. For example, in documentaries, virtually all speaking roles went to white males. Other speaking characters were seldom identified, instead playing support roles. Students and assistants were extras. I did not think much of it until, years later and living abroad, I stumbled upon a documentary about Guatemala from the early 2000s. At the very end, I recognized a former classmate. He was an archaeologist with some publications and a good professional reputation. In the documentary, however, he had no speaking role. Rather, he sat by a fire and played his guitar. He looked very exotic. It struck me then that the screen time given to explorer-heroes “and their teams,” as most nameless participants were referred to, must follow a similar pattern, perpetuating the idea that it was the Indiana Jones-looking men who were worthy of attention.

Three people standing in front of an archeological site, of murals etched into the ground or on the side of a Maya ruin

From left to right: The author, a local guide, and archeologist Matilde Ivic in front of an archeological site and mural in El Mirador, 2016. Photo by author.

Confusing Images of the Maya Biosphere Reserve

A simple Google search for “Mirador, Guatemala” can confirm that the still and moving images available of the site still reproduce this trope. Contemporary film from National Geographic, for example, continues to focus on the lonely white explorer and his quixotic mission to give justice to an unappreciated site[4]. This fact could be discarded as an unimportant vestige of the past, if only it did not play into the still prevalent class and racial dynamics in Guatemala.

The battle over El Mirador is not just a struggle to control an important Maya site and its findings. Interests expand to the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) and its 21.602 km² of diverse ecosystems. Five years after its creation, the efforts of local communities to maintain control over the multiple use zone paid off. Community concessions, created in 1995, represented an alternative to traditional conservation schemes that demanded that protected areas be free of people and human activities. The 1990s ushered in an era when people-free conservation efforts around the world appeared to be failing and the displacement of populations to create national parks was being heavily criticized[5].

Communities that succeeded in keeping rights over the MBR underwent a process of transformation to become certified forest managers[6]. Other areas of the MBR were classified as national parks, under the stewardship of the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP). El Mirador is one of the many archaeological sites in the MBR. In fact, archaeological work is one of the few human activities allowed in the park. Through the years, the community forestry concessions have managed to protect their areas from forest fires, poachers, and other illegal activities. The CONAP-run parks haven’t had the same luck.

In 2009 I started working for an international organization that focuses on the sustainable development of the MBR. I became familiar with the concessions’ challenges, as well as with the threats to conservation coming from drug traffickers and organized crime. I also heard time and again about El Mirador and its Indiana Jones. I remembered the documentaries I had watched while overseas and learned about the challenges that concessionaries, CONAP personnel, and others faced regarding the management of the park. I also met with Guatemala City-based organizations and individuals that held a view very different from concessionaries’ regarding how the MBR and its resources should be managed. Their views gravitated to those of the El Mirador Indiana Jones. The comparison to the fictional character was not gratuitous. The language and metaphors utilized to describe his relevance and genius aligned with fantasy of a foreign savior. He had indeed been a National Geographic grantee and character, similar to those I had seen in those 1980s publications. These Guatemalan foundations agreed with him regarding the need to transform the MBR, introduce a train, and privately develop the area for tourism. Opposition to this idea was clear whenever I spoke with colleagues in Peten. A fascination with our Indiana character persisted, on the other hand, among city-based Guatemalans who enthusiastically clung to the explorer-hero idea. Most had never heard of forestry concessions and seemed uninterested in learning about concessionaries’ view of the privatization ideas.

This conflict flared up from time to time, mostly confined to the same conservationists, Guatemalan archeologists and anthropologists, northern Peten concessionaries, and El Mirador fans. This year, however, the most recent flare fired up the indignation of many more Guatemalans.A short video by Vice Media on the plans to develop the MBR as a tourist area went viral[7]. Perhaps the outcry was more widespread because in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, people were spending more hours online than usual. Or perhaps the issue finally reached a tipping point. Rejection of the United States Senate Bill S.3131 – Mirador-Calakmul Basin Maya Security and Conservation Partnership Act of 2019 took the form of petition letters, Zoom conferences and Facebook fights. The Guatemalan Archaeological Association letter, from January 2020, resurfaced to confirm professionals’ rejection to the Mirador-Calakmul plan. The Bill is very vague about what is supposed to happen in the MBR.

It proposes allocating funds to the protection of the basin but without clarity regarding who would manage it, and why it would be better than the current concessionary system. Analysis of the bill by conservation biologists indicates that the system proposed in it is incompatible with the current protected areas system. Sustainable foresters are concerned by the emphasis in reverting land use across the reserve to exclusively non-timber forest products, eliminating automatically the successful timber extraction system. Local businesses fear that tourism ventures would be capitalized by large corporations, excluding small businesses. The role of the central and municipal governments is not clear, as well as that of United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which currently channels U.S. funds to the conservation of the MBR. Answers to these concerns remain vague.

Most of the attention focused on the Act’s main champion, the archeologist who has held control over El Mirador for over twenty years. While this focus is relevant to the questioning and deconstruction of the explorer-hero myth, it would be a mistake to ignore the wider, deeply rooted implications of the battle. Just as Indiana Jones plundered for others, and explorers of the 19th century amassed items for museums and private collections, pressure over the MBR exists because there are larger interests behind these efforts. The sources and motivations of their funding can easily be traced back to roots and discourses similar to those that justified explorers’ actions two hundred years ago. Museums around the world have patrons, just as defenders of the scheme to de- and re-classify the MBR do. Plans to implement changes in the MBR—if the act were to pass—are murky, at best. Questions are rarely answered with solid evidence, and documentation is scant. Just as the Indiana Jones saga has aged to reveal the prejudices and misconceptions of the 1980s, our reading of the battle over El Mirador must be done through a lens that questions claims to territory based almost entirely on fictional romanticism.


[1] Childs, Craig. 2010. Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession. Little, Brown and Company, New York.

[2] Paton, Calum. 2017. Ancient Mayan Heads Smuggled Out of Guatemala Return Home After More Than 50 Years Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/ancient-mayan-heads-smuggled-out-guatemala-return-home-707844 access date 15 August 2020.

[3] History.com. Editors. 2009. National Geographic Society Founded. A&E Television Networks. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/national-geographic-society-founded access date 15 August, 2020.

[4] A sample of such discourse can be seen in this 2009 video by National Geographic on then recent findings in El Mirador: https://youtu.be/fwuUyrEBdbs.

[5] Some examples of this debate and Anthropology’s contribution to it can be found in the references below.


Brosius, Peter. 1999. “Analyses and Interventions: Anthropological Engagements with Environmentalism” en Current Anthropology. 40 (3), pp 277-309

Chapin, M. 2004. “A Challenge to Conservationists” in World Watch Magazine 17(6). World Watch Institute, Washington, DC.

Dietz, T. and P. C. Stern. 1998. “Science, Values and Biodiversity” in BioScience 48(6) 441-444

Escobar, Arturo. 1999. After Nature: Steps to an Antiessentialist Political Ecology. Current Anthropology 40, no. 1: 1-30.

Kopnina, H. 2012. “Toward conservational anthropology: addressing anthropocentric bias in anthropology” in Dialectic Anthropology. 36. Pp. 127-146

Milton, Kay (ed) 1993. Environmentalism, The View from Anthropology. Routledge, New York. P.1-30

Orlove, Benjamin y S.B. Brush. 1996. “Anthropology and the Conservation of Biodiversity” in American Review of Anthropology, 25. Pp. 329-352

Redford, K. y E. Fearn (eds). 2007. Protected Areas and Human Displacement: A Conservation Perspective. Working Paper No. 29, Wildlife Conservation Society, New York. Pp.1-28 y 48-59

Roebuck, P. y P. Phifer. 1999. The Persistence of Positivism in Conservation Biology. Conservation Biology. 13(2) pp 444-446

West, P. y Brockington, D. 2006. “An Anthropological Perspective on Some Unexpected Consequences of Protected Areas” en Conservation Biology. 20, pp. 609-616

[6] For a comprehensive timeline of forestry concessions in the MBR visit https://acofop.org/

[7] https://youtu.be/uiZZQhnGveE

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