ISU Magazine

Volume 40 | Number 1 | Fall 2009

What Lies in the Depths

La Danta is the largest pyramid in El Mirador, Guatemala. It is in fact the largest pyramid in the world by volume at 2.8 million cubic meters. It sits as the crown jewel in the ancient city of El Mirador which covers an area larger than downtown Los Angeles and was active from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 100.

Photos by Julie Hillebrant

What Lies in the Depths

Fall 2009 Issue | By Julie Hillebrant and Jenn Hawkins

The helicopter ride alone is worth the trip. It’s like flying into a real-life Emerald City. We glide over a vast expanse of green jungle and blue sky, dotted with hills once mistaken for volcanoes, now uncovered as ancient Mayan pyramids covered in dense tropical forests.

Kings and movie stars have made this trip, but now it’s my turn. I turn to my daughter, Madi, and share what must have been on both of our minds.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Before coming to Guatemala my idea of archeological research involved either creaky textbooks crammed with dreary dates and predates, or a certain whip-wielding, swashbuckling screen idol with a roguish grin. Dr. Richard Hansen isn’t far from that description — broad-shouldered, 6’4”, with sweeping gestures as grand as his ambitions, he meets us with a hearty laugh and wraps his large sweaty arms around us. Yet, he is more father figure than fortune-hunter; he watches over the once-lost city known as the Cradle of Mayan civilization with the tender vigilance of a proud papa, and anyone that comes to help with the task of protecting or falling in love with El Mirador becomes his instant friend.

The area of El Mirador is more than 1,250 square miles of pristine rain forest and home to the earliest Mayan ruins on earth. Here lies the first evidence of a highway system between neighboring cities, and the excavation that has taken place is truly in its infancy. Here, Hansen, an archeologist from Idaho State University, leads a consortium of hundreds of researchers and workers from around the world in uncovering the story of ancient Maya civilization and paving the way for economic development in the area.

“The excavations that are taking place in the Mirador Basin are a crucial part of the understanding of the history of humanity, understanding who we are, where we came from and where we are going as human societies.” Hansen says.

Overshadowing the rich culture waiting to be discovered are the dangers of El Mirador.

This remote corner of Guatemala is a three-day hike from the civilized world. The isolation is real, and many of El Mirador’s visitors thrive without the watchful eye of government or local citizens. Looters have plundered the many ancient sites in search of artifacts and continue to do so. Columbian drug smugglers, called “narcos,” occasionally fly overhead. Encroaching fires from logging and agriculture are in danger of not only destroying ancient history, but killing what’s left of the Central American rain forest.

El Mirador basin is in northern Guatemala and encompasses 810,000 acres of pristine rain forest, the last tract of virgin rain forest in Central America. It is the largest collection of Mayan cities in the world. The city of El Mirador alone was believed to have a population of 100,000 people. There are 26 known sites like El Mirador and only 14 have been studied. Hansen estimates at least 30 more have yet to be discovered.

At El Mirador in 1979, Hansen, then but a “lowly graduate student,” discovered Preclassic pottery (2000 B.C.-A.D. 150) in a mislabeled Classic period structure (A.D. 250-950), thus placing the Maya civilization’s peak about 1,000 years earlier than previously thought. Since then, he has led the El Mirador Project, a multi-faceted project aimed at preserving the area. In 1996 he created the Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies, a non-profit organization based in his hometown of Rupert, Idaho. The foundation has garnered the interest of celebrities, government officials, royalty and presidents of corporations. Its mission is to use cultural and ecological data for conservation, economic development and education in the local area. Now, my daughter and I have the chance to be a part of it in our own small way.

Madi and I tumble off the helicopter and plunge into 90 degrees of shirt-soaking heat. Only after a 45-minute trek through dense, musky jungle do we first glimpse the limestone foot of a pyramid, its chalky surface hidden by surrounding foliage.

The first structure we enter is “La Muerte” (The Dead). Led by Hansen, a party of five crawls on hands and knees into the ancient sarcophagus. In this heat, I wouldn’t mind the catching a chill from a passing ghost – instead, we enter a 3-feet by 15-feet oven. The space is stripped bare. Nothing remains of the inscribed stones, pottery or stucco traced with brilliant red pigment that once adorned this final resting place. The bodies are also gone. Hansen doesn’t how many people were once buried here — looters found the tombs less than a year before his team.

Looting is big – $10-million-a-month big – business in this area. Looters receive between $200 and $500 per piece, for which collectors may then pay $100,000 or more. Galleries and auction houses particularly favor codex-style ceramics and Late Classic (A.D. 600-900) black-and-cream mythical-themed pottery. The National Geographic Society estimates that 1,000 vessels are stolen from the Maya region monthly.

“Collecting Pre-Columbian art is often viewed as a justifiable means of preserving the past,” Hansen says. “It is, in fact, a destructive and sometimes violent business.”

There’s a less-visible, but even more frightening threat in the Guatemalan jungle. El Mirador Project workers see the drug smugglers, but the occasional plane flying overhead is a constant reminder of the “narcos” and the big guns they carry.

Flying from Columbia to the Northern Petén of Guatemala on a single tank, “they go out and cut a strip in the jungle just long enough to land a plane because they’re out of fuel,” Hansen says. “They land the aircraft, unload their product which goes by land to the north through the jungle, and they burn the aircraft to the ground … These are million dollar airplanes that are expendable. It is a force that can’t be dealt with directly. They are people you don’t want to get in the way of.”

Those who avoid the ugliness of narcotics are still left with few sustainable options; in the past six years, 800,000 acres of Guatemalan forest have been clear-cut and burned for cattle grazing. Soon, Hansen worries, there will be none left. In imagery provided by NASA, fire encroaches Guatemala from all sides like an angry red swarm. The Tropical Rainforest Foundation estimates that by 2010, only 2 percent of Guatemala will be covered in dense forest. In 1960, 77 percent was covered.

Those who loot to help feed their families find the business to be occasionally lucrative but not reliable.

Dr. Hansen on CNN:
The forgotten city of Mirador
Early Mayan art and color
The Popul Vuh shown
The true heroes of Mirador

The answer, Hansen says, is in development of ecotourism, and he has the support of the Guatemalan government.

In 2008, the Guatemalan government announced an initiative to increase tourism in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The goal is to attract 12 million visitors to the region, 40,000 specifically to El Mirador. A key to this plan is to build a small train into the jungle making the sites more accessible to tourists. According to Hansen between $980 million to $1.1 billion each year already come into Guatemala from tourism revenue. Logging brings in about $740,000 per year.

“We can provide hundreds of millions of dollars more per year in revenue for the country by conserving this and responsibly developing it than by letting the loggers and poachers and looters take their one shot,” Hanson says.

As he works with government agencies, other researchers and the public to sell the idea of building tourism in the region, Hansen must also focus on the job that first brought him to Guatemala — discovering, studying and preserving the artifacts that represent a the history of a civilization.

The job of excavating ruins that have been lying dormant in the jungle for thousands of years is hard work. Dirt and rocks need to be moved, rain water collected and distributed and food cooked for all of the workers. Then there is the more skilled work of digging for artifacts, supporting and protecting the pyramids and findings, and recording the found data through artistic renderings and GPS.

By hiring locals to take on this labor, Hansen is hoping to change the fate of the workers and the ruins.

“If it’s not viable economically, we will never save it," he says. "You have to be able to justify this to the peasant out there starving to death. If you don’t, they will continue to poach, loot, rape and pillage. You have to provide an economic alternative to that."

Changing minds and a way of life is a tough battle, but the issue, Hansen believes, is a matter of life-and-death.

“We will either lose this or save this in five years. The pressure is immense,” Hansen says.

The dangers and obstacles are overshadowed by a contagious optimism.

“It’s frustrating but we’re optimistic. The Guatemalan president is gung ho about this. Numerous countries are interested in this. There are 52 universities involved with this. And we’re gaining steam all the time,” Hansen says.

Changing the economy of a country seems like a large task for a humble man who was raised on an Idaho farm, but Hansen says it was in Idaho that he learned the importance of hard work and the value of farming. It’s a work ethic that helps him empathize with the workers in Guatemala and what they are up against.

And because he began his journey as a graduate student, Hanson understands the great opportunity for learning that exists in the Guatemalan jungle for students at Idaho State University and around the world.

“(The El Mirador project) puts Idaho State University in a unique position; it puts us on the forefront, on the world stage… We have the opportunity to contribute, on a world scale, to the understanding of society,” Hansen says.

Jumping at the Chance to Learn


Daniel working to learn english with Dr. Debra McKay

Daniel isn’t the only young Guatemalan working in El Mirador, but he is certainly one of the most enthusiastic.

He is one of 180 workers ranging in age from 17 -70 who attend an informal school at El Mirador.

Students sit at long tables and learn the basics of English, math, or writing in Spanish. Because school takes place after a long workday, there is usually limited light and students must study with flashlights. Some of the men and women here have never held a pencil despite reaching 60 years of age. The goal is to empower these workers so they don’t see looting as their only career opportunity.

Dr. Debra McKay, a Pocatello physician hired by Hansen to work in Guatemala, volunteers her time as a teacher in El Mirador.

“(El Mirador) is the only archeological site I know of that incorporates a school to further the experience of the worker, to create work for them beyond their season in El Mirador,” she said. “Dr. Hansen creates a way for them to become invested in protecting their Guatemala. He is using men he knows have been looters and has made a way to empower them to see beyond that.”

Many of the students are working in El Mirador as a supplement to their regular jobs in the city. Others come in as an alternative to the unpredictable dangerous work of looting ancient artifacts from the large number of pyramids that dot the landscape.

Others, like Daniel come to earn a living and hopefully to someday become a guide.

Richard Hansen hopes the El Mirador region will soon be a park similar to nearby Tikal with a small train giving access to the site and gift shops and information centers where guides can be hired to educate visitors about the history of the area.

For now, Daniel is a worker, not a guide, but every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night after work he joins with others to learn English. In broken English with eager eyes, he tells McKay, “I want to be a guide. Teach me how to be a guide.”

Debra role-plays with Daniel and the other young men surrounding her.

“May I be your guide?” they say in English. “Can I show you the pyramids?”

She teaches them many phrases that they eagerly write down in their notebooks. Daniel is eager to learn all he can, and a few days later is found sitting by Debra in her medical clinic receiving more instruction.

In December 2008, Dr. Hansen graduated his first team of guides, a group of 28 men and women who had trained at a school in Guatemala, then participated in a two-day training session educating them to provide in-depth knowledge of the site.

Young Guatemalan men like Daniel don’t see the value in looting, because they have a greater opportunity in teaching visitors the history of their people and land.