Dr. Richard Hansen’s roots are firmly planted in southern Idaho, but his passion and life’s work lie in El Mirador Basin, Guatemala, home to more than 1,250 square miles of virgin rain forest and home to the earliest Mayan ruins in existence.
Hansen, 56, is a world-renowned archeologist but continues to farm in Rupert, where he and wife Jody have raised seven children.
Hansen has been interviewed for every mainstream publication, from The Wall Street Journal to ABC’s 20/20, and in mid-October he took some time to speak with Southern Idaho Living. We caught up with Hansen inside his sweeping office overlooking acres of fields in Minidoka County. He lives just miles from his childhood home, where his passion for archeology blossomed after his father showed him arrowheads found on the family farm.
Hansen is tall, but it is his broad smile, hearty laugh and kind eyes that make a first impression. A quick, firm handshake and Hansen delves into the same story he’s told time and time again: Why saving the basin is so important.
“What’s fascinating about archaeology is that it is the only discipline letting us take a snapshot of our past,” he says.
Hansen has been working El Mirador since the 1970s. In 1979, as a graduate student under the direction of Brigham Young University and Catholic University of America, he discovered Preclassic pottery (time period 2,000 B.C. to 150 A.D.) in a structure misidentified as coming from the Classic period (250-950 A.D.).
“The pottery shouldn’t have been there because the building was far more sophisticated, but the pottery’s style was clearly Preclassic,” he says.
He found additional pieces of Preclassic pottery nearby buildings, backing up his theory.
“This placed the Mayan civilization’s peak about 1,000 years earlier than originally thought, the whole model was wrong,” Hansen says. “It was an amazing and very exciting discovery.”
What’s so amazing is that the Mayans inside the basin left evidence of state-level organization, with governmental and social structure. Remains of highway systems connecting neighboring cities are etched across the basin.
“Every discovery leads to a better understanding of this remarkably advanced civilization,” Hansen says. “It was the first state-level society in the Western Hemisphere.”
As Hansen’s passion in El Mirador deepened, he continued to buy farmland in Idaho, thinking that he would never be able to support his wife and young family with archeology.
“I decided I was going to give it up for the sake of the family. I was ready to bag it,” he says.
But he wouldn’t be hanging up his fedora just yet.
About the same time, Hansen received a pair of fellowship opportunities that provided scholarship funding and a stipend, which he applied to the project. At the time, Hansen was affiliated with the University of California at Los Angeles. In the early 2000s he switched to Idaho State University.
Over the years, Hansen’s team has identified over 25 major cities and roughly 60 smaller cities in the basin. They’ve mapped and excavated about 25 sites, but there are many more sites that remain untouched.
One of the grandest sites is the city El Mirador, believed to have had a population of 100,000. However, just as the civilization collapsed years ago the ruins themselves face multifaceted dangers, such as deforestation and looting.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the Maya Biosphere, including El Mirador, has already lost over 70 percent of its forests over the last decade and many acres are burned every single day. Intentional forest fires have destroyed 100,000 acres in a single year, destroying not only the rainforest but the historical sites and wildlife as well.
Drug smugglers moving product north to Mexico and bound for the U.S. clear patches of jungle to build clandestine airstrips so small airplanes loaded with cocaine can land. The drugs are then hauled, on foot, into Mexico.
“They just land and then set fire to these airplanes because they’ve run out of fuel. These are million-dollar airplanes that are expendable,” Hansen says. “We can’t deal with this force directly because they are people you don’t want to get in the way of.
“We’re losing 50,000 to 70,000 acres every three of four months. The fires are all around El Mirador and coming this way. It’s a race against time.”
Hansen estimates that within the next five years the basin, and the ruins, will either be saved or lost forever.
Looting is another challenge and millions of dollars are lost each year, Hansen said.
In addition to Hansen’s academic work in the basin he has led the El Mirador Project, aimed at preserving the area. In 1996 Hansen formed the Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies (FARES), a non-profit based in Rupert. FARES research is dedicated to the scientific study of humanity and environment through conservation, education and “responsible” development.
In order to save El Mirador, it must be developed for eco-tourism, Hansen said.
“We have to give the people an alternative to looting to support their families,” he said. “Ecotourism can better support the entire country.”
Hansen rambles off the numbers: About $1.1 billion already flow into the country from ecotourism. Logging brings in just $740,000 each year.
His model is the Tikal National Park, a 222-square mile preserve in the Peten region of Northern Guatemala. The site includes additional Mayan ruins open for public viewing.
“We can provide hundreds of millions of dollars more per year in revenue for this country through conservation and responsible development,” he says. “Once the forest is gone, there is no more logging but ecotourism is viable and sustainable for the long term.
“A key to this plan is to build a small train into the jungle, which makes the sites more accessible to tourists. Tourists will be able to see and smell the orchids, experience the monkeys.”
He’s already earned support from the Guatemalan government. In 2002, then-president Alfonso Portillo announced protection of the area by decree. It was the first step toward declaring the area a national park. In 2008, the government announced an initiative to increase tourism, its goal to attract over 10 million visitors to the region and some 40,000 visitors to El Mirador.
The recession slowed progress, but Hansen keeps his eyes on the prize and he continues working with government agencies and other researchers (52 universities are involved in the area’s study) in addition to building support with the locals.
“If we give them an economic alternative they can play roles in saving El Mirador,” he says. “They can be caretakers and guides… the opportunities are limitless.”
More on Dr. Richard Hansen & El Mirador Basin
Idaho State University Magazine [ article ]
CNN (part 1) – The forgotten city of Mirador
CNN (part 2) – Early Mayan art and color
CNN (part 3) – The Popul Vuh shown
CNN (part 4) – The true heroes of Mirador
Mirador Basin Project [ website ]