Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli © Courtesy of Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli
By Raye Mocioiu
The world of archaeology is a captivating one that takes us on a journey through time, uncovering relics and ruins that provide insight into the lives and cultures of people long gone. For Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli, this journey began at the age of seven, when he visited the ancient city of Tikal with his family. Mesmerized by the towering pyramids and intricate temples, he knew immediately that his destiny was to become an archaeologist.
Growing up, Dr. Estrada-Belli delved deep into the history of archaeology and the great discoveries that shaped the field. He was particularly fascinated by the classical archaeology of Greece and Rome and the rich history of Mesopotamia. However, his true passion lay in the ancient cultures of his home country, Guatemala.
Knowing that he needed to study in the United States to pursue his dreams, Dr. Estrada-Belli worked tirelessly to obtain grants and scholarships to pursue a Ph.D. in archaeology, which he ultimately earned. He then set out on a mission to make a significant discovery.
Dr. Estrada-Belli’s fateful encounter with Ian Graham, a British earl-turned-archaeologist, would prove to be the key to unlocking one of Guatemala’s most significant archaeological discoveries. Graham had spent years exploring the remote regions of the Guatemalan jungle, recording ancient monuments before they were destroyed or stolen by looters. When Dr. Estrada-Belli revealed his plans to explore the site of Holmul, Graham handed him a copy of his field notes, including a sketch of a pre-classic monument he had photographed nearby but was unable to locate again.
Determined to unearth this lost treasure, Dr. Estrada-Belli and his team embarked on an epic journey through the dense Guatemalan jungle. The trip was fraught with challenges, from a burned-out engine that left them stranded in the wilderness, to grueling periods of dehydration and hunger. But they persevered, driven by the thrill of discovery and the hope of uncovering a piece of the nation’s history.
The Holmul site was a treasure trove of information, offering a window into the culture, way of life, and early developments of the Maya civilization, the people who once called it home. In one carving, an ancestral deity is shown to be holding a sign in both hands that reads “naaah waaj,” or “first tamale,” depicting an early offering of a sacred food. This, among other monuments and carvings, provided valuable insight into an era that had, until these discoveries, been mostly unknown.
Aside from furthering context into the development of this lost civilization, Dr. Estrada-Belli’s findings would lead him to establish a non-profit organization, the Maya Archaeological Initiative, committed to sharing scientific knowledge with the local community.
The Initiative has been instrumental in teaching locals about the civilization that once existed nearby. They have also raised funds to donate essential items like medicine to the local hospital, computers to local schools, and helped build classrooms. Additionally, the organization has played a crucial role in advocating for conservation efforts and finding a balance between local communities’ needs and forest preservation.
Dr. Estrada-Belli’s hope for the future is to help develop infrastructure that benefits local people and facilitates responsible tourism in the area. Through Dr. Estrada-Belli’s work, the people of Petén are realizing the significance of their connection to the Maya civilization. With continued efforts, they can benefit from the conservation and promotion of their heritage while keeping their livelihood safe.
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