Francisco Estrada-Belli


National Geographic Society/Waitt Grantee , Expeditions Council Grantee, Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee


Photograph by Bruce Smith

Photo: Estrada-Belli Francisco

Photograph by Jesus Lopez

Birthplace: Rome, Italy

Current City: Antigua, Guatemala

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

An archaeologist. At age seven, my parents took me to see the Maya ruins of Tikal, in the northern jungle region of Guatemala. I made up my mind then. I've been wanting to answer those same questions I was asking to the tour guide since then: How did the Maya built such a great civilization in a jungle? Why did they leave their city?

Earlier this year my book The First Maya Civilization: Ritual and Power Before the Classic Period was published. It attempts to answer those questions based on my last ten years of research at two lost Maya cities I rediscovered, Holmul and Cival.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I wanted to study an area that had the potential of giving us information on the beginnings of Maya civilization. I selected the area of Holmul, because a hundred years ago some early buildings and tombs were found there by an early expedition. It had been forgotten since then, so I thought it would be a good place to start. Nearby, I found a lost city, Cival, which turned out to be one of the earliest cities the Maya built, around 800 B.C.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to study the Maya past?

I am following the dream I had as a child to explore and study those lost cities in the jungle of Guatemala. I want to make a contribution to our scientific knowledge but also I want to help the modern Maya folks who live in the area and have little or no knowledge of the archaeological treasures nearby to reconnect with their glorious past. It is especially inspiring for me to see the local children learning about their ancient Maya past. I believe a people that knows its past can live a better life.

What's a normal day like for you?

When I am at home I teach classes at the university and prepare for the next field expedition on a daily basis, writing grant applications, reports, and lots of emails. Occasionally, I give newspaper and TV interviews about our work. I have a home office so I can spend some time with my family when I am not teaching. My two babies wake up early and I get to start my day with them.

When I am in the field, life is quite different. We camp in the jungle. We get up at dawn (5:30 a.m.) have breakfast in our camp kitchen and drive on 4x4s a short distance to our dig site. We have lunch at the dig site. Work all day and get back to camp at 5 p.m. for a shower and a nice meal (rice, beans, and chicken, mostly, with lots of hot sauce). We go to bed early (9 p.m.).

Do you have a hero?

I have many, and they are not all archaeologists. My idea of a hero is someone who spends his or her life to help improve the lives of others in whatever work or profession they have. Some of the people I admire are not scientists who are trying to save the planet (and there are many), but normal people who live not just to satisfy their needs but those of others.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

There have been many and I am thankful for all of them. I have made several important discoveries, starting with the discovery of a whole lost city, Cival. When I discovered a massive sculpture buried beneath a temple's rubble, I felt like I had made a really important contribution. There have been other important discoveries like that, of jade offerings, burials, and whole buildings. The greatest thing about the Cival sculpture find is that it had survived the furious digging of looters by a couple of inches. If the looters had been digging another 10 minutes we would have found nothing. That made me feel as if we were rescuing the past in a real sense because it had almost been lost forever.

What are your other passions?

My wife, Nina, and two babies (Manolo, 3, and Isabella, 1) are my passion.

What do you do in your free time?

I love to spend time with my wife and kids. Taking day or weekend driving trips with them is my idea of fun. I also like to fix our 4x4 trucks and look for that special accessory that is going to save us from getting stuck when we are in the jungle. I read archaeology books.

If you could have people do one thing to help save evidence of past civilizations what would it be?

I would like everyone to give to charities that help rescue the past. The past is disappearing, because of development, looting, and erosion. Unlike endangered wildlife, the past is irreplaceable, nonrenewable. Like endangered species, once the past is gone, it is gone forever.

I would like people (individuals and governments) to give money to archaeology on the grounds that, far from being a luxury, the past is a necessity for a people and for humanity as a whole to be able to live in peace.

In Their Words

I believe a people that knows its past can live a better life.

—Francisco Estrada-Belli

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