“The Lost City of the Monkey God” is a fascinating mash-up of archaeology, cutting edge technology, treasure hunting, history, Central American politics and epidemiology. Author Douglas Preston, who also writes about archaeology for National Geographic, covers some complex topics in a manner that’s easy to understand and also very interesting.
There is a long-standing legend in Honduras about a lost ancient city known as the White City or the City of the Monkey God. The city was rumored to have been built by an ancient civilization. It’s supposed to contain many treasures. It’s also supposed to be cursed – anyone who visits it will die.
Many have tried to find the lost city, ranging from con men to treasure hunters to legitimate explorers and archaeologists. But the White City is thought to be deep in the Honduran rain forests, a wildly inhospitable place and one of the last unexplored locations on Earth. The hostile environment, and lack of detailed information about the city’s exact location, has prevented anyone from finding the lost city. And, of course, there’s a good possibility that the legend isn’t even true.
Self-described cinematographer and adventurer Steve Elkins has long been fascinated with the story of the White City. Now, he’s figured out a way to make exploration of the lushly vegetated rain forest much more productive using LIDAR technology. LIDAR is a highly sophisticated technique of mapping the surface of the Earth using radar (and a bunch of other magical technologies and interpretation techniques). The images it produces allow scientists to identify obviously manmade structures. In this case, it identified the ruins of a very large, ancient city.
The next phase of exploration involved sending a team out to physically visit the ruins. This was no small feat given the remoteness of the ruins and the extreme nature of the flora and fauna surrounding them. The team of archaeologists, anthropologists, photographers, writers, and film crew had to be inserted into the rain forest via helicopter. Also joining them were 3 former British commandos who were tasked with keeping the rest of the team alive.
This exploration team faced extremely harsh conditions – torrential rain, huge venomous snakes, hoards of nocturnal cockroaches, swarms of sand flies and the threat of looters and drug traffickers. (No thanks!). But they also made an amazing discovery – the untouched ruins of an ancient city. The team only had ten days to explore the site and do some initial documentation of what they saw. What they found included statuary laid at the base of a pyramid type structure. It was enough to initiate the next phase of the project which includes much more excavation and documentation of the site. (That’s going on right now and not the focus of the book.)
When they returned, half the team discovered they had been infected with a flesh eating parasite transmitted by sand fly bites. The treatment for this condition involves a drug that is really hard on the body and not guaranteed to cure the patient. But despite taking several months to recover from the treatment and despite the risk of getting re-exposed to the parasite, some of the team members returned to the rain forest to participate in that next phase of the project. How’s that for persistence (or folly)?
The first half of the book was focused on the discovery of the ruins. This also included information on some of the attempts throughout history to find the White City. I really enjoyed this part of the book. It was a little like reading about a modern day treasure hunt. The concept that there are still ancient ruins to be found in largely untouched parts of the world is fascinating to me.
The second half of the book is quite a bit dryer. It requires the reader to shift gears because it’s like watching an entertaining movie that suddenly gets interrupted by a documentary on pandemic diseases. In this part of the book, the author goes into detail not only about the parasite that infected them, but also the havoc brought on by the diseases the conquistadors introduced to the new world and the likelihood of tropical diseases (like zika) being able to migrate to the US due to climate change. The latter part of the book also covers some of the political history of Honduras, particularly the destabilizing effect that US-based fruit companies had on the region. This part of the book provides good context for understanding what might have happened to the residents of the lost city as well as understanding why it’s so difficult to get things (like permits) through the red tape of the Honduran government. However, quite frankly, it’s just not as exciting as the first part of the book.
Overall, it’s a very well written book and the topic is extremely interesting. I strongly recommend “The Lost City of the Monkey God.”
Have you read “The Lost City of the Monkey God?” What did you think?