THE MYTH of the Lost City of the Monkey God has been a bedtime story for generations of Honduran children, but myths are often rooted in fact, and in the early 2000s inveterate searcher for lost cities Steve Elkins started looking for it. The novelist and writer for National Geographic and The New Yorker Douglas Preston, in the way nosy journalists do, heard tell of this search and was able to talk his way into the 2015 expedition.
Preston begins his trek with a briefing by an ex-soldier experienced in jungle travel who passes around a photo of someone on a previous expedition into the area bitten by a fer-de-lance — it isn’t pretty, this particular snake’s venom causing hideous necrosis. More cheery news of the local fauna follows in the way of mosquitoes and sandflies eager to pass on lovely diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and the dreaded leishmaniasis. Never heard of it? Me neither, and neither had Preston, but he’ll hear a lot more about it shortly. At the end of that first chapter he writes, “I paid attention. I really did.” No, he didn’t, or not enough, but it wouldn’t have mattered even if he had, because guys like Elkins and Preston will always go where others fear to tread. If we — and they — are lucky, when they come back they’ll write books like this one the rest of us can read.
Preston’s narrative is simply packed with information on a dozen different topics, to begin with notes on the practice of archaeology worldwide, legal and not.
It must be said that, in general, if archaeologists refused on principle to work with governments known for corruption, most archaeology in the world would come to a halt; there could be no more archaeology in China, Russia, Egypt, Mexico, most of the Middle East, and many countries in Central and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. I present this not as a justification or an apology, but as an observation on the reality of doing archaeology in a difficult world.
Preston provides a capsule history of Central American pre-Columbian civilizations — or at least the discovery of their existence — which were much more widespread than previously thought. And he discusses the limits of our knowledge of these civilizations, especially in Honduras, and what this means for Hondurans:
While the Spanish history of Honduras is well known, its pre-Columbian history is still an enigma. People need history in order to know themselves, to build a sense of identity and pride, continuity, community, and hope for the future. This is why the legend of the White City runs so deep in the Honduran national psyche: It’s a direct connection to a pre-Columbian past that was rich, complex, and worthy of remembrance.
There is a brief but uncomfortably vivid history of American, ah, entrepreneurship in Honduras, and the “dark colonialist legacy that has hung like a miasma over Honduras ever since”:
This legacy of instability and corporate bullying lives on in political dysfunction, underdeveloped national institutions, and cozy relationships among powerful families, business interests, government, and the military.
Fifteen years after his first failed overland expedition to find the White City, Elkins read about the use of lidar by archaeologists, a new technology that uses lasers the way sonar uses sound waves. Elkins, with the help of documentary filmmaker Bill Benenson, arranges for an airborne lidar survey of the least-visited corner of the Mosquitia jungle. The instrument, stabilized by a kind of top secret electronic gyroscope borrowed from the US military, pings lasers at the spaces between leaves to reflect back the features of the ground beneath them. The rain forest has a lot of leaves, but the lidar confounds even that dense canopy and discovers the Lost City (and maybe two lost cities) just three days into the mapping process.
I could see Sartori’s spiral-bound notebook lying open next to the laptop. In keeping with the methodical scientist he was, he had been jotting daily notes on his work. But underneath the entry for May 5, he had written two words only:
If John McPhee writes the way Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello, Preston is at least first chair. When I finished the book, I immediately went online to look at the expedition photos on National Geographic’s website and from his descriptions was easily able to recognize the people, the artifacts, and especially the place, this stunningly, dangerously beautiful tropical wilderness lost to time for 500 years. Preston is clearly a man in love.
Once again I had the strong feeling, when flying into the valley, that I was leaving the twenty-first century entirely. A precipitous ridge loomed ahead, marking the southern boundary of T1. The pilot headed for a V notch in it. When we cleared the gap, the valley opened up in a rolling landscape of emerald and gold, dappled with the drifting shadows of clouds. The two sinuous rivers ran through it, clear and bright, the sunlight flashing off their riffled waters as the chopper banked […] Towering rainforest trees, draped in vines and flowers, carpeted the hills, giving way to sunny glades along the riverbanks. Flocks of egrets flew below, white dots drifting against the green, and the treetops thrashed with the movement of unseen monkeys.
T1 (the expedition’s name for the location of their discovery, still a closely held secret for fear of looting) hosts an ecosystem that will try its best to kill you six different ways in the first 60 seconds after you step down from the helo, but that first step is like taking a time machine back to the Cretaceous Period.
All of it is now under threat from Honduran ranchers clear-cutting the forest to create new grazing land for their livestock. From the air Preston sees:
vast areas of the mountainsides had been cleared, even on slopes of forty to fifty degrees […] I could see that the clearing was not for timbering; it appeared that few if any trees had been taken out, and were left lying on the ground to dry out and be burned, as evidenced by the plumes of smoke rising everywhere. The ultimate goal, I could see, was to turn the land into grazing for cattle — which dotted even the steepest hillsides.
When Elkins and his expedition start reporting their findings, they face the perhaps inevitable blowback from the academic archaeological community.
Christopher Begley of Transylvania University (the archaeologist in Jungleland) and Rosemary Joyce of Berkeley began circulating a letter criticizing the expedition and inviting their colleagues and students to sign it. The letter alleged that the expedition had made “false claims of discovery” by exaggerating the importance of the site; that it had not acknowledged previous archaeological research in Mosquitia; and that it had disrespected indigenous people by failing to recognize that they already knew of the site.
Preston takes excruciating pains to report both sides without prejudice, but however carefully he parses it, this smacks a lot more of jealousy on the part of the people who didn’t discover the Lost City of the Monkey God directed at the people who did than it does legitimate differences between academics.
Their first night in camp, Preston almost literally stumbles across one of the aforementioned fer-de-lance. It’s too close to camp, so they kill it. Later, trying to get to sleep, Preston reflects:
I lay in the dark, listening to the cacophony of life, thinking about the lethal perfection of the snake and its natural dignity, sorry for what we had done but rattled by the close call. A bite from a snake like that, if you survived at all, would be a life-altering experience. In a strange way the encounter sharpened the experience of being here. It amazed me that a valley so primeval and unspoiled could still exist in the twenty-first century. It was truly a lost world.
What has priority here? The old-growth forest hosting a uniquely untouched ecosystem teeming with jaguars and spider monkeys? The livelihoods and futures of the people living in the area now? Or the excavation, exploration, and documentation of Honduran history and culture going back half a millennia? The fer-de-lance, the steer, or the historian? It will take more than 302 pages to answer that question.
And then there is leishmaniasis, a ghastly disease that literally rots off one’s face, and which infects not only Preston but half of the expedition as well. It’s like cancer in that the cure is as bad as the disease, and, as of writing this book, Preston’s has recurred. In even cheerier news, due to the enabling offices of climate change, leishmaniasis is steadily making its way north, occurring now in Texas and Oklahoma. Goody. Americans dying of it may be the only way to get the drug companies working on a cure, because why bother if it’s only killing poor people in the Third World? That’s no way to make money.
But leishmaniasis gives Preston the final clue to perhaps solve the puzzle: Where did the people of the Lost City go? And why did they leave and, especially, when?
Also known as: Disease as destiny.