Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Okay, I know I just did a book review, but Douglas Preston's The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story was so good I can't help pushing it. It's Indiana Jones in the real world.

Preston is a writer and journalist (the two are not necessarily synonymous) whose work includes both nonfiction and fiction. He's had a lot of nonfiction published in National Geographic, New Yorker, and other major magazines, and he's written or co-authored quite a few books. His fiction falls into the techno-thriller or horror categories. The latter tend to have an anthropological or archeological connection: an expedition to explore a mysterious region of Amazonia meets with misfortune, people die mysteriously, crates get shoved into storage and are forgotten for decades, and then weirdness emerges. You know, the usual improbabilities that always result in lots of gore and general creepiness. Fun to read but not exactly Great Literature.

I had read several books Preston co-authored with Lincoln Child that definitely fall into the horror category. They were entertaining, but they had the effect of making me a bit skeptical about The Lost City of the Monkey God. One of my favorite authors, John Sandford, recommended it in a Facebook post a couple months ago, but I had a hard time believing it was actually nonfiction. Let's face it: The Lost City of the Monkey God is a cheesy title. It sounds like something you'd see on the cover of cheap pulp fiction back in the 1930s displayed on a rack next to some Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels. Tacking "A True Story" on to the title doesn't help much.

Then on a recent trip to the local public library there it was sitting on the New Books shelf. I couldn't resist. After all, Sandford had recommended it. Back before Sandford became a best-selling novelist, he was a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. He should know what good nonfiction looks like.
Photo from The Lost City of the Monkey God

As it turned out, good is an understatement. The Lost City of the Monkey God was fascinating. It has it all: a multi-year search to find a "lost city" that's been featured in local folklore and legends for several centuries, a remote tropical rainforest location that's considered so isolated and dangerous that it is one of the few totally uninhabited regions in Central America, horrendous working conditions (seas of mud, humongous poisonous snakes everywhere, clouds of sand flies and hordes of chiggers devouring expedition members in their sleep), a government in turmoil, mysterious diseases striking expedition members months after their return to civilization. It does read like the plot line for The Lost World or an Indiana Jones movie. Except it's all true.

The lost city in the title was supposedly located in the La Mosquitia region of Honduras. It's a mountainous, treacherous region that is so isolated and inhospitable (snakes, chiggers, heavy rains, thick vegetation, you name it) that humans simply do not live there. There are indigenous groups living on the fringes -- the Miskito, Pech, and several other native peoples have villages and farms on the edges of La Mosquitia but the interior is basically devoid of humans. Logging and cattle ranching are nibbling at the edges and drug smugglers have carved out a few landing strips, but there are no land routes into the interior. Anyone going into La Mosquitia does it either by air or by boat. Vegetation is reportedly so thick and the threat of snakes (primarily fer de lance, a species known for its nasty attitude and aggressive behavior) so bad that it can easily take a full day to travel less than a mile over land.

Photo from The Lost City of the Monkey God
The region had been the subject of speculation since the time of the Spanish conquest. When Spaniards entered what is now Honduras, they heard stories of cities back in the mountains that had fabulous riches. Depending on who was telling the story, it was either referred to as La Cuidad Blanca (the White City) or the City of the Monkey God, reportedly because there were numerous statues (idols) of a monkey-faced god. The Spanish conquistadors never got around to looking for the White City, and if it existed its location got lost in time.

Stories about the White City surfaced again in the 19th and early 20th century. Discovery of Mayan ruins loaded with artifacts fired up treasure hunting impulses. Several would-be looters claimed to have found the Lost City of the Monkey God, but serious archeologists who tried to follow the clues the looters left never found anything that qualified as a "city." Most never made it very far into La Mosquitia -- conditions were simply too rough.

Then filmmaker Steve Elkins became intrigued by the legends. Elkins produces documentary films, and has been quite successful. In the mid-1990s he thought the White City would be a good subject and mounted an expedition to find it. His approach at the time was to try going up a river, which was how most previous expeditions had tried to get into the interior. He didn't find any trace of something that could be called a city, but he did experience an epiphany: seeing a petroglyph depicting what appeared to be a farmer made him realize that what is impenetrable rain forest today might not have been dense rain forest a thousand years ago.

It strikes me as being one of those "no shit, Sherlock" moments. Anyone who knows even a smidgeon of history is aware that when the first Europeans arrived in the Americas there were a lot more people around before those Europeans introduced smallpox, measles, influenza, and a host of other diseases to the Native Americans. The pathogens spread faster than the Europeans could explore; the English, French, and Spanish all documented finding villages and towns completely deserted, empty except for corpses of the victims of disease. Even in temperate climates it doesn't take long for vegetation to rewild farm fields. In the tropics even a large city could go from obvious to totally covered with vines and trees in less than a decade.

Still, even though Elkins realized that the stories about the lost city were probably based on fact, he walked away from the search in the 1990s. He worked on other projects for a decade, and then he learned that the LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) system that had been used to find the lost city of Ubar on the Arabian Peninsula had progressed from being satellite-based to being used in aircraft for mapping and exploration.

You know where this is going. Elkins managed to arrange for a LIDAR survey of four sites in La Mosquitia that had a strong probability of being the location of a lost city. Skeptics said that LIDAR won't work, the rain forest canopy was too thick. LIDAR uses lasers so anything that can block light is going to reduce its efficacy. The skeptics were wrong. Results from the LIDAR scans clearly showed an extensive complex of man-made structures. Elkins then spent a couple years putting together a team and getting the various permits required by the Honduran government. The government proved to be extremely cooperative. Not only did it issue the required permits, the government arranged for members of the military to accompany the expedition to help with logistical issues (setting up a base camp, for example, and bringing in supplies) and provide security against drug cartels and wildlife. The site selected for an on-the-ground survey turns out to be so untouched that animals, including jaguars, have no fear of humans.

Preston documents it all, from Elkins's initial interest to the aftermath of the expedition. He untangles the documented history of past search, finding both serious scholars and con men in the mix, and provides a context for the turbulent Honduran political climate. Rather than giving in to the temptation to wrap the book up triumphantly when Elkins successfully ground truths the LIDAR scans, Preston details the aftermath: health problems expedition members experience, the strange backbiting highly politicized world of Mesoamerican archeology, and what the Honduran government was doing to try to protect the site.

When National Geographic published a short piece describing the discovery of the lost city, for example, several prominent archeologists who specialized in Mesoamerican cultures basically flipped out, denounced the so-called find as a fraud, ranted about the terminology used, and claimed that the expedition was an illegal treasure-hunting scheme bent on looting. The phrase "lost city" came in for a lot of carping, although as Preston notes how else would you describe a place that for almost 400 years existed primarily in rumors? No one knew where it was, so was it really a misnomer to call finding it a "discovery"? And was it really being sensationalist to call it "the lost city of the monkey god" when that's how it had been described for decades? From the perspective of this reader, the complaints of the archeologists seemed to fall pretty squarely into the "I'm really pissed you guys didn't ask me to be part of this" category, i.e., major professional jealousy.and a bad case of annoyance that a non-archeologist (Elkins) was the person who put the pieces together.

In any case. the book is well worth reading, but if you don't think you'll ever bother looking for it, National Geographic Explorer did the Readers' Digest Condensed version last fall. If for some reason the video doesn't want to play, a quick search on YouTube will find it for you.: 

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