First, The Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston,is a true story. No Agent Pendergast. No Gideon Crew. All the locations are real, the timeline is real, the treasures are real. The curse could be interpreted as real, depending on your point of view. Modern medical science saved the day (more or less), but the victims will live with the curse for the rest of their lives.
There’s a documentary making the rounds now about this very story. The adventure into the jungle in Honduras was at least partially funded by a filmmaker obsessed over the idea of the lost city. When he finally found something, he brought in his camera’s and crew to document it.
So, what’s this all about? Ever since the Spanish got the bright idea to come to the Americas about five-hundred years ago, stories of wealthy cities harboring vast treasures in gold have circulated the globe. Of course, no one could ever find them. Or, if they did, the gold appeared to be long gone.
The ruins of many lost cities and vanished cultures have been found throughout Central America, of course. Archaeologists have made a point of promoting culture, lifestyle, and beliefs of the people associated with each find. Treasure has little to do with it. But sometimes archaeologists fail to account for the spirit of adventure. Not everyone is a looter. Sometimes they’re just an adult with the raging curiosity of a child. Apparently, getting that kind of unscientific joy from life is frowned upon by archaeologists.
Douglas Preston came to be part of the expedition in Honduras mostly by chance. He had heard about it back in 1996 from a man named Steve Elkins, who, fascinated by the story of the lost city, had been searching for it off and on. He’d been working from over a hundred years of clues from previous explorers, some of whom turned out to be complete frauds. Everyone seemed to have an idea of where the city was, but no one could actually pinpoint it. Or, they claimed to have been there but were far too afraid to ever go back. A good excuse if you don’t want to prove you were there. A great excuse, actually, because the region in Honduras, called Mosquitia, is possibly the most dangerous, impassable jungle on the planet. Jaguars, poisonous snakes,tropical diseases – nature will murder you there. If it doesn’t, there’s a good chance drug smugglers or other criminal gangs will.
Finally, in 2012, Mr. Elkins was able to get his hands on a technology called “LiDAR” (Light Detection and Ranging), which allowed him to map the jungle floor … to an extent. What he found turned the search for the lost city upside-down. And not everyone was happy about it. To prove he was right, though, he would have to go into the jungle. Not everyone was happy about that either.
The Lost City of the Monkey God covers a lot of territory in its 300 pages (hardcover edition). It’s part history of Central America, part adventure, part archaeology, and part medical mystery, with a dash of the current state of Honduras, which has many problems.
Somehow, Mr. Preston is able to put all of this together into a fascinating true story. It’s not Indiana Jones, and the discovery doesn’t change the world. But by giving real meaning to the discoveries made by the expedition, the author illuminates both the past and our future: where we’ve been as a species, how we got where we are, and the dangerous end we find ourselves hurtling towards.
A fascinating read.