The Lost City of the Monkey God

By Douglas Preston

Grand Central Publishing | 2017 | 336 pages

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Desperate for something interesting to read, I was pursuing the shelves of a well-known bookstore in Pasadena when my eyes fell upon a book called The Lost City of the Monkey God. With a title like that at first I thought this must be adventure fiction like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but this proved not the case, as it is in fact a true story about finding a lost civilization in the mountainous jungles of Honduras, a civilization whose remains were so covered by overgrown jungle vegetation that it had remained untouched for the past five hundred years!

Imagine! A civilization rivalling the Mayans in terms of sophistication unknown to civilization until the modern technology helped uncover it! This is the true story of the brave men and women who ventured into Mousquitia to unearth the biggest archeological find of the 21st Century, as admirably told by Doug Preston.

Mr. Preston has worked as a writer and editor for the American Museum of Natural History and taught writing at Princeton University. He has written extensively including contributing to The New Yorker, Natural History, National Geographic, the Smithsonian, and The Atlantic.<

In 2012 Preston joined a team of scientists on their quest to find the White City, climbing aboard a rickety plane whose historic flight would change everything. Using a space-age technology called LIDAR they were able to map the terrain under the dense jungle canopy that revealed the remains of a lost civilization. <

Actually, they discovered several sites. In order to explore them, they—the team of scientists, journalists and some soldiers from the Honduran army—were required to fly helicopters in, drop men with machetes to clear the forest before they could build camp. Once they had done this the first team stayed in the area for three weeks and reported their finding to the scientific community.<

During this time Preston slept in a hammock strung across two trees. He was bothered, as the rest of the team were, by bug bites during the night. When they returned to their headquarters along the coast of Honduras, they congratulated themselves because of having survived the wiles of the primitive jungle no worse for wear. They spoke too soon

The archeologists involved with the expedition were able to determine that the people who lived in Mousquitia had vanished about five hundred years ago, so the question was, what had caused them to disappear?

Let me remind the reader that five hundred years ago at the end of the 15th Century, beginning in 1492, Columbus discovered the New World. In October of 1493, he set sail on his second voyage to the New World. The aim of the first journey had been exploration; that of the second was of subjugation, colonization and conversion. One of the places to which Columbus’s flotilla visited was the coast of Honduras.

“Columbus’s enormous flotilla,” Preston writes, “on that second voyage consisted of seventeen ships carrying fifteen hundred men and thousands of head of livestock, including horses, cattle, dogs, cats, chickens, and pigs. But on board those ships was something far more threatening than soldiers with steel arms and armor, priests with crosses, and animals that would disrupt the New World ecology. Columbus and his men unwittingly carried microscopic pathogens, to which the people of the New World had never been exposed and against which they had no genetic resistance.”

The genocide experienced by the indigenous communities exceeded the worst horror show imaginable. “It was disease, more than anything else, that allowed the Spanish to establish the world first imperio en el que nunca se pene el sol, ‘empire on which the sun never sets,’ so called because it occupied a swath of territory so extensive that some of it was always in daylight,” Preston writes.

On that voyage Columbus himself became ill. In a few years, fully half of his 1500 soldiers would be dead of disease. But that was nothing compared to what happened to the native populations. By 1520, epidemics merged into a plague—measles, mumps, yellow fever, malaria, chicken pox, typhoid, diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and, deadliest of all, smallpox—had decimated 85% of the Indian populations of Mexico and Central America. Small wonder that Cortes was able to conquer Tenochtitlan and murder Moctezuma. “The worst effect of smallpox was the complete demoralization of the Indians.” Therefore, Preston concludes that the probable cause of the desertion of the Indian population of Mousquitia was that they had fled in the face of this powerful enemy.

But Moctezuma’s revenge was to come to the explorers of Mousquitia. After they returned to the states many were to find that the bites they had received from the sand flies while they were camping would not heal. They, including Preston, had contracted a mysterious, and incurable, parasitic disease—leishmaniasis, which had been injected into their bloodstreams from the bites of the sand flies. Some died from their wounds. Preston did not or has not yet. He even paid a returned to Mousquitia on a second voyage of exploration but this time was better equipped to protect himself from the deadly sand flies.*

I found The Lost City of the Monkey God to be a fascinating story and would highly recommend it to anyone seeking to inform himself or herself concerning the findings of modern expeditions to areas of the world previously unknown.

*Belize and Honduras are notorious in the Caribbean for their sand fly populations and travels pages frequently warn tourists to bring bug spray containing high concentration of DEET.

Jane M McCabe is the associate editor and frequent contributor to The Neworld Review.

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