By some weird quirk of fate, I had just finished reading The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston, a true story, when ABC’s Sunday Morning had a short piece on this exploration. There were so many significant things that could only be touched on, but it was nice to see actual footage of the adventure.
The book describes in detail the background leading up to the trek into a remote area of rain forest in Honduras called La Mosquitia, in search for a place called the white city, or ciudad blanca. La Ciudad Blanca featured in tales told by Hondurans for generations of a rich city in deep in the mountains, suddenly abandoned by its people hundreds, if not a thousand, years ago. It was also called the lost city of the monkey god by previous explorers. Extensive research of explorations during the previous several hundred years whetted the curiosity of Steve Elkins, a cinematographer and adventurer, and he became determined to probe La Mosquitia for the lost city.
Gathering governmental permits for the exploration was a nightmare, given the political instability of the country’s leadership; with the election of president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who was very interested in giving his poor, drug-cartel ravaged country a historical and cultural identity, the expedition could finally be planned.
The group Preston joined went to Honduras with the idea of first using lidar, a ground-penetrating radar system that could see beneath the thick jungle canopy, to map likely sites for the city, based on Elkins’ research.
Amazingly, two sites yielded data showing large cities, which would have dated from Mayan times but which were situation in very isolated regions well south of the extent of Mayan culture. The decision was made to explore the site that was most accessible by helicopter, the only reasonable way to get to the site with the people and equipment needed.
I must admit I am not a fan of humid, insect- and snake-infested jungles. Just the thought
of them gives me the willies, and when I read about the indigenous fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, and the mosquitoes, sand flies, chiggers, ticks and cockroaches – not to mention the jaguars – my Kindle shook. I was traveling with this group of explorers, driven by the need to know what was out there and I could feel all of it.
What they found was astounding. From the lidar, they could see nineteen settlements in the valley site, an immense human environment of terraces, reshaped hills, roads, reservoirs, and irrigation canals, all of which would support gardens of food crops, medicinal plants, fruit and cacao trees. With the dense jungle growing from the bones of these settlements, all of this was hard to see. Even the video I saw this morning showed nothing but trees and shrubs and mud, even though there were pyramids, plazas, and houses beneath.
Second, they found a cache of artifacts left by the unknown inhabitants — precious pottery, figurines, metates.
What was even more interesting is Preston’s thinking on why this city, and perhaps the other, had been abandoned: disease. Between 1500 and 1550, diseases brought by European explorers ravaged the native populations, small pox being the worst, but also measles and dysentery. The indigenous people had no immunity to these diseases and in some places 90% of the population was wiped out. Preston believes this would have happened eventually, even if the Conquistadores had not invaded: the Old and New Worlds had had little, if any, any contact and diseases and immunities developed in isolation of each other. Explorers of the New World had brought back a virulent form of syphilis to Europe during 1400s, to which Europeans had no natural immunity.
The people inhabiting this ancient city had undoubtedly experienced a wild fire of disease and feeling the gods had inflicted this on them for some reason, they fled their city, leaving behind the cache of precious belongings– many smashed in a final offering to their gods.
Then there was leishmaniasis, the second deadliest parasitic disease in the world, behind only malaria, and spread by sand fly bites. Half of the team members came back with this disease, first manifesting as what looked like an ulcerative bug bite that didn’t heal. The treatment for this disease is worse than the initial stages of the disease itself: an intravenous drip of a drug (Amphoteracin B) with toxic and sometimes fatal side effects. Although some of the infected team members suffered horribly with the treatment, they eventually recovered. The parasite is not killed; it merely hides in the body and one’s own immune system then keeps it at bay.
Although there was a successful plan to preserve the site of the unexcavated city, now called the City of the Jaguar, controversy followed the release of information from the discovery. The media spread inaccurate information and many archeologists, who had had no connection to the planning and execution of the exploration, accused the team of ignoring previous research of Mosquitia (not true). They dismissed the findings, claiming the team had been treasure-hunting, playing out a movie fantasy. Jealousy appears to run rampant in the archeological community.
In any event, I highly recommend this book. It is occasionally dry and just as occasionally tension-filled and exciting. It couldn’t be written any better as fiction.