Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

After reading this book, I know I wouldn't last more than a day in the jungle. Mosquitoes just love me, and I can't even survive a few hours in my back yard during the summer when they come out in droves. I'd be a giant mess in the jungles of Honduras. Couple that with an absolute terror of snakes, and I'm done. Douglas Preston is a much braver soul than I ever will be, and thanks to him, I got to read about this archaeological adventure in the comfort of my home.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is an adventure that takes you into the vast, dense jungles of Honduras to look for the famous "White City" or "Lost City of the Monkey God". For centuries, rumors have told of a famous city, lost for years in one of the most remote places on earth:  the jungles of Honduras. Hard to get to; once you do, the time spent hacking through the jungle just to walk a few feet keeps most people out. It is one of the last places on earth that still remained a mystery; untouched by humans for centuries. It's been so long since humans have lived in the area that animals are not afraid and are merely curious at the new arrivals.  

As I read this book, I thought of Bill Bryson's funny take on Australia, where he says that pretty much everything there can kill you. That's just what Mosquita, the vast, impenetrable jungle in Honduras presents.  Mosquitoes, snakes of all shapes and sizes (and all horribly lethal), sand flies, and a host of other creatures that require constant vigilance and constant spraying of DEET. Yet Douglas Preston (yes, the co-author of the Preston and Child novels) gets a chance to go along on a trip to finally find out if the rumors are true: is there a lost city in the jungle? When National Geographic calls, you go!

Using LiDAR, which is, from what I can understand, a very expensive scanning machine (this is a much simplified description), archaeologists discovered not one, but two potential sites in 2012. Known as T1 and T3, the LiDAR scans proved for the first time definitively that there were man-made structures in the jungle.  Not only man-made, but huge, and spanning miles.  Were they vast cities?  And who built them?  

Preston and crew returned to the jungle in 2015 to finally start exploring what their scans had found, and what they discovered was beyond their biggest dreams.  Untouched, intact proof of a sophisticated civilization that disappeared hundreds of years ago. They simply walked away from their cities. Why? The jungle doesn't leave very many clues. The high acidity in the soil means that anything organic is quickly broken down. Any hope of finding tombs with remains were swiftly dashed. What they did find opened up a huge debate over the culture that existed, how to protect the sites from looters, and how Honduran cultural identity would be formed. It also brought up a huge debate regarding what exactly archaeology is, and how advanced scanning technology is both at once a huge gift to the field, and damaging to the practice of actually going into a site and excavating.  

There's much more to this tale, and I'll leave it to you to discover. Preston and crew didn't leave the jungle alone; they were exposed to a dangerous illness that in itself is fascinating to read about. Preston talks about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and I think it's probably a book I should read sometime soon. The whole Old World bringing disease to the New World issue plays a big part in this story, and even carries over into Preston's life after he returns home.

I highly recommend this adventure to anyone who enjoys travel memoirs, archaeology, history, and science. Those who have devoured The Lost City of Z must read this--it's full of rascals who claimed to have found treasure and the lost city, and the excitement their travels created in newspapers in the early and mid-20th century.  

Rating: 4/6 for a really interesting read on something that was never on my radar; the archaeology geek in me was hooked. How do you begin to understand a civilization that was lost to time?  

Available in hardcover and ebook.     

1 comment :

  1. I recently added this one to my to-read list so I stopped by to see how you liked it. It's not my normal genre but I've seen so many positive reviews that I can't help but be seriously intrigued. Great review!
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
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