Book Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God

The Mosquitia Region (above) is largely untouched by modern civilization and proved very difficult to navigate. Photo by Douglass Preston, author of the book.

The Mosquitia Region (above) is largely untouched by modern civilization and proved very difficult to navigate. Photo by Douglass Preston, author of the book.

Listed as one of the New York Times’ Notable Books in 2017, The Lost City of the Monkey God tells the story of how a team of archaeologists, explorers, and filmmakers recently discovered the ruins of a complex civilization in a remote, deadly region of the Honduran rainforest.

The discovery made headlines back in 2015, as did the release of this book a couple years later, so there’s plenty of more detailed articles and interviews you can read online. Here’s one by the Daily Mail with more photos. So, with that in mind, I’ll offer just a few of my initial thoughts after reading, rather than a complete review of the facts.

In a nutshell, Douglas Preston - a writer for National Geographic, The New Yorker, and other publications - gets involved with a team of experts and adventurers on their quest to find the fabled “Lost City of the Monkey God”, also known as the “White City” or “La Ciudad Blanca”. The city was part of the local lore of Honduras and many treasure hunters had claimed to have found it over the previous centuries, but none could offer definitive proof. It was supposed to be a place of immense complexity, beauty, and wealth, not unlike, say, El Dorado.

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But despite the many alleged sightings, time and time again modern archaeologists had failed to locate the city. The Mosquitia region, in which the lost city was supposedly located, is an unforgiving wilderness of deadly animals and very dense jungles. It is so lush and overgrown that ruins or artifacts can be difficult to find, even for those searching on foot.

The breakthrough finally came in 2012 in the form of a new LiDAR technology that can map out the surface of a landscape - even a dense jungle - by sending light pulses from a plane above. When the team was able to use LiDAR above some key areas they identified as likely containing the lost city, they were shocked by the results. The maps revealed a number of interconnected cities or villages that were all part of a civilization historians knew very little, in anything, about.

In the book, Preston does a good job documenting the team’s trip to the site and the perils of conducting archaeological missions in such a dangerous environment. I won’t go into detail on this, but suffice to say that snakes, deadly insects, jaguars and rare diseases all play a role, especially the latter. After returning from the expedition, Preston and others are diagnosed with a rare illness that proves difficult to treat.

The strength of the book lies in its storytelling - Preston is a master of providing background detail while also building suspense and keeping an upbeat pace. He gives accounts of the past failed attempts to discover the lost city, the history (both recent and ancient) of Honduras and the region, and the many false starts and complications of their ultimately successful effort.

I should note that, although the team visited and began excavating the sites, they didn’t necessarily find the White City itself. It’s possible the legend of the White City was inspired by the cities they excavated, or that it is still out there in the largely unexplored region of Mosquitia.

This photo, by Douglas Preston, gives an idea about how dense and intimidating this remote jungle was.

This photo, by Douglas Preston, gives an idea about how dense and intimidating this remote jungle was.

I learned quite a bit from this book which, for me, is a sign of its quality. My understanding of the region, its history, the impact of colonialism, the logistics of archaeological missions, and the risk of disease is far superior to what it was, although (to be fair) my starting point was quite low. Even so, the entertainment value of the stories and the clear descriptions made it easy to learn along the way.

Some readers may want an action-packed treasure hunt that resembles a Michael Crichton novel. For them, this book may not fit the bill. For those who want to know how discoveries like this actually happen - and all the risks, the politics, the personalities, and the history involved - it will be right up your alley. Highly recommended.