The Lost City of the Monkey God
Douglas Preston (Head of Zeus, £18.99)
The subject of this book lies deep in the impenetrable forests of honduras in Central America. Its existence has been known or rumoured for some 500 years— since, in fact, the time of Cortés and the early Spanish conquistadors. On the face of it, therefore, it seems extraordinary that it’s only now in the 21st century that the ruins of this lost city have been excavated and its hidden treasures revealed.
When one starts to read this book, one begins to understand why. It’s not just that the jungle terrain is arguably the densest in the world (when only a dozen feet apart, explorers had to keep in touch with each other by sound rather than sight), but that the administrative problems of getting there were as great as the physical ones. Much of the surrounding country was dominated by drug barons who threatened intruders and the government bureaucracy appeared insurmountable.
A major hurricane in the 1990s distracted attention from a mere archaeological project; the laser equipment required for an aerial survey of the site was defined as ‘classified military hardware’. This last complication meant that the aircraft and the nearby landing strips had to be guarded by military personnel and—the final irony—the explorers feared that the honduran military might themselves loot the site before the archaeologists had done their work.
Douglas Preston’s final and successful attempt to overcome all these problems leaves the reader both impressed and overawed. his encounters with jaguars, poisonous snakes and disgusting bugs convince us— whatever Spencer Chapman may have said in his famous book The Jungle is Neutral—that the jungle is not ‘neutral’; it is distinctly hostile.
It was clearly worth all the effort and risks: the lost city was excitingly different from the nearby Mayan ruins and the half-buried artefacts were uniquely beautiful. The President of honduras himself visited the site and its discovery was decreed to have raised the morale of the whole nation.
Mr Preston doesn’t let his adventure lose anything in the telling: an American resident, he has nothing of Peter Fleming’s self-deprecating english understatement and some British readers may find other Americanisms—not just the familiar ‘tarps’ for tarpaulins—a little grating. But this is an adventure well worth the telling and the 16 pages of colour illustrations add further veracity to the impact.
We should be grateful to the author for braving and enduring the long-standing curse—in his case, he contracted leishmaniasis—on a lost city named after a non-existent monkey-god. It was populated, according to local legend, by ‘half-monkey, half-human beings living in the forest’; now, it seems more likely that the original inhabitants were indigenous tribes fleeing from 16th-century Spanish invaders and that they were largely wiped out by diseases introduced from europe. Reality is, at last, replacing myth. John Ure
The valley of T1, deep in Mosquitia, Honduras, remained one of the last unexplored places on Earth until February 2015