The Lost City of the Mon­key God

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

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

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