Doug Preston gives a lecture: “Has the City of the Monkey God Been Revealed?”
and the search for the lost city of the monkey god
Author and journalist Douglas Preston is busy working on his next book, the tale of an expedition to a Honduran jungle in search of the fabled City of the Monkey God. This is not simply an account of the efforts of others: The Santa Fe resident was on the expedition that wrapped in February 2015, and he has the leishmaniasis to prove it.
Leishmaniasis, a life-threatening disease transmitted by a jungle species of sand fly, was contracted by many of the expedition team members. “I do have it, and it’s not a pleasant disease at all,” Preston said. On the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 20, he presents a benefit lecture for the School for Advanced Research titled “Has the City of the Monkey God Been Revealed? Highlights From a Honduran Rainforest Expedition,” at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. He and expedition leader Steve Elkins attend a postlecture reception at La Fonda.
The lecture coincides with the appearance of Preston’s feature article, “Lure of the Lost City,” in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. He has penned many articles for The New Yorker, some about archaeology, but this is only his second for National Geographic. (The first was about Angkor Wat, published in 2000.) The recent expedition into the Mosquitia area of Honduras ended with news that its members had discovered a forgotten metropolis. It may be the City of the Monkey God, which has also been called “Ciudad Blanca” or the White City.
“I’ve been involved in this for 20 years,” Preston told Pasatiempo. “I first met [documentary filmmaker] Steve Elkins in Santa Fe in the mid-1990s. There was a geologist in Santa Fe named Sam Glassmire, and he led three or four expeditions to Honduras looking for gold for clients whose identities we don’t know. He did find gold, but he also claimed to have found an extraordinary ruin that he thought might be Ciudad Blanca. Steve came to Santa Fe to talk to Sam Glassmire and look at his maps. I met Steve and he told me about all this and I said, ‘If you’re ever going to Honduras to look into this, let me know because I’d love to write about it.’ ”
Over the next two decades, Elkins led several failed expeditions, but he was finally able to survey the region using sophisticated lidar (light detection and ranging) technology — with financial help from filmmaker Bill Benenson. As they sought to interpret the lidar images, they brought in Colorado State University archaeologist Chris Fisher. These three were joined on the 2015 expedition by Oscar Neil Cruz from the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, as well as ethnobotanists, a geochemist, a geographer, a
National Geographic team that included Preston and photographer Dave Yoder, and three former British Special Air Services (SAS) officers who make their living ferrying film crews into hazardous areas.
The team surveyed and mapped the ruins of plazas, mounds, and an earthen pyramid. Some of the earthen mounds are in floodplain areas and probably kept living quarters above flooding danger. This jungle
gets lots of rain. “Where we were, it was supposedly the dry season and in the nine days we were there, it rained about seven inches,” Preston said. Other mounds are located on benchlands and likely held public structures that were elevated for effect. “The archaeologists explained to me that these are cities and one of the most important parts of that definition is large public architecture with public spaces and clear divisions of social classes and labor, so you have the houses of nobles and the temples and pyramids and an elite controlling all that, and then you have people who are lower down on the social scale who are living in more modest circumstances.”
It is thought that the people built using river cobbles, earth, wood, and wattle-and-daub, rather than with cut stone like the grand pre-Columbian buildings that remain in other areas of Central America from the early Maya culture. “When these Mosquitia buildings were decorated and painted, they may have been as remarkable as some of the great temples of the Maya,” Preston said, “but once abandoned, they dissolved in the rain and rotted away. It appears that the geology of this region is mostly extremely hard basalt, whereas the Maya lived in a region that had limestone and that is fairly easy to cut and fashion with stone tools.”
Basalt is very dark rock, so what about the legend of a Ciudad Blanca? He said there are also outcroppings of volcanic tuff — not unlike that found on the Pajarito Plateau — but the references to “whiteness” are steeped in mystery. “The Tawahka and the Pech Indians have indigenous myths that were collected by anthropologists and some of them talk about a white house or white place. In these stories, there’s often a place that either the Spanish got to and all died or the indigenous people retreated to these areas and were able to preserve their ways of life from the Spanish. Then there are also legends from gold prospectors and others who claimed to have seen the white ramparts of a city rising from the jungle foliage that was too far away to reach. It seems that those stories combined have translated into one legend of a Ciudad Blanca.”
At the base of the ruined pyramid, “just poking out of the ground, were the tops of dozens of beautifully carved stone sculptures,” Preston writes in the
Geographic article. “The objects, glimpsed among leaves and vines, and covered with moss, took shape in the jungle twilight: the snarling head of a jaguar, a stone vessel decorated with a vulture’s head, large jars carved with snakes” and other artifacts.
The expeditioners have bad stories about snakes, especially the pit viper known as the fer-de-lance. “To be honest, the snakes are more frightening than the leishmaniasis,” Preston said. “They’re not like the rattlesnakes in New Mexico where you go to the hospital and get antivenin and eventually you’re okay. The fer-de-lance is very dangerous. Either you die or they have to amputate the limb that was bitten. We saw them every day. And once they bite, they have the instinct to pursue and bite again.”
The viper strikes fear into the hearts of all, even a man like Preston, who likes snakes and kept them when he was a kid. “I do like snakes, but the first night I was in the jungle, there was a gigantic fer-de-lance in camp and one of the SAS guys had to kill it. It was just spitting venom everywhere. He had it all over his hands and he had to cut the snake’s head off and the damn thing was still snapping and even the headless snake started to crawl off. It was like something out of a horror story.”
Preston witnessed plenty of spider monkeys in the expedition camp, and heard howler monkeys in the trees, but where does the “monkey god” idea originate? “I tried to trace that. I got as far back as the early 1930s, when a guy named R. Stuart Murray led an expedition for the Museum of the American Indian to Honduras and came back with legends about a lost city that had a temple with a monkey god on top. That was told to him by his native informants, then he spent two expeditions looking for it. The third was led by journalist Theodore Morde, and he’s the one who claimed to have found the Lost City of the Monkey God.”
If not for the serpents and flies, it’s easy to think of the land of the Mosquitia as a paradise. The SAS men, who went in first to clear helicopter landing pads and camp areas for the expedition, told team leaders that the birds and animals they encountered were unafraid. “It’s an extraordinarily beautiful area,” Preston said. “I’ve done a lot of backpacking and hiking in wilderness areas but I’ve never seen an absolutely pristine wilderness like this where the animals had never even seen people.”
Fisher and Yoder both have leishmaniasis, but they’re planning to return to Mosquitia. “They are, probably in January. They will excavate that cache of artifacts we found,” Preston said. “Geographic asked me to go back, so I’ll probably go back.”
Douglas Preston during the expedition; top left, helicopter landing with lost city nestled behind trees; top right, stone jar with vulture head from a cache of 52 sculptures; photos courtesy Douglas Preston