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

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Paul Wei­de­man I The New Mex­i­can

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

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