The Lost City of the Monkey God
Author: Douglas Preston
I have always been fascinated in archaeology and discoveries about ancient peoples in the far reaches of the world. I wanted to major in archaeology and anthropology in college, but my father put a stop to that idea. "My daughter will not go around the world digging up skeletons and dusty pot shards,'' I remember him telling me as I tried to fill out my college applications. I had to settle for a major in English Literature. I guess reading classic literature is much more ladylike than finding out about ancient people. My heart has always been with history and archaeology, however. I just have to live that dream vicariously through others who explore and discover.
Before reading this book, I must caution readers that this book is NOT one of the usual exciting fictional adventure stories written by Preston. This book is a non-fiction book about an expedition into Honduras to find the mythical Lost City of the Monkey God. There are no gun fights, explosions, terrifying supernatural events or anything like that. I've seen several poor reviews of this book from readers who expected something like Preston's fiction. This isn't that sort of book!! If you want to learn about using LIDAR to document ruins on the floor of a dense jungle, the hoops you have to jump through to get permits to explore in Honduras, close calls with snakes and jaguars, and detailed descriptions of trekking through the Honduran jungle, then read this book.
The one problem I have with this book is really a problem with the trip in general. I felt that the exploration group, backed by millions of dollars from a wealthy backer, was somehow just further exploitation of Honduras. Preston does point out clearly that the country has been used by fruit companies and the US government for decades. This well-funded group of white men tramping through their jungle in search of a ruin doesn't really do anything to make up for this exploitation. It's just another chapter in the same tale. For example, the group hired a shady, fat, white man, Bruce Heinicke, to threaten, bribe and deal his way through any problems the group encountered. As Preston described Heinicke, it left me wondering if this just wasn't another culture-rape on top of all the other ones Honduras and its people have endured through the years. Over hundreds of years, many groups of explorers have been to their country looking for this mythical city for their own glory, not for the benefit of the Honduran people. Hiring local guides, buying their way past local government and trampling their way through the country looking for the prize and glory reminds me a lot of what has happened at Mount Everest in Nepal. Rich, white people decide they must climb to the highest point on the earth, so they hire expensive guides and pay exorbitant amounts of money, crap all over the Nepalese and Sherpa people and their culture, and leave trash and dead bodies all over the mountain just because it's there. The Honduras exploration group's intent may have been to solve a historical mystery....but the financiers and leaders of the initial expedition were NOT scientists but wealthy adventurers seeking excitement and the glory of being The One to finally discover the lost city. Preston was along for the ride, documenting the trip for National Geographic, and scientists provided the LIDAR and expertise needed to ground-truth what the radar showed. I felt a little better about things once Preston started writing about the second expedition to the site. Scientists and archaeologists set the rules for the second visit, the actual trek into the jungle. Nothing was excavated without express permission from the Honduran goverment and the site was treated with respect.
My initial misgivings aside, this book documents both trips and is very well-written and interesting.
The first half of the book documents the initial trip to use radar on several potential sites. I didn't know much about LIDAR and how it works. Preston includes many details about how they picked the sites, the flights over the jungle in a plane equipped with LIDAR, issues with getting fuel and supplies, how difficult it is to work with such new technology, and the joy of finding favorable results after all the work required. It took two weeks to use LIDAR to map the four areas chosen. Then there was a two year hiatus between the discovery of the site and the actual trip into the jungle to see first-hand what was on the ground.
The second half of the book is about the return trip - the actual trek into the jungle. A new group, comprised of survival experts, soldiers, scientists and documentary crew, were gathered for the ground work at the site. This time, the group and the trip itself was handled more professionally. There was no bribery, thinly veiled threats or thug behavior used to protect the group. This time, trained experts were hired to help the expedition operate safely in the jungle and soldiers accompanied them to lend protection. The group had to deal with poisonous snakes, biting insects, rain, quicksand and mud everywhere, not to mention lingering physical effects and even disease the group dealt with after returning home.
All in all, despite my misgivings about the expedition itself, the story of the events and site was very interesting and well-written. The Advance Readers Copy of this book that I read had no pictures or illustrations. I hope the finished book has photos from the expedition and maybe some illustrations showing a map of the entire site.
I hope to read updates on this ongoing project! I can only imagine how wonderful it felt to be one of the first people to see a city that had been abandoned for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
**I voluntarily read an Advance Readers Copy of this book from Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.**