The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston. (Nonfiction Book, 2016).
A best-selling author of both fiction and nonfiction, his latest is the gripping true story of the quest to locate a long-rumored abandoned city in a remote (and in modern times previously unexplored) region in the most mountainous rain forest interior of Honduras.
Before the Spanish reached Central America, the region today called La Mosquitia was home to a culture, separate from the well-known Maya people, but apparently trading partners with them and other better-documented peoples.
As Preston details in the latter stages of this book, the unknown Old World diseases devastated native populations throughout the Americas. While the conquistadors never made it to the rugged homeland of these unnamed people, local trade routes brought smallpox and the like to them. Lacking any immunity to these diseases, the large majority of the population apparently died (a fate shared by many other unsuspecting native groups). Survivors fled their once-great cities, losing their cultural identity. What had been a flourishing society carved out of dangerous jungle and protected by great mountain peaks quickly reverted to nature.
In our time (500 years later), only vague legends survived among local people (including likely descendants of that handful of survivors). These legends inspired a number of unsuccessful expeditions (some serious and many outright, money-seeking frauds) that uncovered only a few fringe-area hints at the extent of the extinct culture.
It was only in the 21st century, when an obsessed American named Steve Elkins used a new technology to peer through the thick jungle canopy (obtaining images of ancient ruins obscured by the incredibly lush plant life) that the full scope of this culture has just BEGUN to be appreciated. An international team he organized, which also included Preston, used this technology (lidar) to uncover not one but two mountain valleys packed with ruins that confirm that the wealth and power (and tragic fate) of this culture was real.
Preston avoids undue sensationalism, but clearly delivers a tale of real-adventure in a dangerous, still-wild corner of the world. He also puts the story in context regarding both controversies in the archaeological research and the ongoing challenges of climate change.
It’s a fascinating story, and includes the final irony that, in visiting and beginning to explore a region whose population was struck down by (new-to-them) illnesses, many of the modern explorers (including Preston) contracted a serious disease (likewise new-to-them, but all too common among the poorest residents of various tropical environments). Preston and the others have ended up battling for their lives against a chronic parasite (Leishmaniasis) that, like me, they’d never even heard of. The final outcome of that struggle is still somewhat in doubt at this time, as Preston makes clear.
A fascinating book of popular science that reminds me of David Grann’s wonderful volume of a few years ago that detailed similar recent discoveries in the Amazon (The Lost City of Z). So, yes, there are still a very few truly unexplored bits of the Earth to be studied and mysteries/legends to be investigated.