How likely are we to discover a lost city in the 21st century? Not very likely. Archaeologists may discover artefacts that resemble pots and pans belonging to a certain civilisation, buried pieces of jewellery or ancient tools from a certain era or scientists may unearth human remains dating back to prehistoric times. But to discover an ancient city that once supported a thriving civilisation is not everyday news.
Deep in the restive country of Honduras in South America, lies a region called La Mosquitia. It is one of the last unexplored regions in the world — carpeted with impenetrable, lush rainforests, high mountains, deep valleys and rivers. It is one of the most dangerous places on earth, so much so that early explorers nicknamed it Portal del Infierno or “Gates of Hell”. Somewhere in this densest of jungles lies a lost city, whose origins are not well known, that had eluded explorers for the past 500 years. It is known as Ciudad Blanca, the “White City,” so named as it is said to be built of white marble like stone. Some also call it the “Lost City of the Monkey God” and this book of the same name is about the latest attempt by an intrepid crew of archaeologists, film-makers, anthropologists, an ethnobotanist and even a drug-dealer to discover it.
The legend of the White City has carried such power over the last few centuries that it became an intrinsic part of the Honduran national psyche and identity. It became a fabled tale narrated by mothers to little children and was taught in schools. The seeds for the myth of the Lost City were sown nearly five centuries ago, a little later after Christopher Columbus discovered America, when Hernán Cortés, who conquered Mexico, in 1526 reported to the Emperor Charles V in glowing terms about a particular province richer than and as populated as Mexico. Cortés never made it to the Mosquitia region but twenty years later Cristóbal de Pedraza, a missionary who would become the first Bishop of Honduras, reported to Charles V about actually venturing into mountains of Mosquitia and “looking down upon a large and prosperous city spread in the river valley.” His report firmly established the legend of the Lost City and for the next three hundred years, geographers and travelers regaled the world with stories of many ruined cities in Central America. The expedition undertaken in 1839 by a New Yorker, John Lloyd Stephens, along with Frederick Catherwood a British artist changed the perception most North Americans had of the New World — that the aboriginal inhabitants were hunter-gatherers. When Stephens described that they had come across “the figure of a man, curiously and richly dressed, and the face, evidently a portrait, solemn, stern, and well fitted to excite terror,” he presented the idea that prosperous civilizations had risen on their own accounts centuries ago in the Americas comparing them to the great civilizations of Rome and Egypt. The world was eager to find out what more secrets were waiting to be revealed.
In the 1930s, the Smithsonian Institute sent William Duncan Strong, an archaeologist, to explore Mosquitia. In 1933, he spent five months in Honduras documenting and even excavating ancient cities of Wankibila and Dos Quebradas among others. Strong realised these sites that were built with earthen mounds were different from the Mayan cities which were built in stone. What he uncovered was an entirely new culture not connected to the Mayan world. But his excavations threw up more questions than answers. Although he failed to locate the White City, it paved the way for serious archaeological work in the region.
No serious archaeological work would happen for the next 75 years until the present expedition finally discovered the Lost City. But these intervening weren’t bereft of any action. In fact they were full of drama and intrigue brought about by the lofty adventures undertaken by many explorers claiming to have found the Lost City. Notable among these was the expedition Theodore A Morde, a journalist of dubious repute, undertook in March 1940 financed by George Gustav Heye. Son of a wealthy petroleum baron, Heye was obsessed with collecting anything Native American, eventually amassing over a million pieces from garments to artifacts. Morde was the third explorer Heye engaged between 1930-1935 in discovering the Lost City after the first two had conned him of his money. Morde didn’t fare any better going on to falsely announce to the world of having discovered the Lost City when he had actually been digging for gold in the Mosquitia valley.
Morde’s expedition, though, fired the imagination of the American and Honduran public. Since his death, the location of the Lost City has been a subject of intense speculation. The mystery of the Lost City probably would not have been solved had Steve Elkins not persisted with his obsession of cracking an age-old legend. For a living, Elkins rents camera equipment in Los Angeles to filming crews. But from the time he first heard about the Lost City from a professional collector of legends, Steve Morgan, he was bitten by the “lost city virus.” After couple of failed attempts to launch an expedition into the Mosquitia mountains, luck changed for Elkins when he came upon an article in Archaeology magazine about a powerful laser technology called lidar or Light Detection and Ranging, which had been used to map a Mayan city. Lidar has revolutionised the field of archaeology in the past few years as archaeologists can map and trace a potential site before carrying out any ground-truthing excavation. With the technology in place and blessings of top political Honduran leadership, Elkins convinces the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping in the USA to lend their aircrafts fitted with lidar to map the area. Elkins then puts together the crew and establishes the areas to be mapped. From their entry into Honduras, a country ravaged by crime led by drug cartels, gang wars, poverty and constant political turmoil to the jungles infested with violent outlaws and bounty hunters, where the crew hacks down their own camping area, it seems like an unbelievable adventure in the twenty-first century.
Douglas Preston is on top of his game in writing this book. After bringing alive the nuances of the failed and fudged attempts of past explorers, he expertly holds the reader’s attention through the exhilarating forests teeming with one of the amazing snakes, jaguars, monkeys that aren’t used to human presence. He also narrates a ringside view of the eventual discovery of the Lost City and its repercussions in the academic world as well as for the Honduran establishment. In the end, Preston delicately highlights the price humans would pay for wanton damage of the natural world.
If you are a collector of legends or have a weakness for adventure stories, this should be a cover-to-cover read. Regardless, the book is a brilliant story of a lost city as there might not be many left to discover in our times.
The Lost City of the Monkey God is published by Head of Zeus and will be available in India post-September 2017.
Updated Date: May 14, 2017 10:19 AM