Deadly snakes, flesh-eating parasites, and some of the most forbidding jungle terrain on earth were not enough to deter Douglas Preston from a great story. In February 2015, Preston, a mystery and magazine writer, took part in an expedition to the La Mosquitia region of Honduras. The mountainous area is fabled for its remoteness and a tantalizing legend about a vanished civilization and Ciudad Blanca, a lost city of white stone.
Preston and fellow team members endured hardships as they sought an answer to a centuries-old mystery. In “The Lost City of the Monkey God,’’ Preston expands on articles he wrote for National Geographic and The New Yorker, recounting the team’s extraordinary findings with entertaining flair. This is a story of eccentric explorers, archaeological controversy, and political intrigue in one of the most dangerous countries in the Western hemisphere. But it is also about Honduras’s cultural patrimony and the ways we understand the history of pre-Columbian societies.
Myth of the lost city date back at least to the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés in the 16th century. The conquistador spoke of a land that exceeded the Aztec empire in grandeur and richness. What was this place? The so-called Ciudad Blanca. or White City, seemed as chimerical and elusive as El Dorado.
Preston sifts through fact and fantasy as he builds suspense. He got onto the legend in 1996 and has been in pursuit ever since. Technology proved a game changer. Satellite photos yielded some intriguing clues. The author chronicles the efforts of Steve Elkins, an ancient-history buff and documentary maker, and his partner Bill Benenson, a real estate executive who put up the money for more advanced survey work. The two spearheaded the use of lidar, a form of radar that deploys lasers. Narrowing in on a bowl-like valley in Mosquitia dubbed “T1,” a lidar-equipped plane took detailed readings of the rugged, deep green landscape in 2012. The data led to a Eureka moment — there, below the dense jungle canopy, were faint signs of pyramid-like mounds in square formations. In these ruins could lay the solution to the mystery.
Elkins and company needed to get onto the ground to confirm their findings. A trio of ex-SAS officers guided the team into the area by helicopter. What Preston describes is hair-raising — jaguars on the prowl, deadly snakes everywhere — but also magical, a jungle world far removed from the 21st century. Howler monkeys erupted every morning at first light, greeting the crew as they set out through dense foliage on their quest.
Wet and sodden, they found their proof: plazas, overgrown and shrouded, and a cache of stone ruins that spoke of a complex urban world. It wasn’t just one city, but rather a series of connected settlements.
The discovery was a strong boost to the national psyche of Honduras, a country beleaguered by drug cartels and violent crime. But some archeologists pounced, accusing Elkins of cultural imperialism and of indulging in Indiana Jones-type amateur adventuring. Preston offers a persuasive defense of the mission and stresses its sensitivity to the cultural politics of discovery. His chapters on the meanings of the find are fascinating. Preston notes that while Mayan civilization, with its soaring stone pyramids, has been exhaustively documented, the people of Mosquitia built their structures of adobe, wattle, and hardwood. “Once abandoned, they dissolved in the rain and rotted away, leaving behind unimpressive mounds of dirt and rubble that were quickly swallowed by vegetation.”
Questions nonetheless remained. Was this civilization Mayan, or something else altogether? Preston speculates that there was trade and other interactions with the Maya, but the Mosquitia people were distinct and sat at a crossroads of Mesoamerica. Mayas influenced this as yet named culture, which appears to have collapsed in the 16th century. But why?
The answers, Preston writes, may lie in the transmission of Old World diseases like smallpox, which spread among indigenous peoples after the Spanish invasion. Citing historical and population studies, Preston explains that between 1520 and 1550, epidemics ravaged T1 and other regions of Mosquitia in an apocalyptic civilizational calamity. The few living likely walked away. Preston notes that such speculation can only be hypothetical, but it is certainly a persuasive — and chilling — theory. Many questions remain.
But the drama was far from over. Upon returning from the jungle, Preston and other members of the expedition discover that they had contracted a potentially deadly, flesh-eating scourge. Known as leishmaniasis, it is a disease hundreds of years old. Conquistadors dubbed the New World variant “white leprosy” for its ghastly symptoms. Though they survive flesh intact, Preston and his colleagues have to endure a grueling regimen of treatment with toxic medicines. He ponders the fragility of civilizations — both Mosquitia as well as our own, with all its advanced technology. Like them, we are not “exempt from the universal fate.” Take heed.
LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD
By Douglas Preston
Grand Central, 326 pp., illustrated, $28
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe.