Part one, the high-tech search that led to finding a “lost,” pre-Columbian city.
Part two, a medical thriller.
Part three, a cautionary tale about climate change.
The third part is the shortest—but as as gripping as the first two.
Written with an engaging style, Douglas Preston knows how to fire up an adventure. There is no doubt his team of scientists will find what they are looking for, but there’s ample suspense nonetheless as Preston gives us an inside peek at the work and money and teamwork (and many mechanical repairs) needed to pull off a search both above and through one of the most unforgiving, inhospitable places on the planet.
The area where this search takes place is truly the ‘gates of hell,’ as Preston makes abundantly clear. The jungle is a main character in Lost City. La Mosquitia “is a vast, lawless area covering about thirty-two thousand square miles, a land of rainforests, swamps, lagoons, rivers, and mountains.” It is, in fact, one of the most dangerous places in the world. By the time you finish Lost City, you will feel as if you’d been there. Lethal snakes, nasty insects, noisy monkeys, prowling jaguars, and brutal weather—not to mention the Honduran bureaucracy and the hoops that needed clearing to forge ahead or the ever-present dangers from narco traffickers. You can’t help but tip your jungle hat to the intrepid explorers on the search, including Preston and the photographers.
The key to the success of the mission covered in Lost City is lidar. That’s a multi-million dollar machine loaded onto a Cessna Skymaster and flown carefully over three unexplored valleys in the remote mountains of ‘La Mosquitia’ in 2012. Originally used for mapping the surface of the moon, lidar (for light detection and ranging) has improved to the point where the equipment is sensitive enough to resolve fine-scale archaeological features.
So Lost City recounts previous attempts to reveal the whole story of the ‘lost city’ and then takes us along as Preston joins a team of scientists, both in the air and on the ground, as they locate and begin the process of mapping out what was once a sprawling metropolis.
If you enjoy blow-by-blow armchair jungle exploration, The Lost City of the Monkey God works. “I awoke at five to the roar of howler monkeys rising above the pounding of rain,” writes Preston. “It was a morning so dark it didn’t seem as if daytime had arrived at all. The forest was wrapped in a twilight gloom, cloaked in mist … Outside, the rain was turning the jungle floor into greasy mud that seemed to deepen with every passing hour.”
The search finds plenty to study, a “vaguely Maya” city layout with plazas, elevated platforms, earthworks, geometric mounds, and earthen pyramids. “A lush, curated landscape” at one point with roads, reservoirs and irrigational canals.. Preston raises the many lingering questions about the city and the various theories of how the Maya influence flowed into Mosquitia.
Around 1500, the culture collapsed—and vanished.
Was it cursed? Were the gods angry? Where did everyone go? Did the same European diseases that caused massive die-offs among the Mayan people also affect Mosquitia? Preston concludes yes, most likely, via maritime trading.
Then the book turns to Preston’s own struggle with disease, beginning with bug bites that wouldn’t go away and an outbreak of sores in his mouth. He’s not the only one from the expedition that picked up something rare, something weird, something from the jungle.
The malady turns out to be leishmaniasis, “a disease that thrives among the detritus of human misery and neglect.” It’s a disease now running rampant in Syrian and Iraq. And, since 1993, the leishmania parasite has been spreading—even into the United States. That’s thanks to a warming climate. The sand fly and wood rat spread the disease and they prefer warmth. Their habitats are expanding. “Global warming has opened the southern door of the United States not just to leish but to many other diseases,” writes Preston.
Worrisome, to say the least.
Final thought: I listened on audio; fantastic narration by Bill Mumy. But check out the book for photos by Dave Yoder or this link to see where the ‘lost city’ was found.