Nearly everything that’s reported in this book I had no idea of. I don’t say that to give the impression I’m some kind of oracle who should know all things, but more out of sheer surprise. This story is so recent, so big and so incredible that it does feel bizarre I managed not to hear a word about it. I’m a voracious consumer of newspapers and media, so I couldn’t believe it had slipped me by. There was even a moment of doubt when I realised the author also wrote fiction, concern that this was some big spoof I was falling victim of. But no, it really happened and it even made newspapers I read. Although as related in these pages, once the discovery was made there was a rash of academic back-biting – and that’s what was reported over and above the amazing story itself. Academic back-biting really doesn’t interest me, so maybe that’s why I missed it. But I wish I’d stumbled across an article, as this stuff is fascinating.
There have long been myths in Honduras of The Lost City of the Monkey God. A fantastic city built by a culture that seems to be adjacent to the Mayans, but is so under-researched it doesn’t even have a name yet. These stories were dismissed by many, but such is the density of the rainforest in Honduras that a city could easily be hidden away. Although such is the density of the rainforest, that looking for it and finding it was virtually impossible.
A documentary filmmaker named Steve Elkins made the quest for it his life’s work. In 2009, he heard of a new technology called LiDAR, I’m not going to even try a technological description, but suffice to say it’s a kind of laser radar which is able to map landscapes even when they’re shrouded and covered – say, for example, by thick rainforest. Elkins persuaded those in charge to let him use it and chose a couple of sites to map, two of which turned out to contain ancient cities that don’t seem to have been inhabited – or possibly even entered by man – for at least five hundred years.
Author Douglas Preston was there at the beginning and joined the trip to enter the first site. This book is the team’s story, written in an accessible style full of wonder as he details the expedition, the incredible things they saw and the awful consequences of the trip, in the form of a disease that struck half the party. (A truly terrifying sounding tropical illness named leishmaniasis, which is so unyielding there’s evidence of dinosaurs being infected by it. As it mainly effects the poorer parts of the world, drug companies don’t see the upside in doing the research and working on easily accessible cures.)
Popular science like this is great for people like me who doesn’t really know anything about the field, but I’m sure it’s a good target for a kicking from those who are a lot more expert. Preston does write with a great deal of sensitivity though, acknowledging early on what loaded terms ‘civilisation’, ‘lost’ and ‘discovered’ are in a Western society with such a colonial history, but also throwing up his hands because he can’t think of better words to use in a populist account. He is careful, eager in fact, to give all sides of the story, even reaching out to those academics critical of the project to reflect their views. It makes for a rich piece of reportage, which sweeps the reader along in giddy excitement at such a fantastic Twenty First Century story.