The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston
Published January 2017, Read May 2017
Rating: ♥♥ (of 5)
“I had been in many wilderness areas, but never in a place as purely untrammeled as this. The hostility of the environment only added to the feeling of being the first to explore and discover an unknown place.”
This is only one of many extremely problematic sections in Douglas Preston’s newest book, The Lost City of the Monkey God. The book details Preston’s experience covering the exploration of the Mosquitia mountains and rain forest in eastern Honduras by Steve Elkins, who assembled a team to search for the mythical Ciudad Blanca or “White City” rumored to be in this dense and difficult region of the world. While the book is compelling and Preston’s writing style helps speed us through, it is riddled with serious problems.
I fully acknowledge that Preston is writing a book for popular consumption and not for academic study. He is a journalist, not a scientist, anthropologist, historian, or other relevant discipline. I cannot, however, condone the serious lack of rigor in his conjecturing. Throughout the book, Preston uses colonial and imperial language, and worse, assumptions, to tell his story concerning the legend of Ciudad Blanca and the subsequent explorations of the Mosquitia rain forest, most notably the site called T1 by Elkins’ team.
Not only does Preston use extremely dated terms like referring to Mosquitia as the “Heart of Darkness” in reference to Joseph Conrad’s troubling and deeply colonial work by the same name, Preston also routinely calls the region unexplored, undiscovered, and unknown, which, simply put, it is not. While the legend of Ciudad Blanca (also known as the City of the Monkey God, hence the title of the book) only burst into popular conversation in Europe and America in the 1940’s, indigenous groups in Mosquitia have always known these sites existed.
Throughout, Preston shows a complete disregard for indigenous knowledge. As seen in the quote at the beginning of this review, Preston describes the area over and over as “untouched” and “unexplored.” In the very next chapter, however, he quotes one of the anthropologists on the expedition who said, “All this terrain, everything you see here, has been entirely modified by human hands” (147). So do indigenous modifications not count according to Preston’s magical thinking? This disregard for local lore and information runs deep and ruins the credibility of the author’s position.
Similarly egregious, he also dismisses the academic discussion of the White City. In the chapter simply titled “Controversy,” he describes the response from the academic discipline of anthropology when Steve Elkins’ (a Hollywood executive) team announced their “discovery” of a “lost city” in the dense wilderness of Mosquitia. While the chapter begins evenly enough, it becomes atrociously one-sided before Preston engages in attacks on the various anthropologists critiquing the expedition that range from irrelevant to ad hominem. One such attack on Dr. Christopher Begley, an expert on eastern Honduran indigenous history, goes so far as to accuse Begley of corruption. Preston then blames the entire controversy on a divide within the anthropological community over who is the rightful president or government of Honduras. While this is interesting, to an academic they are not as pressing as the very serious allegations of colonial meddling and uninformed, possibly destructive “adventure archaeology” the team was accused of engaging in (a concern the book does little assuage). To add to the hypocrisy, after attempting to destroy Begley’s credibility, Preston then cites Begley’s writing as a source a few chapters later.
There are other problems including subtle sexism, nativism, imperial attitudes, and racism throughout. The book, however, does redeem itself in a small way when two-thirds through, Preston switches gears to discuss the catastrophic, pandemic levels of disease that decimated as much as 90% of the indigenous population of the Americas and his own experience with leishmaniasis. Having caught leish in Mosquitia, he describes his experience seeking treatment, finally having to go to the NIH along with several other expedition members.
His experience, and the baffling question as to why only half of the expedition contracted the disease, helps him illuminate a difficult and confounding subject: why did the indigenous communities not have similar diseases that could decimate the AfroEurasian population? The answer is complicated and involves genetics, centuries of evolution, animal husbandry, and much more, but this seemingly dense topic is made interesting in the hands of a capable writer. Here, and nowhere else in his book, Preston puts his skills on display. The critiques I have of the rest of the text do not apply here as it seems this is a book unto itself, written with academic rigor and care, which cannot be said for the rest of this barely disguised adventure story.
This book is a dangerously naive tale. It is one that puts describes indigenous culture as “vanished” and unworthy of modern consideration. As much as Preston and the rest of this non-scientific and vastly American crew want to deny it, this “search” for a city reeks of colonial overreach. Such an expedition, when handled properly and not like we’re back in the nineteenth century at the height of British and American Imperialism, can be a profound way to restore national or indigenous identity, but this felt like a kind of cultural looting of the Honduran people.