About The Author
Douglas Preston worked as a writer and editor for the American Museum of Natural History and taught writing at Princeton University. He writes about archaeology for the New Yorker, Natural History, National Geographic, Harper's, and the Atlantic and Smithsonian magazines. Douglas is also one half of the bestselling thriller writing duo, Preston & Child, featuring FBI agent Pendergast.
His new book, The Lost City of the Monkey God, now available in paperback, tells the story of how he joined a team of scientiests on a groundbreaking quest to find a legendary lost city believed to be hidden deep in the Honduran interior and to carry the curse of the death sentence for anyone who dared enter it. In 2012 he climbed aboard a single-engine plane carrying a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalising evidence of not just an undiscovered city but a lost civilization. To confirm the discovery, they battled torrential rains, quickmud, plagues of insects, jaguars and deadly snakes. They emerged from the jungle with proof of the legend... and the curse. They had contracted a horrifying, incurable and sometimes lethal disease.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Douglas describes how he became involved with the expedition, the realities of life in the jungle and how the discovery of the city affects what we thought we knew about the past.
Questions & Answers
How did you become involved with the expedition? What was the appeal?
Twenty years ago, I was interviewing a scientist, Ron Blom, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and he accidentally let slip he was working on a secret project.He and his team were analysing satellite imagery for a private client, looking for a lost city in the Honduran rainforest. That was how I learned about Steve Elkins and his crazy search for the legendary Ciudad Blanca, also known as the Lost City of the Monkey God.
The city had been a 'lovely legend' for centuries. How much did the mythology inform your search for the city? When did you begin to take the mythology seriously?
To be honest, I didn’t take it seriously at all. I was pretty sure it was just a legend, but I continued to follow Steve’s efforts because I thought that the failed search would make a good (and funny) story. I didn’t believe it until I found myself staring at the lidar image of the lost city on a computer screen for the first time, just after the lidar data had been crunched, and then I just about had a heart attack.
Could you tell us some more about the previous two ‘discoveries’ of the city?
There have been many alleged discoveries of the lost city. One, made by Sam Glassmire in 1959, was legitimate — he did indeed discover a lost city in the Honduran jungle. This city has never been identified (the book publishes his hand-drawn map if anyone wants to risk life and limb trying to get there) but he brought back incredible artifacts, which prove that he found something stupendous. As for the other famous 'discovery' of the Lost City of the Monkey God by Theodore Morde in 1940 — my book deals with that in depth. I got my hands on Morde’s journals — which had been jealously guarded by his family — and in reading them, I was quite astonished to learn what Morde was really up to in Honduras. He was not, in fact, looking for a lost city; he had a secret agenda that I reveal in my book.
How did you and the team go about finding the city? Were there times when you lost hope in finding it?
The team used a powerful technology called 'lidar' — Light Detection and Ranging. It can map the terrain through even the thickest jungle cover. The team brought down a million dollar lidar machine and an airpline which, in three days of flying over the unexplored valley known only as 'Target One', revealed the existence of a lost city. It took 18 years of maddening frustration and setbacks to get to that point of discovery.
Trekking through the Honduran jungle sounds like every explorer’s dream. What were the realities of life in the jungle?
It was not easy. In the heart of the Mosquitia mountains, some of the thickest jungle in the world covers rugged mountain chains, some a mile high. There are pools of quickmud that can swallow a person alive (we almost lost our anthropologist that way), roaring torrents, jaguars that prowled through our camp at night, an astonishing number of venomous snakes and clouds of insects carrying nasty tropical diseases. Not to mention ten feet of rain a year.
What were you expecting to find when you had discovered the city? What did you find in reality?
We knew we were going to find a city, and we did. But the jungle was so astonishingly thick that we could see almost nothing. Even standing ten feet from the central pyramid, we could see only that the ground suddenly sloped upward in a most unnatural way. But what surprised us all was when we stumbled upon an extraordinary cache of beautiful stone sculptures, just the heads peeking out of the ground. There were 52 of them on the surface, and subsequent excavations revealed more than 500 sculptures and fragments, all left at the base of the pyramid as a kind of offering. That was a truly astonishing discovery, and the excavation of this cache would reveal the tragic, indeed horrific, fate of the city.
There were plenty of risks involved in the trip, from jungle animals to contracting a flesh-eating disease. Did you ever feel like you had put yourself in real danger by embarking on the project?
I didn’t take the risks seriously until a frightening encounter with a giant fer-de-lance snake the first night. We had three British ex-SAS jungle warfare specialists with us, and one of them killed the snake in a scene straight out of a horror film, with the snake striking everywhere, streams of venom arcing through the night.
It wasn’t until we returned, however, that we discovered (to our horror) that the valley was a hot zone of disease, and that most of us had contracted an incurable and possibly fatal illness, which (not to be too graphic about it) if left untreated would cause our lips and nose to slough off.
Many people were shocked that such great civilisations had risen in the Americas independently of colonisation. How does the discovery of the city affect our impression of the past?
What our discovery revealed was that these seemingly hostile rainforest areas in Honduras were once densely settled by a sophisticated, advanced farming civilization. Thousands of people lived here and transformed the jungle into a kind of Garden of Eden, clearing areas, levelling the landscape, creating open areas for work and public ceremonies, building houses and beautiful temples, and planting large vegetable and flower gardens (flowers were used in religious ceremonies). This is profound.
How is this discovery different from other discoveries of ancient cities? How does the discovery of the city change the future of archeology?
The question of course is: Is this truly the Lost City of the Monkey God? The answer is no. There are many lost cities hidden in this impenetrable jungle, and none probably resemble the described form of the legendary city. But the legend, like many such, was based on the truth; it was a lovely metaphor for a once prosperous culture which built many cities before it vanished five centuries ago. We have a great deal still to learn about this mysterious civilization, which occupied the Maya frontier, took on many aspects of Maya culture, but was not itself Maya.
Many people will know you as a novelist, and the expedition itself is like a real life Indiana Jones adventure! Was it this that made you want to write a book about your travels?
Who would have thought it possible that in the 21st century, a lost city could still be discovered somewhere on Earth? This was indeed the story of a lifetime.