The Lost City of the Monkey God – Book Review
Author: Douglas Preston
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group
Copyright: 2017, ISBN: 1455540020
Cover: Flag and Herman Estevez
Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, May 7, 2017
Summary: On the northeast coast of Honduras in a region called La Mosquitia is what the author calls “some of the last unexplored places on earth”. This book gives us a peek into the area. Bonus stuff: archaeology is a competitive, backstabbing business; parasitologists deserve greater recognition; avoid fer-de-lance snakes and sand flies.
Yeah, Indiana Jones comes up once in this book. I believe it is in reference to his Fedora. In any event, THE LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD is a real life archaeology adventure with some real life history. The problem of course is that the book is about real life archaeology in ancient America. Prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus, ancient archaeology is primarily the Maya and Inca civilizations. Both civilizations just seemingly popped up out of the jungles of Central and South America. This book does not alter that impression. You would think it would. But then your realize that the author is all about the adventure, not the archaeology. This turns out to be a very good thing.
Author Douglas Preston is the other half of the writing duo Lincoln Child. Their fictional, somewhat magical and off-beat mystical FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast (alias A.X.L.P) is by nature part law enforcement officer, part archaeologist. In the 1999 novel, THUNDERHEAD, both facets of the Pendergast character are on full display–although the heroine is Nora Kelly and she is an out and out archaeologist. The point being that Preston is not new of archaeology. He was once employed by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He is also very good at presenting complex information in a crisp, succinct style. It shows in THE LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD. Of course, even he cannot clearly and concisely present information when there is none to present. For instance, how long have native American populations really been in the Americas? The best answer is probably, I dunno. However . . .
If you ask when native Americans first arrived in the Americas, you get a theory. One theory says they arrived 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. Another theory says that people started to leave eastern Alaska traveling south 40,000 years ago. This fluid, mushy knowledge may be one explanation for why people are not as enamored of ancient American history. People love Egyptian history. People love Greek history. People even love Viking history. There is no narrative for ancient American history. An even more recent “theory” of humans arriving in the Americas is that some hominin species arrived in the Americas as early as 130,000 years ago. This based on an examination of animal bones and tool marks. It is a start. In ancient American history, everything is a start.
A book like THE LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD goes beyond the usual Clovis culture, the Maya and Aztec “civilizations”. It is about the discovery of a once thriving metropolis area on the northeast coast of Honduras. The place was known as the White City after the Spanish conquerors arrived. The City of the Monkey God floats on a sea of basic ignorance of ancient America. Unless you are an expert in ancient American history, you leave it to the author to place his subject matter into a historical continuum. Preston and the experts referenced by him waffle on exactly how the people once populating the Mosquitia area of present day Honduras fit into pre-Spanish America.
Perhaps waffling is too strong a description. On page 199 of the book, Preston seeks to unravel the possible identity of the people inhabiting the Mosquitia roughly a thousand years before Christopher Columbus arrived on the continent. Available evidence points to the inhabitants being closer to the peoples of South America (Columbia) than the dominate Maya southeastern Mexico region culture. Because of the fuzzy ancient American milieu in which the White City or City of the Monkey God currently stands, there is little of real archaeological value coming out of this book. Preston and his group merely discovered the site, they did not explore it. That does not mean the archaeological site itself is of minor importance.
As Preston mentions in the book, some in the South American archaeological community point out that just because the Lost City of the Monkey God was lost to modern archaeology does not mean it was lost to the native peoples surrounding the area. All the hoopla about the city lost to history for seven hundred years seemed patronizing to Hondurans and those of South America. The brief mention of the gulf between those who study and those studied, or the losers and winners in a clash between civilizations, Preston smoothly turns into a rather intriguing examination of recent, post-Columbus history. Coupled with discussions about snakes, the fer-de-lance in particular, and an equally intriguing and informative exposition on parasitic infections more than makes up for the skimpy treatment of the archaeological find. For instance, we discover there is a special lab at the National Institutes of Health devoted to sequencing the DNA of parasites (the Intracellular Parasite Biology Section).
In Chapter 22, titled They Came To Wither the Flowers, Preston tackles the underlying animus between the European and American native-loyalists perspective on ancient American history. It is a very coherent and clarifying retrospective. Ancient American history has no narrative, only an outline. The usual suspects. In the history of post-Columbus native Americans, the most consistent narrative is the subjugation of natives by a superior European culture. Preston effectively shreds this narrative with a pointed and brief review of the facts. He writes that the “New World was like a vast, tinder-dry forest waiting to bury–and Columbus brought the fire.” He continues:
“That European diseases ran rampant in the New World is an old story, but recent discoveries in genetics, epidemiology, and archaeology have painted a picture of the die-off (of native Americans) that is truly apocalyptic; the lived experience of the indigenous communities during this genocide exceeds the worst than any horror movie has imagined.”
And hence, we have one of many places like the Lost City of the Monkey God. The Spanish never touched the place except through the miasma of their presence. Preston presents a chart showing the fifty-year decline of the population in Hispaniola where Columbus landed. It is really astounding. While there are historical references of conquering explorers distributing smallpox infected blankets to native populations, it is only part of the story. The greater story may be the rapidity with which native populations succumbed to disease who had no contact with the new arrivals succumbed. They left behind places like the site of the Lost City of the Monkey God. Preston explores the subject with some valuable and unexpected insights.
One of the insights he provides is about diseases, populations and pandemics. Anyone who thinks the natives of the Americas were simply militarily outmatched by Europeans have only to look at the Spanish conquest of the Phillippines. In the former, die-off of the population had more to do with Spanish conquest than military action. In the Phillippines, as Preston points out, “the conquest was not aided by disease “. The result is that “the Spanish were forced to accommodate and adjust to coexistence with the indigenous people of the Philippines”. So, why were the indigenous peoples of the Americas susceptible to European diseases?
In Chapter 27, Preston lays out the answer. It is based on the same principle scientists have recently offered concerning children and peanut allergies.
I have yet to discover a book on ancient America that enlightens as opposes to confound. THE LOST CITY OF THE MONEY GOD is really not about ancient America but the adventure of discovering tidbit of the history left stuck in the jungles of Mosquitia. In this it goes above the expected.