The Lost City of the Monkey God
A True StoryeBook - 2017
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Mosquitia is a vast, lawless area covering about thirty-two thousand square miles, a land of rainforests, swamps, lagoons, rivers, and mountains. Early maps labeled it the Portal del Infierno, or “Gates of Hell,” because it was so forbidding.
“I call it the ‘lost city virus,’” he told me later. “I became an addict. I was obsessed with the idea of trying to prove whether the lost city really existed.”
An avid hiker, he roamed the nearby Shawnee National Forest with friends who called him Over-the-Next-Ridge Elkins because he was always urging them on “to see what was over the next ridge.”
“That was the moment I became hooked on ancient history,” he told me. He spent many hours sitting in the shelter, looking out over the Mississippi River Valley and imagining what it would have been like to be born in the cave, grow up, raise children, get old, and die there—in the America of five thousand years ago.
“Hey! Some weird stones over here!”
We returned to look, and all mayhem broke out.
… the lidar machine contains within it a sealed instrument that looks like a coffee can. It contains a highly classified military device called an inertial measurement unit, or IMU. This is the same technology used in cruise missiles, allowing the missile to know where it is in space at all times as it heads toward its target.
He collected all the guns, money, and drugs. He was in terrible pain, so he snorted some lines and packed cocaine powder into the bullet wound, which made him feel better.
If you’re going to be a gambler at all with a film project, I thought this was the one to put my money on. This was my number 17 on the roulette wheel.”
“The people of Honduras don’t have a clear cultural identity. We have to start learning more about our past in order to create a brighter future.”
“There’s something in the valley!” We were startled by this sudden behavioral change, the sober-minded skeptic transformed into a raving Christopher Lloyd.
… we were forced up on the embankment, where we followed the Honduran soldiers as they macheted a path for us, expertly flicking their machetes left and right, the blades going ping, snick, tang, snap—each species of plant making a different sound as it was cut.
“A city,” he explained, “is a complex social organization, multifunctional; it has a socially stratified population with clear divisions of space, intimately connected to the hinterlands. Cities have special functions, including ceremonial, and are associated with intensive agriculture. And they usually involve major, monumental reconstruction of the environment.”
A site is not really “found” until it is ground-truthed.
“You’re crazy,” I said. “You’re going up there in the pitch dark, with all those snakes, in the rain, wading in mud up to your balls, climbing that hill with a ton of gear on your back in a suitcase? You’re going to get yourself killed.” He grunted and hiked off into the dark, his headlamp bobbing around before winking out entirely. As I hunkered down in my tent, listening to the rain, I was damned glad I was just a writer.
“There aren’t any insects.” It was true. The fearful clouds of bloodsucking insects we had been warned about were nowhere to be seen.
Within minutes, night dropped like the shutting of a door—absolute blackness fell upon us. The sounds of the day morphed into something deeper and mysterious, with trills and scratchings and boomings and calls like the cries of the damned. Now the insects began to make their appearance, starting with the mosquitoes.
A legend, certainly, but legends are frequently based on the truth, and this one, so persistent and long-lasting, is no exception.
In the mythology of some indigenous tribes in Honduras, monkeys were the first people, banished into the forest when humans arrived.
In the acidic rainforest soils, no organic remains survive—not even the bones of the dead.
Each main temple at Copán had been built over and around the previous one, creating a series of buildings nested together like Russian matryoshka dolls.
It was no longer a terra incognita. T1 had finally joined the rest of the world in having been discovered, explored, mapped, measured, trod upon, and photographed—a forgotten place no more.
I was covered with ugly red welts and patches, hundreds of them—but where were the actual bugs?
People need history in order to know themselves, to build a sense of identity and pride, continuity, community, and hope for the future. That is why the legend of the White City runs so deep in the Honduran national psyche: It’s a direct connection to a pre-Columbian past that was rich, complex, and worthy of remembrance.
I imagined being trapped for hours with a terrifying Nurse Ratched hovering about.
I asked Nash if I was, at fifty-eight, in the “old” category, and he thought that was funny. “Oh, ho!” he cried. “So you’re still telling yourself you’re middle-aged? Yes, we all go through that period of denial.”
“Does the area have a whitish, pearlescent appearance, surrounded by red?” “Yes.” “Does it itch?” “No.” “Does it hurt or feel sore at all?” “No.” “No discomfort?” “None at all.” “Ah, well. I am afraid those are the classic signs of leishmaniasis.”
This genetic resistance, by the way, should not be confused with acquired immunity. Acquired immunity is when a body gets rid of a pathogen and afterward maintains a state of high alert for that same microbe. It’s why people don’t normally get the same illness twice. Genetic resistance is something deeper and more mysterious. It is not acquired through exposure—you are born with it.
In his groundbreaking book Guns, Germs, and Steel, biologist Jared Diamond poses the question: Why did Old World diseases devastate the New World and not the other way around? Why did disease move in only one direction?* The answer lies in how the lives of Old World and New World people diverged after that cross-continental migration more than fifteen thousand years ago. Farming, which allowed people to settle into towns and villages, was independently invented in both the Old World and the New. The key difference was in animal husbandry.
Why? Her answer was immediate: “Climate change.” As the United States becomes warmer, she said, the ranges of the sand fly and the wood rat are both creeping northward, the leish parasite tagging along.
When people in the Near East first domesticated cattle from a type of wild ox called an aurochs, a mutation in the cowpox virus allowed it to jump into humans—and smallpox was born. Rinderpest in cattle migrated to people and became measles. Tuberculosis probably originated in cattle, influenza in birds and pigs, whooping cough in pigs or dogs, and malaria in chickens and ducks. The same process goes on today: Ebola probably jumped to humans from bats, while HIV crashed into our species from monkeys and chimpanzees.
Global warming has opened the southern door of the United States not just to leish but to many other diseases. The big ones now entering our country include Zika, West Nile virus, chikungunya, and dengue fever. Even diseases like cholera, Ebola, Lyme, babesiosis, and bubonic plague will potentially infect more people as global warming accelerates.
Modern travel has given infectious disease new ways to spread. Bubonic plague in the fourteenth century traveled from Central Asia to the Levant and Europe by horse, camel, and boat; the Zika virus in the twenty-first century jumped from Yap Island in Micronesia to French Polynesia, Brazil, the Caribbean, and Central America by 2015, all by plane. In the summer of 2016, Zika arrived in Miami, again on an airplane. The 2009 outbreak of deadly H1N1 swine flu in Mexico hitched rides on planes to strike as far away as Japan, New Zealand, Egypt, Canada, and Iceland.
Sometimes, a society can see its end approaching from afar and still not be able to adapt, like the Maya; at other times, the curtain drops without warning and the show is over. No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.
Archaeology contains many cautionary tales for us to ponder in the twenty-first century, not just about disease but also about human success and failure. It teaches us lessons in environmental degradation, income inequality, war, violence, class division, exploitation, social upheaval, and religious fanaticism. But archaeology also teaches us how cultures have thrived and endured, overcoming the challenges of the environment and the darker side of human nature.
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Exclusive: Lost City Discovered in the Honduran Rain Forest
In search for legendary “City of the Monkey God,” explorers find the untouched ruins of a vanished culture. By Douglas Preston Photographs by Dave Yoder
PUBLISHED March 2, 2015
An expedition to Honduras has emerged from the jungle with dramatic news of the discovery of a mysterious culture’s lost city, never before explored. The team was led to the remote, uninhabited region by long-standing rumors that it was the site of a storied “White City,” also referred to in legend as the “City of the Monkey God.”
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