By Sharon St Joan
The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston (2017) is not a happy-happy book. In fact it’s rather grim. However, it moves along quickly, and it is profoundly fascinating, with the potential to transform your worldview and your perceptions of the past, present, and future. For a long time there have been many legends about a lost culture, known as the “white city,” in the jungles of Honduras. With the advent of lidar, which is a technology that makes it possible to see through the jungle and to be able to see the outlines of structures that are hidden from view by the thick foliage of plants, it is now possible to view the presence of ancient temples and other buildings long obscured by the jungle.
This doesn’t mean this expedition was easy. Douglas Preston, who took part in the excursion to discover the lost ruins this ancient city, describes a fascinating, but painful, adventure into the thick jungles of Honduras. The old legends turned out to be true. There is indeed a long-lost, absolutely immense, ancient city hidden and previously undiscovered under the cover of the jungles of Honduras.
Putting their lives at risk, the expedition cut their way through impenetrable jungle, plagued by venomous snakes, hordes of insects, horrifying parasites, and intolerable weather to discover enchanting, mysterious, untouched forests and – underneath the jungle – the spell-binding remains of an ancient culture over a truly vast area — along with hundreds of profoundly beautiful artifacts and an unknown ancient writing. This was a civilization older than that of the Maya and as yet completely unknown.
This account is eye-opening from another perspective. With the coming of Europeans to the Americas, it is now generally well understood that the native population suffered profound and irreversible consequences, losing as much as 90 percent of their population in both North and South America. Undeniably, the history of the impact of Europeans on the Americas is a long story of brutality and profound injustice, for which there can be no excuse or justification.
What is perhaps less well understood though is the extent to which the depopulation of native peoples in the Americas may also have been due to the importing of disease itself. Douglas Preston paints a vivid description of the lack of immunity to diseases brought by the Europeans.
That lies in the past. However, he does not stop there – he continues with a jarring description of parasitic disease that is present today and that can only, in fact, be expected to become calamitous in the future, aided by global warming.
This is a book that disturbs our European-centric view of civilization from all points of view. It opens a vista on to a continent filled with a long history that is pretty much as yet unknown to us — especially if we can put — alongside our awareness of this newly found civilization in Honduras — a newly brought to light history of thousands of years of archeological discoveries throughout all of South America (not to mention Asia, as well).
We just cannot continue to sit still, content with our old, minimalist history that is largely focused on Europe — going back to the Romans and Greeks – with Europe having the top billing first, second, and always.
There is so much more to our world that we must now include — especially all the history, still being discovered, of South America.
On top of that discovery, there is more in this book – a rather startling view of the ominous possibilities that may lie in our near future — of horrifying plagues that may await us in a warming world.
If we’re not too afraid of unsettling our worldview, this is a fascinating book! It will introduce us to a vastly different view of history, very real and as yet little imagined. (Tip: If all this is depressing, you might turn to reading about the eternal cycling of the world ages – the yugas.)