14 Mar 2017

Lost city of the Monkey God

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:03 pm on 14 March 2017

An American novelist who travelled to a lost city deep in the Honduran jungle contracted a flesh eating disease as a result – but says it was all worth it.

Legends and stories of a lost city in the jungles of Honduras in Central America had intrigued explorers for the past 500 years and crime novelist Douglas Preston joined an expedition armed with modern technology to find it.

He’s now written a book about it, called The Lost City of the Monkey God.

Preston told RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan the story began 20 years ago when he met Steve Elkins, who believed in the lost city and said he intended to film it.

“I was pretty sure he was not going to find anything. But he spent, you know, 15 years on this search and finally in 2012, using this very advanced technology called LIDAR, which cost $1 million, actually found a lost city in one of the last scientifically unexplored places on the surface of the earth.”

He said Elkins was the latest in a long line of people to have searched for the city, which was made famous in a letter 500 years ago penned by a conquistador Cortez to the Emperor Charles V

“He said that he’d received very reliable reports of an extremely wealthy civilisation in the mountainous interior of the country and that he intended someday to explore it and conquer it.

But Preston says he never did explore in the interior and the legends surrounding the lost city began.

The city was rumoured to be in an area of Honduras called La Mosquitia, which has some of the thickest jungle in the world.

“Inside these mountain ranges there are valleys that have never been explored, so many people thought, well in one of these valleys maybe there’s a lost city.”

After eventually being granted permission to complete an aerial survey, the LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology revealed signs of the famed city.

“You didn’t have to be an archaeologist to see pyramids, a great earthworks, houses, terracing, all kinds of man-made structures underneath, hidden in the jungle.”

In 2015, Preston was then part of a joint Hunduran-American expedition into the city.

“This valley, being one of the last unexplored surfaces on earth, it turns out that it had not seen human entry in 500 years, including indigenous people.”

He says the animals had no fear of people as they’d never seen them before

“We had jaguars prowling about our tents at night… we had monkeys that were extremely curious about us that came down out of the trees.”

He says the city had been part of a great civilisation that grew up along the frontier of the Maya, but was not Mayan itself.

“We don’t have any idea where they came from, we have very little idea of how they transformed this really hostile jungle environment into a kind of Garden of Eden.”

Arriving at the city was somewhat of a disappointment as the jungle was so thick they couldn’t see what they were looking at.

“You’re standing in the Times Square of this city, with pyramids all around you, with great earthworks that’s all been levelled and paved, and the jungle is so thick that all you’re looking at are leaves.”

He says there were numerous artefacts in the city, including 500 beautiful stone sculptures which had been left at the base of one of the pyramids.

The city’s inhabitants suddenly vanished 500 years ago, likely due to illnesses brought to the shores of Honduras by Europeans.

“Measles and small pox completely destroyed this civilisation, even though they never came in contact with Europeans.”

While Preston says it was slightly tragic to bring human contact to a place that had been so isolated, it could also help preserve the city.

“The Hondurans who were with us estimated that within 10 years the illegal clear-cutting would have reached the entrance to this valley and that this ruin would have been looted.”

Because of the city’s discovery, the Honduran government has taken positive steps to stop the illegal logging, mainly because of cattle ranching in the area.

Preston says the expedition group had been told that anyone who visited the city would fall ill and die, and after they returned from their trip around two-thirds of them became sick.

“It turned out we had contracted a deadly and incurable tropical disease in the rain forest called Mucocutaneous Leishmaniasis and once again, here’s a situation where the legend has turned out to be based in the truth.”

He says all the Americans that had been on the expedition were treated by the National Institutes of Health, because they had contracted a new form of the disease, which is unfortunately very deadly.

“But we’re getting great medical care, and the disease in most of us has been beaten back.”

While Preston says it was all worth it, he’s happy to be home.

“I’m very happy to be sitting by the fire in the evening and sipping a glass of wine and not being eaten alive by bugs in the jungle.”

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