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The Lost City of the Monkey God
A True Story
Read by Bill Mumy
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Since the days of conquistador Hernán Cortés, rumors have circulated about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in the Honduran interior, called the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of ancestors who fled there to escape the Spanish invaders, and they warn that anyone who enters this sacred city will fall ill and die. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts and an electrifying story of having found the Lost City of the Monkey God-but then committed suicide without revealing its location.
Three quarters of a century later, bestselling author Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking new quest. In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, 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, tantalizing evidence of not just an undiscovered city but an enigmatic, lost civilization.
Venturing into this raw, treacherous, but breathtakingly beautiful wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, quickmud, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and deadly snakes. But it wasn’t until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted in the ruins a horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease.
Suspenseful and shocking, filled with colorful history, hair-raising adventure, and dramatic twists of fortune, THE LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD is the absolutely true, eyewitness account of one of the great discoveries of the twenty-first century.
The Gates of Hell
Deep in Honduras, in a region called La Mosquitia, lie some of the last unexplored places on earth. 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. The area is one of the most dangerous in the world, for centuries frustrating efforts to penetrate and explore it. Even now, in the twenty-first century, hundreds of square miles of the Mosquitia rainforest remain scientifically uninvestigated.
In the heart of Mosquitia, the thickest jungle in the world carpets relentless mountain chains, some a mile high, cut by steep ravines, with lofty waterfalls and roaring torrents. Deluged with over ten feet of rain a year, the terrain is regularly swept by flash floods and landslides. It has pools of quickmud that can swallow a person alive. The understory is infested with deadly snakes, jaguars, and thickets of catclaw vines with hooked thorns that tear at flesh and clothing. In Mosquitia an experienced group of explorers, well equipped with machetes and saws, can expect to journey two to three miles in a brutal ten-hour day.
The dangers of exploring Mosquitia go beyond the natural deterrents. Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Eighty percent of the cocaine from South America destined for the United States is shipped through Honduras, most of it via Mosquitia. Drug cartels rule much of the surrounding countryside and towns. The State Department currently forbids US government personnel from traveling into Mosquitia and the surrounding state of Gracias a Dios "due to credible threat information against U.S. citizens."
This fearful isolation has wrought a curious result: For centuries, Mosquitia has been home to one of the world's most persistent and tantalizing legends. Somewhere in this impassable wilderness, it is said, lies a "lost city" built of white stone. It is called Ciudad Blanca, the "White City," also referred to as the "Lost City of the Monkey God." Some have claimed the city is Maya, while others have said an unknown and now vanished people built it thousands of years ago.
On February 15, 2015, I was in a conference room in the Hotel Papa Beto in Catacamas, Honduras, taking part in a briefing. In the following days, our team was scheduled to helicopter into an unexplored valley, known only as Target One, deep in the interior mountains of Mosquitia. The helicopter would drop us off on the banks of an unnamed river, and we would be left on our own to hack out a primitive camp in the rainforest. This would become our base as we explored what we believed to be the ruins of an unknown city. We would be the first researchers to enter that part of Mosquitia. None of us had any idea what we would actually see on the ground, shrouded in dense jungle, in a pristine wilderness that had not seen human beings in living memory.
Night had fallen over Catacamas. The expedition's logistics chief, standing at the head of the briefing room, was an ex-soldier named Andrew Wood, who went by the name of Woody. Formerly a sergeant major in the British SAS and a soldier in the Coldstream Guards, Woody was an expert in jungle warfare and survival. He opened the briefing by telling us his job was simple: to keep us alive. He had called this session to make sure we were aware of the various threats we might encounter in exploring the valley. He wanted all of us—even the expedition's nominal leaders—to understand and agree that his ex-SAS team was in charge for the days we would be in the wilderness: This was going to be a quasi-military command structure, and we would follow their orders without cavil.
It was the first time our expedition had come together in one room, a rather motley crew of scientists, photographers, film producers, and archaeologists, plus me, a writer. We all had widely varying experience in wilderness skills.
Woody went over security, speaking in his clipped, British style. We had to be careful even before we entered the jungle. Catacamas was a dangerous city, controlled by a violent drug cartel; no one was to leave the hotel without an armed military escort. We were to keep our mouths shut about what we were doing here. We were not to engage in conversation about the project within hearing of hotel staff, or leave papers lying around our rooms referring to the work, or conduct cell phone calls in public. There was a large safe available in the hotel's storage room for papers, money, maps, computers, and passports.
As for the hazards we would face in the jungle, venomous snakes were at the top of the list. The fer-de-lance, he said, is known in these parts as the barba amarilla ("yellow beard"). Herpetologists consider it the ultimate pit viper. It kills more people in the New World than any other snake. It comes out at night and is attracted to people and activity. It is aggressive, irritable, and fast. Its fangs have been observed to squirt venom for more than six feet, and they can penetrate even the thickest leather boot. Sometimes it will strike and then pursue and strike again. It often leaps upward as it strikes, hitting above the knee. The venom is deadly; if it doesn't kill you outright through a brain hemorrhage, it may very well kill you later through sepsis. If you survive, the limb that was struck often has to be amputated, due to the necrotizing nature of the poison. We were, Woody said, going into an area where choppers cannot fly at night or in weather; evacuation of a snakebite victim might be delayed for days. He told us to wear our Kevlar snake gaiters at all times, including—especially—when we got up to pee at night. He warned us always to step on top of a log, and then down; we should never put our foot down on the blind side. This was how his friend Steve Rankin, Bear Grylls's producer, was bitten when they were in Costa Rica scouting a location for a show. Even though Rankin was wearing snake gaiters, the fer-de-lance, which was hiding under the far side of the log, hit him on his boot below the protection; the fangs went through the leather like butter. "And here's what happened," Woody said, taking out his iPhone. He passed it around. It displayed a terrifying picture of Rankin's foot afterward, as it was being operated on. Even with antivenin treatment, the foot necrotized and the dead flesh had to be debrided down to tendons and bone. Rankin's foot was saved, but a piece of his thigh had to be transplanted to cover up the gaping wound.* The valley, Woody continued, appeared to be an ideal habitat for the fer-de-lance.
I snuck a glance at my compatriots: The convivial atmosphere of the group earlier in the day, beers in hand around the hotel pool, had evaporated.
Next came a lecture on the disease-bearing insects we might encounter, including mosquitoes** and sand flies, chiggers, ticks, kissing bugs (so called because they like to bite your face), scorpions, and bullet ants, whose bite equals the pain of being shot with a bullet. Perhaps the ghastliest disease endemic to Mosquitia is mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, sometimes called white leprosy, caused by the bite of an infected sand fly. The Leishmania parasite migrates to the mucous membranes of the victim's nose and lips and eats them away, eventually creating a giant weeping sore where the face used to be. He emphasized that it was important to apply DEET from head to toe on a regular basis, spray our clothing with it, and thoroughly cover up after dusk.
We heard about scorpions and spiders climbing into our boots at night, which we were to store upside down on stakes driven into the ground and shake out every morning. He spoke of vicious red ants that swarmed in the understory, and which, at the slightest tremble of a branch, would shower down like rain, getting into our hair, going down our necks, and biting like mad, injecting a toxin that would require an immediate evacuation. Look carefully, he warned, before placing your hand on any branch, stem, or tree trunk. Don't push willy-nilly through dense vegetation. In addition to hiding insects and tree-climbing snakes, many plants sport thorns and spikes that can draw blood. We should wear gloves while in the jungle, preferably the scuba kind, which do a better job preventing the entry of spines. He warned us how easy it was to get lost in the jungle, often a matter of wandering a mere ten or fifteen feet from the group. Under no circumstances would anyone, ever, be allowed to leave camp on his or her own or detach from the group while in the bush. On every trip we took from the base camp, he said, we would be required to carry a backpack with a kit of emergency supplies—food, water, clothing, DEET, flashlight, knife, matches, rain gear—under the assumption that we would get lost and be forced to spend the night sheltering under some dripping log. We were issued whistles, and as soon as we thought we might be lost, we were to stop, blow a distress signal, and wait to be fetched.
I paid attention. I really did. From the safety of the conference room it seemed clear that Woody was simply trying to scare us into line, offering an excess of caution for those expedition members inexperienced in wilderness conditions. I was one of only three people in the room who had actually flown over Target One, the exceedingly remote valley we were headed into. From the air it looked like a sun-dappled tropical paradise, not the dangerous, dank, disease- and snake-infested jungle Woody was picturing. We would be fine.
I can tell you only that it is somewhere in the Americas.
I first heard the legend of the White City in 1996, when I was on assignment from National Geographic to write a story about the ancient temples of Cambodia. NASA had recently flown a DC-10 carrying an advanced radar system over various jungle areas of the world, to determine if the radar could penetrate the foliage to reveal what lay hidden beneath. The results were analyzed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, by a team of experts in remote sensing—that is, analyzing images of the earth taken from space. After crunching the data, the team found the ruins of a previously unknown, twelfth-century temple hidden in the Cambodian jungle. I met with the team's leader, Ron Blom, to find out more.
Blom was not your stereotypical scientist: He was bearded, rugged, and fit, with aviator glasses and an Indiana Jones hat. He had gained international fame for discovering the lost city of Ubar in the Arabian Desert. When I asked Blom what other projects he was working on, he rattled off a number of missions: mapping the frankincense trade routes across the Arabian Desert, tracking the old Silk Road, and mapping Civil War sites in Virginia. He explained that by combining digitized images in different wavelengths of infrared light and radar, and then "beating up on the data" with computers, they were now able to see fifteen feet beneath desert sands, peer through jungle canopies, and even cancel out modern tracks and roads, revealing ancient trails.
Ancient trails were interesting, but I was particularly enthralled by the idea that this technology might be able to discover other lost cities like Ubar. When I asked him about that, Blom suddenly became evasive. "Let me just say we are looking at other sites."
Scientists are terrible at deception: I knew immediately he was covering up something big. I pressed further, and finally he admitted that it "could be a very major site, but I can't talk about it. I'm working for a private party. I've signed a nondisclosure agreement. It's based on legends of a lost city. I can tell you only that it's somewhere in the Americas. The legends suggested a general area, and we're using satellite data to locate targets."
"Have you found it?"
"I can't say more than that."
"Who are you working with?"
"I can't reveal that information."
Blom agreed to pass on my interest to his mysterious employer and ask him or her to call me. He couldn't promise that the person would be in touch.
Inflamed with curiosity about the possible identity of this "lost city," I called up several Central American archaeologists I knew, who offered their own speculations. David Stuart, then assistant director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program at Harvard's Peabody Museum and one of those who contributed to the decipherment of Mayan glyphs, told me: "I know that area pretty well. Some of it is almost unexplored by archaeologists. Local people were always telling me about sites they'd see while hunting out in the forest—big ruins with sculptures. Most of these stories are true; these people have no reason to lie." In Mayan texts themselves, he added, there are also tantalizing references to major cities and temples that are not correlated with any known sites. It is one of the last areas on earth where an actual pre-Columbian city could be hidden, untouched for centuries.
The Harvard Mayanist Gordon Willey (now deceased) immediately brought up the legend of the White City. "I remember when I was down in Honduras in 1970, there was talk of a place called Ciudad Blanca, the White City, back in there away from the coast. It was bar talk from the usual random bullshitters, and I thought it was probably some limestone cliffs." Nevertheless, Willey was intrigued enough to want to check it out. "But I never could get a permit to go in there." The Honduran government rarely issued archaeological permits to explore that backcountry jungle, because it is so perilous.
A week later, Blom's employer did call me. His name was Steve Elkins and he described himself as a "cinematographer, a curious man, an adventurer." He wanted to know why the hell I was interrogating Blom.
I said I wanted to do a short New Yorker piece about his search for this legendary lost city—whatever it was. He grudgingly agreed to talk, but only if I didn't identify the site or the country it was in. Off the record, he finally admitted that they were, indeed, looking for Ciudad Blanca, the White City, also known as the Lost City of the Monkey God. But he didn't want me to reveal any of this in my New Yorker piece until he'd had a chance to confirm it on the ground. "Just say it's a lost city somewhere in Central America. Don't say it's in Honduras or we're screwed."
Elkins had heard the legends, both indigenous and European, about the White City that described an advanced and wealthy city with extensive trading networks, deep in the inaccessible mountains of Mosquitia, untouched for centuries, as pristine as the day it was abandoned; it would be an archaeological discovery of enormous significance. "We thought that by using space imagery we could locate a target area and identify promising sites" for later ground exploration, Elkins explained. Blom and his team had zeroed in on an area about a mile square, which he had labeled Target One or T1 for short, where there appeared to be large man-made structures. Elkins refused to elaborate.
"I can't tell you any more, because this space-imaging data can be purchased by anybody. Anybody could do what we did and grab the credit. It could also be looted. All we have left to do is go there, which we plan to do this spring. By then," he added, "we hope we'll have something to announce to the world."*
The devil had killed him for daring to look upon this forbidden place.
Most Sacred Majesty:—… I have trustworthy reports of very extensive and rich provinces, and of powerful chiefs ruling over them… [I] ascertained that it lies eight or ten days' march from that town of Trujillo, or rather between fifty and sixty leagues. So wonderful are the reports about this particular province, that even allowing largely for exaggeration, it will exceed Mexico in riches, and equal it in the largeness of its towns and villages, the density of its population, and the policy of its inhabitants.
In the year 1526, Hernán Cortés penned this report, his famous "Fifth Letter" to the Emperor Charles V, while aboard his ship anchored in Trujillo Bay off the coast of Honduras. Historians and anthropologists believe this account, written six years after Cortés's conquest of Mexico, planted the seeds for the myth of Ciudad Blanca, the City of the Monkey God. Given that "Mexico"—i.e., the Aztec Empire—had staggering wealth and a capital city of at least 300,000 inhabitants, his assertion that the new land was even greater is remarkable. The Indians called it the Old Land of Red Earth, he wrote, and his vague description placed it somewhere in the mountains of Mosquitia.
But at the time, Cortés was embroiled in intrigue and had to fight off rebellion by his subordinates, so he never did embark on a search for the Old Land of Red Earth. The jagged mountains clearly visible from the bay may have convinced him that such a journey would be daunting. Nevertheless, his story took on a life of its own, much as tales of El Dorado persisted in South America for centuries. Twenty years after the Fifth Letter, a missionary named Cristóbal de Pedraza, who would become the first Bishop of Honduras, claimed to have traveled deep into the jungles of Mosquitia on one of his arduous missionary journeys, where he came across an astonishing sight: From a high bluff, he found himself looking down on a large and prosperous city spread out in a river valley. His Indian guide told him the nobles in that land took their meals from plates and goblets of gold. Pedraza was not interested in gold, however, and he continued on and never entered the valley. But his subsequent report to Charles V fed the legend.
For the next three hundred years, geographers and travelers told stories about ruined cities in Central America. In the 1830s, a New Yorker named John Lloyd Stephens became obsessed with finding those cities deep in the Central American rainforest, if indeed they existed. He managed to wangle a diplomatic appointment as ambassador to the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America. He arrived in Honduras in 1839, just as the republic was falling apart into violence and civil war. Amid the chaos, he saw an opportunity (albeit a dangerous one) to strike out on his own to seek out these mysterious ruins.
He brought with him a superb British artist, Frederick Catherwood, who packed a camera lucida in order to project and copy every tiny detail of whatever they might find. The two trekked for weeks through Honduras with native guides, pursuing rumors of a great city. Deep in the interior, they finally arrived at a miserable, unfriendly, mosquito-ridden village called Copán on the banks of a river near the Guatemalan border. They learned from the locals that across the river there were indeed ancient temples, inhabited only by monkeys. As they reached the riverbank, they saw on the far shore a wall of cut stone. After fording the river on muleback, they climbed a staircase and entered the city.
"We ascended by large stone steps," Stephens wrote later, "in some places perfect, and in others thrown down by trees which had grown up between the crevices, and reached a terrace, the form of which it was impossible to make out, from the density of the forest in which it was enveloped. Our guide cleared a way with his machete… and working our way through the thick woods, we came upon a square stone column… The front was the figure of a man, curiously and richly dressed, and the face, evidently a portrait, solemn, stern, and well fitted to excite terror. The back was of a different design, unlike anything we had ever seen before, and the sides were covered with hieroglyphics."
Up to this moment of discovery, the image most North Americans carried of Indians came from the hunter-gatherer tribes they had read about or encountered along the frontier. Most viewed the aboriginal inhabitants of the New World as half-naked, savage Indians who had never achieved anything approaching what was termed "civilization."
Stephens's explorations changed all that. It was an important moment in history, when the world realized that stupendous civilizations had arisen independently in the Americas. He wrote: "The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and for ever in our minds all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities… proving, like newly discovered historical records, that the people who once occupied the continent of America were not savages." The people—named the Maya—who had built this sprawling city of pyramids and temples, and who had covered their monuments with hieroglyphic writing, had created a civilization as advanced as any in Old World antiquity.
Stephens, a fine enterprising American, promptly bought the ruins of Copán for fifty dollars from the local landowner and made plans (later abandoned) to have the buildings disassembled, loaded on barges, and floated to the United States for a tourist attraction. Over the next few years, Stephens and Catherwood explored, mapped, and recorded ancient Mayan cities from Mexico to Honduras. They never did venture into Mosquitia, however, perhaps deterred by mountains and jungles far more discouraging than anything they had experienced in the Maya realm.
They published a two-volume work about their discoveries, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, packed with exciting stories of ruins, bandits, and brutal jungle travel, and lavishly illustrated with Catherwood's splendid engravings. Their book went on to become one of the biggest nonfiction bestsellers of the entire nineteenth century. Americans were thrilled by the idea that the New World had cities, temples, and colossal antiquities that rivaled those of the Old World, equal to the pyramids of Egypt and the glories of ancient Rome. The work of Stephens and Catherwood established the romance of lost cities in the American mind and introduced the notion that the jungles of Central America must hold many more secrets waiting to be revealed.
Before long, the Maya became one of the most intensively studied ancient cultures in the New World, and not just by secular scientists. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints identified the Maya as one of the lost tribes of Israel, the Lamanites, as chronicled in The Book of Mormon, published in 1830. The Lamanites left Israel and sailed to America around 600 BC; The Book of Mormon tells the story that Jesus appeared to the New World Lamanites and converted them to Christianity, and it describes many events that occurred before the coming of the Europeans.
In the twentieth century the Mormon Church sent a number of well-funded archaeologists to Mexico and Central America to try to confirm the stories through site excavations. Although this resulted in valuable, high-quality research, it also proved difficult for the scientists themselves; facing clear evidence that disproved the Mormon view of history, some of the archaeologists ended up losing their faith, and a few of those who voiced their doubts were excommunicated.
The Maya realm, which stretched from southern Mexico to Honduras, seemed to end at Copán. The vast jungled mountains east of Copán, especially in Mosquitia, were so inhospitable and dangerous that very little exploration and even less archaeology took place. Glimpses of other, non-Maya, pre-Columbian cultures were being uncovered eastward of Copán, but these vanished societies also remained elusive and poorly studied. Just how far east and south of Copán the Maya influence stretched was also difficult to ascertain. In the vacuum, tantalizing rumors grew of even greater, wealthier cities—perhaps Maya, perhaps not—hidden in those impenetrable thickets, stories that fascinated archaeologists and treasure hunters alike.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, these stories and rumors had coalesced into a single legend of a sacred and forbidden Ciudad Blanca, a rich cultural treasure yet to be found. The name probably originated with the Pech Indians (also known as the Paya) of Mosquitia; anthropologists collected stories from Pech informants of a Kaha Kamasa, a "White House" said to lie beyond a pass in the mountains at the headwaters of two rivers. Some Indians described it as a refuge where their shamans retreated to escape the invading Spaniards, never to be seen again. Others said that the Spanish did, in fact, enter the White City, but were cursed by the gods and died or vanished into the forest, lost forever. Yet other Indian stories described it as a tragic city that was struck down by a series of catastrophes; the inhabitants, seeing that the gods were angry with them, abandoned the city. Forever after, it became a forbidden place, and anyone who entered it would die of sickness or be killed by the devil. There were also American versions of the legend: Various explorers, prospectors, and early aviators spoke of glimpsing the limestone ramparts of a ruined city rising above the jungle foliage somewhere in central Mosquitia. It seems likely that all these stories—indigenous, Spanish, and American—became conflated to form the basis of the White City or Monkey God legend.
Although many explorers had traveled into the Central American rainforests in the wake of Stephens's discoveries, almost none had ventured into the daunting terrain of Mosquitia. In the 1920s, a Luxembourgian ethnologist, Eduard Conzemius, became one of the first Europeans to explore Mosquitia, traveling by dugout canoe up the Plátano River. On this trip he heard tell of "important ruins discovered by a rubber tapper 20 to 25 years ago, when he was lost in the bush between the Plátano and Paulaya rivers," Conzemius reported. "This man gave a fantastical description of what he saw there. They were the ruins of a most important city with white stone buildings similar to marble, surrounded by a large wall of the same material." But shortly after the rubber tapper reported his discovery, he disappeared. One Indian told Conzemius that "the devil had killed him for daring to look upon this forbidden place." When Conzemius tried to hire a guide to take him to the White City, the Indians feigned ignorance, fearful (he was told) that if they revealed the location they would die.
By the beginning of the 1930s, the growing legend attracted the attention of American archaeologists and major institutions, who considered it not only possible, but even likely, that the unexplored, mountainous jungles along the Maya frontier could be hiding a ruined city—or perhaps even a lost civilization.* It might be Maya or it might be something entirely new.
In the early 1930s, the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology sent a professional archaeologist to explore eastward of Copán, to see if Maya civilization extended into the rugged thickets of Mosquitia. William Duncan Strong was a scholar, a man ahead of his time: quiet, careful and meticulous in his work, averse to spectacle and publicity. He was among the first to establish that Mosquitia had been inhabited by an ancient, unknown people who were not Maya. Strong spent five months traversing Honduras in 1933, going by dugout canoe up the Río Patuca and several of its tributaries. He kept an illustrated journal, which is preserved in the Smithsonian's collections—packed with detail and many fine drawings of birds, artifacts, and landscapes.
Strong found major archaeological sites, which he carefully described and sketched in his journal, and conducted a few test excavations. Among these finds were the Floresta mounds, the ancient cities of Wankibila and Dos Quebradas, and the Brown Site. His journey was not without adventure; at one point his finger was shot off. (The exact circumstances are unclear; he may have accidentally shot it off himself.) He battled rain, insects, venomous snakes, and dense jungle.
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