Review for "The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story" by Douglas Preston (2017)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
If you like pulpy, Indiana Jones-ish kind of stories, then this book will probably appeal to you.
“The Lost City of the Monkey God” is about a 2015 expedition of researchers to the Mosquitia region of the Honduran rainforest, a remote, inhospitable jungle landscape where the legendary La Cuidad Blanca (or “White City”) was known to exist. The author participated first hand in the expedition, writing and documenting the story of the team.
The first third of the book is all about previous expeditions to the area and why the White City has remained undiscovered for so long. This section is not very interesting and reads like a textbook. I can understand why it’s included here, but I skimmed through most of this. It gets more interesting in the middle portion, which is about the expedition itself, including finding the White City and the team’s handling of the numerous dangers of the region (poisonous snakes, mosquitoes, dangerous drug cartels, etc). The last section of the book is about leishmaniasis, a face-eating parasitic disease that Preston and several of the members of the team contracted while in the jungle. It’s really gross, but I guess it makes great fodder for those who believe that curses follow ancient things and the people who disturb them. Oooh.
Since this expedition has been made public, there’s been extensive debate among scientists and archaeologists over whether or not the discovery made by this team is actually the legendary White City or not. First, the very existence of a “White City” is a myth–and one that’s been debunked by scientists. Second, there are many locations already marked on maps of the region as having archaeological ruins. How do we know that this is one is the fabled White City? Third, there were no actual archaeologists on the team making this ‘discovery,’ though it is mentioned that they “worked with” them. Well ok. Fourth, most of the team’s claims of finding the White City go back to images they discovered on LiDAR (a remote sensor that surveys the land with lasers). While no one is debating that there is indeed Something in the area resembling ancient architecture–is this Something really a new discovery? Is it really the legendary “White City”? For all we know, this could be a known (and previously) excavated site.
Preston does address some of these arguments here, but I don’t think his critique goes deep enough. He makes it plain that this is his story and he’s sticking to it. Given the shouts of foul from the scientific community, however, you have to ask what this book’s real knowledge contribution is. Even after reading this, I’m not sure. Whatever it’s trying to tell me, I’m not convinced either.
There’s some really cool venom-spitting snake stories in here though. Three stars.