CSI Interviews Douglas Preston on The Lost City of the Monkey God
March 7, 2017
For centuries, rumors circulated about an ancient lost city—not Atlantis but a “White City” of immense wealth hidden in the Honduran jungles of Central America. Myths of treasure and every imaginable curse ran rampant—but the fact that the city existed somewhere out in the jungles was widely accepted by Hondurans. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the jungle with hundreds of artifacts and tantalizing stories of having seen the crumbling walls of the Lost City of the Monkey God for himself. Soon after, he committed suicide without revealing its mysterious location.
Seventy-five years later, writer Douglas Preston climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying a machine that would change everything: an expensive laser technology on loan from NASA that could map the terrain under the dense rainforest canopy to a resolution within three feet. That flight revealed for the first time an unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalizing proof of not just the mythical city but an entire lost civilization—contemporaries of, but distinct from, the Mayans. Preston worked as a writer and editor for the American Museum of Natural History and has written for The New Yorker, Natural History, National Geographic, Harper's, Smithsonian, and The Atlantic. The author of several acclaimed nonfiction books—including the bestseller The Monster of Florence—Preston is also the coauthor with Lincoln Child of the bestselling series of novels.
THE LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD: A True Story was published by Grand Central Publishing and is available in hardcover (978-1455540006, $28).
I attended a talk by Preston about his research and new book—at Albuquerque’s historic KiMo theater, whose resident ghost I investigated and debunked several years ago (as described in the first chapter of my book Mysterious New Mexico)—and followed up with a telephone interview, excerpted here.
Benjamin Radford: You seem to have a knack for finding yourself in the middle of fascinating mysteries and real-life adventures, between the deadly jungles of The Lost City and The Monster of Florence, where you’re tangling with a serial killer. Most writers lead a fairly sedentary life—why are you different?
Douglas Preston: Well I think it’s probably a little bit of stupidity there [laughing]. I find myself falling into my own stories: like with The Monster of Florence, I started off thinking I was writing a story about these long-ago crimes in Florence, these serial killings, but all of a sudden we [Preston and his coauthor Mario Spezi] got pulled in by the police investigation, and pretty soon I was being interrogated as a suspect... it was really crazy.
Radford: I’ve read The Monster of Florence; it’s a remarkable story.
Preston: Oh yes. And here with the Lost City, I’d been following this guy, Steve Elkins, who’s been looking for this lost city for twenty years. To be honest with you, I’m thinking he’s not going to find anything; he’s crazy. But he’d been doing a lot of research, he had some very good evidence for it, and I just stuck with it, and then boom—he actually found it! That really stunned me, I couldn’t believe it... It was just an incredible thing that you could actually find a lost city in the twenty-first century somewhere on the surface of the earth.
Radford: As you talk about in the book, finding the Lost City came at a great cost, both in terms of the expedition, your health, and other factors. Can you talk about what went into finding it?
Preston: The legend of the Lost City did talk about the city being cursed, that all who went in there would become sick and die, and so forth. And of course I completely dismissed those legends. Well it turns out that part of the legend is kind of based on the truth, and that is that the valley is a hot zone of disease, and two-thirds of the expedition came down with this really serious tropical disease called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis. It’s incurable, I’ll have it for the rest of my life, and it’s really quite an awful disease. But I’m getting excellent treatment.
Radford: And what about the difficulty of finding the location in the first place? It’s a very remote area of Central American jungle, very forbidding terrain.
Preston: It was very expensive; it cost millions of dollars to find the city. Super-high technology was used in the initial flyover of these unexplored valleys, using a technology called LIDAR [Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances to the Earth], and then getting into the valley [to manually verify the readings] was only possible with helicopters—you couldn’t go on the ground, these mountains are impassable, the jungle is just too thick. So there was a lot of expense in it, and the human cost in illness was pretty catastrophic. I mean, a number of people got sick, some people died; it was really damaging for some people... But at the same time nothing great is really ever accomplished without sacrifice and without risk. Everyone who came into the project knew it was in one of the most dangerous areas of the entire world, and yet we all wanted to do it. So I don’t have any regrets myself... I’d do it again even if it meant getting leishmaniasis again.
Radford: Speaking about personal risk, I understand there are soldiers at the site there right now guarding against potential looters. And their lives are at risk just being there. Do you think whatever information about the Lost City and its inhabitants we can glean from the ruins will be worth the blood and treasure it takes to get it—especially in a poor country? Six million dollars is a lot of money anywhere, and especially in Honduras.
Preston: Well, that’s right... a lot of expense went into it. Most of the money came from outside Honduras, and a lot of it was spent in the country so it’s probably a net gain financially for Honduras. But it’s also very important on a spiritual and cultural level; the people who built this great prehistoric civilization are the ancestors of present-day Hondurans and it’s really important to know your history and understand it in order to know where you are today. The Spanish history of Honduras is very well known, but the native or American history is not well known, in fact it’s a huge mystery... So in that regard I think it’s very important for Honduras, I know it’s been a huge story there. The president of Honduras loved it and took a great interest in it; he helicoptered out to the site several times and brought out some of the first artifacts. So it’s been very important to Honduras to get in touch with their pre-Columbian history.
Radford: You talk about some of the myths and legends surrounding the city; where did they come from?
Preston: These legends and stories really date back about 500 years to the time of Cortez. He wrote a famous letter in 1526 while he was in Honduras to the emperor Charles V and reported that he’d heard very reliable information of a wonderful and rich civilization in the interior of Honduras, a very wealthy and rich advanced culture, and ever since then there have been legends and stories about this lost city, sometimes called the White City, Ciudad Blanca, sometimes called the Lost City of the Monkey God, somewhere in these mountains. A number of people have looked for it, and some have actually died in the search...Like most legends, it’s based on the truth; it’s based on the fact that there was a great civilization in this area that actually built more than one city.
Radford: Let me touch on some of the challenges to writers and science popularizers when reporting a story such as this. There’s always a tension between wanting to communicate complex ideas in science, anthropology, archaeology, and so on to the public, but not overly sensationalize them. You touch on that in your book, expressing a bit of reluctance about calling it a “lost city” in the vein of Indiana Jones, but in the end you have to get people’s attention.
Preston: Well, this is something that you as a science journalist know about very well... As you mentioned, you have to strike a balance between writing a heavy and scientific tome, which nobody will read except scientists, or going too much in the other direction and writing something that’s so frivolous and nonfactual that you’ve really done a very great disservice to the science. I try to occupy the middle ground. Everything in the book is accurate, nothing is made up, everything has been very carefully vetted—but it is exciting, this is a sensational discovery.... As for using language like the “lost city,” well it is a city and it is lost! I know some archaeologists have said, “Oh, that’s just Indiana Jones hype” but in fact it isn’t hype. It is actually real and it is quite exciting, and I want to convey that excitement to the reader without burdening them with a lot of scientific jargon.
Radford: And I think you’ve done that very well. In your book—which I’m still reading—you strike a good balance between giving the readers important background information, but also, refreshingly, touching on the logistical, political, and other considerations. There’s a lot more that went into it than just stumbling on a lost city.
My time almost up, I had one final question for Preston: Having spent time in Honduras, as I recall there are three Honduran beers: Salva Vida, Imperial, and Port Royal. Which is your favorite?
Preston: Port Royal.
Radford: You’re a Port Royal man?
Preston: Let me tell you, after I came out of the jungle, sitting by the pool drinking a frosty Port Royal, I think that was the best beer I’d ever tasted.