The title of Douglas Preston’s latest work of nonfiction sounds ripped from a movie poster that advertises the next entry in one of Hollywood’s most lucrative franchises: It’s easy to envision Indiana Jones and the Lost City of the Monkey God in theaters soon.
Yet Preston’s tale is true, an adventure story of scientists who recently located an ancient ruin in Honduras. Led by Steve Elkins and with Preston as their chronicler, they penetrated a thick jungle, evaded hungry jaguars and poisonous snakes, and found a figurative El Dorado. In the aftermath, many fell sick, having contracted a deadly parasitic disease called leishmaniasis, or “white leprosy.” Their innovation and daring earned them comparisons to the famous film character.
To ordinary people, that sounds like a compliment. To many archaeologists, however, it’s complicated — and when Chris Begley of Transylvania University accused them of behaving like “children playing out a movie fantasy,” he meant it as a reproach.
When it comes to Indy, many archaeologists take a perverse pleasure in tut-tutting the rest of us: Their work is cautious and dull, they insist, with its gridded test pits and debates over stratigraphy. Its greatest glories can involve the discovery of a new coprolite. They have a point. Even the most exciting occupations, from smokejumper to Navy SEAL, have their humbling banalities.
Yet the worst of these critics are not merely earnest killjoys. Instead, they’re sanctimonious moralizers who regard Indiana Jones as a hateful imperialist — a treasure hunter who robs poor countries of their cultural heritage. Their own crime is to put politics before everything, even when it comes to a true tale of archaeological risk-taking that seems made for the movies.
The Lost City of the Monkey God is a gripping book, full of Jones-like thrills. It begins with an old legend about a vanished civilization in an unmapped rain forest where the rivers and valleys have no names. “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,” writes Preston. If they’re lucky, they’ll avoid quicksand and flash floods — and also the fer-de-lance snake, “the ultimate pit viper,” whose fangs can puncture boots and squirt venom more than six feet.
In the first half of the 20th century, several explorers searched this daunting area for a fabled city with monkey effigies, always without success. Then came Elkins, who spent years researching the rumors. In 2012, he surveyed the region from the skies with lidar, an imaging technology that uses lasers to pierce foliage and highlight features on the ground, including ancient structures that might be invisible to people who stand right in front of them. Armed with this new information, Elkins assembled his expedition, plunged into the jungle, and in 2015 found a site previously unknown.
Preston is an ideal chronicler, and The Lost City of the Monkey God may be the book he was born to write. For years, he has served as an archaeology correspondent for The New Yorker and other publications, reporting on discoveries in Cambodia and Egypt as well as controversies involving the original settlement of the Americas and the question of cannibalism among the ancient people of the American Southwest. Along the way, he also became a best-selling novelist, most notably with a series of potboilers (co-authored by Lincoln Child) that recall the work of Michael Crichton. (Over the last 20 years or so, I’ve read about a dozen of them. My favorites include Relic, Riptide, and The Ice Limit.) He understands his subject and knows how to tell a story.
Two years ago, as Elkins and his companions emerged from the jungle, Preston wrote, for the website of National Geographic, about what they had found. His article became the second-most-popular article the magazine had ever published online — and a target of ferocious criticism from academics. Petty jealousies seemed to drive much of the dispute, which included the false claim that Elkins had ignored the research of earlier archaeologists. Some writers made laughable mistakes. John Hoopes of the University of Kansas, for instance, ridiculed the size of the site: “Are the ‘lost cities’ in Honduras actually Lilliputian in scale?” he quipped. It took Juan Carlos Fernandez Diaz, a technician who worked with Elkins, to point out that Hoopes “had misread the scale bars on the lidar image by a factor of ten,” writes Preston. “What he thought was a hundred meters was actually a kilometer.”
Hoopes nevertheless joined about two dozen other scholars in signing a letter that condemned the explorers for “an offensive and dated discourse that is at odds with anthropology’s substantial efforts at inclusion and multivocality.” In other words, these brutish interlopers were nothing more than latter-day colonialists. One of the most outspoken detractors, Rosemary Joyce of UC Berkeley, accused them of “trying to live a fantasy of tomb raiders.” There it was: the old Indiana Jones putdown.
What prompted this anger? Preston made his own discovery: “I eventually learned that there were deeper reasons for the academic rhubarb.” Their true motives involved their devotion to leftist politics in Central America.
In 2009, Honduras faced a constitutional crisis. Its president was José Manuel Zelaya, who aspired to become his country’s Hugo Chávez. He announced plans to defy a law that limited him to a single term in office. The country’s attorney general, legislature, and supreme court opposed him, but Zelaya pressed ahead — and it took a military operation to remove him from power. Critics called the event a “coup d’état” even though the military quickly restored the government to civilian control.
One of the beneficiaries of Zelaya’s ouster is today’s president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández. He has visited the site that Elkins found, promising to protect it from looters and loggers — and, in the ordinary fashion of a public figure, trying to extract a political advantage from the archaeological find. The leftist Zelaya, meanwhile, remains on the outs. His professorial allies in the United States have stayed loyal.
“The protest letter was, in part, a proxy attack on the present Honduran government,” writes Preston. “Many of the letter signers have found it difficult to let go of the dispute and continue to disparage the project.” Their reasons, however, have nothing to do with science and everything to do with ideology. The hullabaloo takes up only a small portion of The Lost City of the Monkey God — but it’s instructive, offering ever more proof that in the modern academy, politics trumps all, even a fascinating archaeological investigation in a Honduran jungle.