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 run rampant—but the fact that the city existed somewhere out in the jungles was widely accepted by Hondurans.
I attended a talk by Doug Preston, about his research and new book The Lost City of the Monkey God—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.
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?
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 co-author Mario Spezi] got pulled in by the police investigation, and pretty soon I was being interrogated as a suspect… it was really crazy.”
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 hotzone 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: 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, very wealthy and rich an 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 non-factual 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.”
Read the rest of the interview HERE.
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