Photo credit: Mark Adams
My book The Lost City of the Monkey God
tells the true story of the discovery of an unknown “lost city” in the jungles of Honduras. The ruins, covering a square mile in an unexplored valley in the Mosquitia mountains, were originally located in 2012 from the air
using a powerful technology called LIDAR (“light detection and ranging”), which can map terrain through even the thickest jungle canopy. The first ground expedition explored the ruins in 2015
, reaching the valley by helicopter.
The very tight landing zone for our helicopter.
Photo credit: Douglas Preston
The city had been built by a mysterious civilization that once lived along the Maya frontier. They are a people so little studied that they do not even have a formal name. While not Maya themselves, they adopted many aspects of Maya culture, including the violent and sacred Mesoamerican ball-game, before they vanished 500 years ago. At their heyday they occupied 10,000 square miles of eastern Honduras, transforming the rain forest into a garden-like environment.
The discovery was one of great significance archaeologically. But it highlighted something even more important: the absolutely vital and pressing need to preserve the rain forest that surrounds and protects these ruins. You can go to Google Earth and see the valley in which the city was found, a kidney-shaped geological formation locked in by mountains. It is embedded within a solid expanse of rain forest, perhaps 5,000 square miles in extent, which you will see is being eaten away on all sides by deforestation. This may be the largest tract of undisturbed rain forest in the New World outside of the Amazon Basin. For this reason, it is sometimes called the Little Amazon and also referred to as the “lungs of Central America.”
As you examine the satellite images, you will see a number of valleys, large and small, tucked among the mountains. These pockets are some of the last scientifically unexplored places on earth. How have they stayed that way when the rest of the earth’s surface has been penetrated, trod upon, mapped, photographed, measured, cleared, and very often destroyed? The Mosquitia rain forests are among the densest, most dangerous, and forbidding in the world. Almost impenetrable, triple-canopy jungle carpets relentless mountain chains, some close to a mile high, receiving 10 feet of rain a year, swept by floods and landslides, with precipitous ravines, roaring torrents, and pools of quickmud that can swallow a person alive. The understory is infested with deadly snakes, jaguars, and noxious insects carrying a range of tropical diseases. Honduras has one of the highest murder rates of any country in the world, and the Mosquitia region, because of its isolation, is the prime transshipment point for cocaine coming from South America to the United States. Many of the surrounding towns and countryside are ruled by drug cartels and violent gangs.
The menace and dysfunction are, ironically, what continues to protect this absolutely unique ecological zone. Perhaps the most important outcome of finding a lost city wasn’t archaeological at all: it was the sudden impetus it gave to protect the Mosquitia rain forest. The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, took a personal interest in the discovery and he ordered a full-time military unit to the site to guard it. Several weeks after the ground expedition, he helicoptered in to see the ruins firsthand. After he came out, he pledged that his government would do “whatever it takes” to protect the valley and the surrounding region. He promised to halt the illegal deforestation that was creeping toward the valley. “We Hondurans,” the president said in a speech, “have the obligation to preserve our culture and ancestral values. We must get to know and learn from the cultures that came before us; these are our ancestral fathers who enriched our nationality. For this reason my government will do whatever it takes to begin the investigation and exploration of this new archaeological discovery.” Since that time, the president has been making good on his promise, taking steps to roll back the illegal clear-cutting and allow areas to reforest.
In the heart of the lost city, everything is covered by dense jungle. Here, Chris Fisher, the expedition’s chief archaeologist, is mapping one of the central plazas of the city using a sophisticated Trimble GPS.
Photo credit: Douglas Preston
In 2016, Conservation International investigated the valley and surrounding area as a potential preservation project. The organization sent Trond Larsen, a biologist and director of CI’s Rapid Assessment Program, into T1 to determine how biologically important the valley was and whether it was worthy of special protection. CI spearheads vital conservation efforts across the globe, working with governments and others to save areas of high ecological importance. It is one of the most effective conservation organizations in the world today, having helped protect 2.8 million square miles of inland, coastal, and marine areas across 78 countries.
The Honduran military flew Larsen into the valley, where he did a five-mile transect, explored the ridges, and journeyed north and south along the unnamed river below the ruins. His interest was solely in the biology, not the archaeology. Larsen was deeply impressed by his visit. “For Central America, it is unique,” he told me, a “pristine, undisturbed forest” with “very old trees” that “has not seen a human presence in a very long time” — perhaps for as long as 500 years. He said it was a perfect habitat for jaguars, as evidenced by all the tracks and scat. It was also, he noted, an ideal habitat for many sensitive rain forest animals, especially spider monkeys. “The fact that they’re very abundant is a fantastic indicator of forest health,” he told me. “They are one of the most sensitive species of all. That is a really good sign that there has not been human presence for a while.” He shared photos he had taken of the spider monkeys with the celebrated primatologist Russell Mittermeier. Mittermeier was intrigued, because he felt the markings on these monkeys were unusually white and might indicate they are an unknown subspecies, although he cautioned he would have to observe live specimens to be sure.
This brief exploration impressed Conservation International so much that its vice chair — Harrison Ford, the actor — sent a letter to President Hernández of Honduras praising him on his preservation efforts. Ford wrote that CI had determined it was one of the “healthiest tropical forests in the Americas,” and that the valley of T1 and its surroundings were an “extraordinary, globally significant ecological and cultural treasure.”
The last photograph taken of the author, Douglas Preston, before he vanished in the jungles of Honduras never to be seen again.
Photo credit: Mark Adams
I joined the expedition into the valley in February, 2015, in the first group to helicopter in and establish a primitive camp. I have been in many wilderness areas over the world, but I had never in my life seen a place so utterly beyond human presence. Animals wandered unconcerned into our camp, giving the appearance of never having seen people before. At night, growling jaguars prowled around, along with big animals that stomped and crashed about our tents. We frequently encountered deadly fer-de-lance snakes. When I first arrived, spider monkeys gathered in the tree above my campsite, hanging by their tails, screeching and shaking branches in a rage, trying to drive me out. Some of the trees had trunks 20 feet in diameter. But what impressed me most was the jungle’s indifference. This was a hostile place, not just in the ubiquity of poisonous insects and snakes, unrelenting rain, steep terrain, and thigh-deep mud, but also in terms of disease: the valley turned out to be a hot zone of unprecedented virulence. In just nine days in the valley, two-thirds of the expedition — Hondurans, Americans, and Brits alike — fell victim to an incurable and sometimes fatal tropical disease.
One member of the 2015 expedition, the renowned ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team, has spent much of his professional life in the rain forest. He told me he had never before seen a place like the valley. “This is clearly one of the most undisturbed rain forests in Central America,” he said. “The importance of this place cannot be overestimated. Spectacular ruins, pristine wilderness — this place has it all. I’ve been walking tropical American rain forests for 30 years and I’ve never walked up to a collection of artifacts like that. And I probably won’t ever again.”
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is the author of 35 books, both fiction and nonfiction, 16 of which have been New York Times
bestsellers. Before becoming a writer he worked as an editor at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and was managing editor of Curator
magazine. His first novel, Relic
, co-authored with Lincoln Child
, launched the famed Pendergast series of novels. His recent nonfiction book, The Monster of Florence
, is in production as a film. His latest book, the true story of the discovery of a lost city in the unexplored mountains of Honduras, is entitled The Lost City of the Monkey God
. In addition to books, Preston writes about archaeology and paleontology for the New Yorker
, National Geographic
, and Smithsonian
, and he taught nonfiction writing at Princeton University. He is past president of International Thriller Writers and the founder of Authors United, and he serves on the board of the Authors Guild. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards in the U.S. and Europe, including an honorary doctor of letters degree from Pomona College.