Lost Civilizations

At the rate rain forests are being decimated for our lust for beef, it seems amazing that there are any unexplored regions left at all.  That’s what makes Douglas Preston’s account of visiting the fabled Ciudad Blanco, a lost Honduran city, so compelling.  Like most intelligent people, Preston is ambivalent about the discovery he chronicled.  The pristine jungle he encountered had to be cleared, at least in part, to allow for exploration of a lost civilization.  But what an adventure it was!  The danger of drug lords, a volatile government, large poisonous snakes, and ruins discovered by lidar combine in a true tale of danger and fascination.  As with Rudolf Otto’s description of the holy, this is something that fascinates and terrifies simultaneously.  And it’s controversial.

The Lost City of the Monkey God crosses several boundaries.  It discusses not only “Indiana Jones”-style archaeology, it involves one of the last unexplored places on earth.  It doesn’t sugar-coat the genocide initiated by Europeans—in fact, Preston describes some of the diseases in graphic detail—and he doesn’t excuse the guilt.  The book also addresses global warming and the possibilities of a global pandemic (the book was published in 2017).  Preston contracted Leishmaniasis while in the jungle and notes that as the globe warms up, it is making its way north.  The descriptions aren’t for the faint of heart, nor are his descriptions of the politics of treatment.  The first part of the book, describing the people and the set up of the base-camp show Preston’s chops as a thriller writer.  His encounter with a fer-de-lance had me checking the floor in the dark when I got up in the morning.

The civilization of the city, now known by the more respectable title City of the Jaguar, was unknown.  It was not Mayan.  The city was likely abandoned because of disease brought to the Americas by Europeans.  Even so, his description of the society in which the ruling classes keep their power by displaying their own sanctity that the average person doesn’t question rang true.  Societies from the beginning have used that playbook.  Convince people that the gods (or God) has revealed certain things that they (the ruling class) understand, and everyone else falls in line.  We see it even now as the messianic Trump following falls for it yet again.  This is a quick read, written much alike a thriller.  A few years ago I read Preston’s engaging Dinosaurs in the Attic.  I’m thinking now that some of his thrillers should also be on my list.


A Night at Culture

AmericanMuseumOne of the undisputed benefits of living in the greater New York City metropolitan area is the potential for culture. I know that culture exists everywhere, and that is precisely one of the points behind Douglas J. Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic. I picked this up at a used book sale because of my love of dinosaurs, but the subtitle provides more of a description: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History. Just when the first Night at the Museum movie came out, the American Museum of Natural History offered a program of nights to sleep in the museum, geared toward children. A generous family member bought us tickets and we got to sleep in the oceanarium under the giant whale dangling from the ceiling. We were allowed to explore galleries by flashlight, including the most famous collection of dinosaurs in the world. Who wouldn’t want to read about the backstory of such a museum after such an event?

As might be expected, with roots in the late nineteenth century, it was a different world in which this museum was conceived and built. Rare animals were shot to be part of exhibits, artifacts were acquired and shipped across national borders, and even world-class bird collections were bought to help an indiscrete baron avoid the humiliation of having an affair revealed by a blackmailer. Still, the religious element was clear. One of the founders for the museum, Albert Bickmore, went off in search of artifacts with his Bible tucked under his arm. Exotic places and peoples were still allowed to be called exotic, and the museum eventually became famous enough to star in a movie.

What struck me the most about this fascinating story, however, is when Preston points out that the most fragile, and valuable possession of the museum are the myths. Early ethnographers visited peoples that, even then it was already too clear would become extinct (culturally), and recorded their religious stories. This, and not the thundering Tyrannosaurus Rex, was the true purpose of the museum. Museums are about people. What we discover, what we make, and how we impact our planet. Myths, religious stories, are some of the most unique and delicate pieces of information that we can leave behind. Even materialists have beliefs. We all believe in something. Although nobody goes to a Night at the Museum to read dusty old stories, it is a source of comfort that they are there. Many of the cultures have indeed died out. Were it not for the foresight of those who could see where globalization would eventually lead, they would have been forever lost. And a world without myth is not a world worth living in.