I recently finished the book The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston. It wasn’t incredible. But it was definitely interesting and enjoyable, especially if you’re at all interested in Mesoamerican archeology, real-world adventures, lost cities, and the like.
The short version of this book is that they found one (probably several) lost cities in the deep Honduran jungle, that hadn’t been visited even by locals in probably hundreds of years, possibly since the conquistadors. There were legends of a “White City” and “City of the Monkey God” but nobody had ever penetrated deep enough into the jungle to find it. Even the locals didn’t go there because of curses, which turned out to be true since sandflies in the area cary a rare form of the desease “Leishmaniasis” that can eat your face away!
They found several very large cities that probably overlapped the Mayan classic period and went until the conquistadors arrived. But interestingly, they’re not Mayan. They interacted with the the Mayans, but were a different culture and society altogether. Very little is known about them at this point, but slowly it’s being excavated (and likely looted) and more is being learned. If you’re interested, here’s an article by the author of the book that covers basically the contents of one chapter late in the book.
Now, before I proceed, let me clearly say: I’m very open to either a North American OR Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon. I think those are the two best candidates and there’s a lot of fascinating things we can surmise in the Book of Mormon, based on both of those settings. This is not an argument for a Mesoamerican setting. Some of my friends, family, and online acquaintances are convinced of one or the other and have a really hard time accepting that I’m quite okay with both. They think they have to convince me, or I’m going to lose my testimony or something. I guess I should tease them more about being too closed-minded. ?
Book of Mormon Ties
Toward the beginning of the book, the author gives a quick synopsis of Mormon beliefs regarding Native Americans and how the “church” sent scholars to Mesoamerica to prove the Book of Mormon’s authenticity. Like many things written by people with little or no direct experience with the church, it’s pretty inaccurate and not worth reading much in to. Especially since he clearly didn’t research the matter or try to understand current perspectives.
The first unintended, potential Book of Mormon theme was the snakes. The Fer-de-lance snake is the most deadly in the Western Hemisphere, and I’d never heard of it before! Apparently there are tons of them in that area and they’re hyper-aggressive. Where most poisonous snakes prefer to be left alone, the Fer-de-lance is more than happy to bite you if you get too close to it. They’re so venomous that people who survive a bite, almost always lose the leg or arm that was bitten. I’ve always wondered about that passage in Ether 9:31–33:
31 And there came forth poisonous serpents also upon the face of the land, and did poison many people. And it came to pass that their flocks began to flee before the poisonous serpents, towards the land southward, which was called by the Nephites Zarahemla.
32 And it came to pass that there were many of them which did perish by the way; nevertheless, there were some which fled into the land southward.
33 And it came to pass that the Lord did cause the serpents that they should pursue them no more, but that they should hedge up the way that the people could not pass, that whoso should attempt to pass might fall by the poisonous serpents.
I thought, “how could snakes be so bad that they drive the animals and people out? Just kill them!” Now I understand that if the Fer-de-lance moves into your area in large numbers, you usually just move on. They win, and will prevent people from going to that area even today. Suddenly those scriptures seemed much more real and convincing. Though obviously they can be killed and later (likely when the snake population had dwindled some as a result of all their prey leaving) king Lib was able to destroy them (Ether 10:19). This was a major factor in why these cities were still untouched: between the snakes and the disease, people just didn’t go into this deep part of the Honduran jungle.
Mayan Language Structures
The second part that really struck me was a quote from a Mayan text about the plague brought by the Spanish (though they didn’t know that’s where it came from when this was written). It’s from a text called “Annals of the Cakchiquels” and was written in a Mayan dialect by two Mayans from 1571-1604, after the Conquistadors had visited. One part is quoted in The Lost City to describe the destruction to the Mayans, caused by the diseases brought by the Conquistadors.
It starts with the translated words: “It happened that during the 25th year….” This sounds like a different way to translate the main way that the Book of Mormon records dates. For example: “And it came to pass that the twenty and second year of the reign of the judges…” (Alma 50:24). Then throughout the passage, it repeatedly says “Oh my sons” as a sort of transition or emphasis. That mirrors what Lehi, Alma, Helaman, and Mormon all say at least 17 times in the Book of Mormon when speaking or writing to their sons. And it’s similar to how Mormon laments the destruction of his people, saying: “O ye fair ones” (Mormon 6:17,19). You can read an 1885 translation of this text on Project Gutenberg.
As a side note (because it fascinates me): there really are “crystal skulls.” I thought they were only those fabricated skulls made by scam artists that most people think of when someone says “crystal skull.” Those are the ones that influenced Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.
But it turns out that the fabricators of those skulls, might have been influenced by real skulls that are coated in calcite. They were found in Mesoamerica in a place called “The Cave of the Glowing Skulls“. They’re not Mayan and may be the ancestors of the people in the recently discovered “white city.” If I understood right the cave drips on them or water runs through the cave, forming a layer of crystal and preserving the bones as the cave “grows” just like it grows stalactites and stalagmites. Preserved bones of this sort are very rare in Mesoamerica because most stuff decomposes completely and fairly rapidly, due to the wet jungle climate. See the featured image on this post for an image of them being examined and documented.
Image credit: UToledo.edu.