Did You Even Talk to the Locals?

A Review of Douglas Preston’s “The Lost City of the Monkey God”

Peter Stanton
21 min readDec 25, 2023

I did not want to read this book. Everything about it smelled fishy. The title sounded sensationalist, the back of the book sounded sensationalist, and I usually try not to read sensationalized accounts of archaeological expeditions.

However, I was out of my own reading material, I had another day and a half of relaxation left in my vacation in Iceland, (plus a 7-hour flight back to the US), and The Lost City of the Monkey God seemed like the most interesting of the books my wife had brought on our trip.

So, I read it.

Douglas Preston’s “The Lost City of the Monkey God”

The Lost City of the Monkey God, published in 2017, was written by the American fiction author and journalist Douglas Preston. It describes the history of the remote rainforest region of Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, legends surrounding the civilization that existed in the area, and the efforts of various explorers, adventurers, and archaeologists to find a supposed “lost city” there. Preston then details the more recent efforts in the 2010s that he was a part of, which did locate two major archaeological sites.

There is plenty of history, archaeology, and other information in The Lost City of the Monkey God that I found to be interesting. I did not regret reading the book; it was a good use of my time as I finished my vacation.

However, I was also correct that the book was fishy. Preston may have written a book that includes interesting and important information, but he framed his book in a sensationalist, narrow way that was more focused on appealing to readers than on telling a fair and complete story.

To put it in the strongest terms I can, The Lost City of the Monkey God is a shockingly contemporary example of Indigenous erasure, and it takes a deeply unserious approach to academic scholarship. The book highlights a cavalcade of white American and European fraudsters and failures, finding it vital to share minutiae from these men’s lives, all while refusing to explain even the most basic of facts about the people actually living on the land these white men so bravely dared to “explore.” The author pays lip service to academic literature and criticism, all while doing nothing to engage with its substance.

In the end, I was left with one question that I most wanted to ask Douglas Preston: “Did you even talk to the locals?”

Indigenous Erasure

Although Central and South America have never been big interest areas for me, I find the history of the Mosquito Coast fascinating. The Miskito or Miskitu Indigenous people who controlled the area resisted Spanish control for centuries during the early modern period, and they allied with the British to maintain their independence. That’s just about my favorite type of history to learn about, and I am writing about similar history in my book about the Tlingit nation that I’m still working on.

Unfortunately for me, The Lost City of the Monkey God is not about the Miskito nation or the history of the Mosquito Coast, most of which lies in Nicaragua. Instead, it focuses on the northernmost portion of the Mosquito Coast that makes up the easternmost corner of Honduras, otherwise known as Mosquitia. And, Preston’s focus is on finding archaeological evidence of the people who lived in the area a thousand years ago or more, not illuminating early modern Indigenous resistance to colonialism. Nonetheless, there is plenty of Indigenous history in pre-modern Honduran Mosquitia that I and many readers would find interesting.

map of the Mosquitia/Moskitia rainforest areas in northern Nicaragua and eastern Honduras (source)

Here’s the problem: Even in writing a book about expeditions to find and dig up Indigenous artifacts, Preston doesn’t care too much about sharing genuine Indigenous history with his readers. He seems far more insterested in the stories of those people—largely white and largely American—who made efforts to “discover” Indigenous history in Mosquitia than he is interested in the Indigenous history itself.

Allow me to explain how this realization progressed as I read the book:

It takes until page 32 (in Chapter 5) for the first Indigenous person (or Honduran of any background) to be mentioned by name in the book. This man, named as “Timoteteo, Rosales — one-eyed rubber cutter” isn’t even written about by Preston himself, but is mentioned in a quoted entry from a white explorer’s journal.

It takes until page 53 (Chapter 7) for Preston to include any discussion of Honduran history in his book. Even when Preston discusses what he calls the “dark colonialist legacy” left by American fruit magnates on Honduras, Hondurans still are not treated as main characters in their own history. The only named Honduran in the chapter is President Manuel Bonilla, and he is presented as merely a pawn of American businessman Samuel Zemurray.

There are many different individual “characters” featured throughout the book, and many of the white and other non-Indigenous people Preston writes about get their own mini-biographies describing their backgrounds for a paragraph or two. You learn about their personalities, educational backgrounds, careers, fun facts from their lives, and so on. Throughout the entire book, the only Honduran I noticed who got one of these descriptions was Virgilio Paredes, head of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History. No Indigenous person local to the area of the “lost city” was given any sort of mini-biography.

When Preston transitioned from sharing the stories of historical adventurers trying to find the legendary “lost city” of Honduran Mosquitia to the more recent efforts he was involved in personally, I figured that might be an opportunity for more local Indigenous perspectives to be highlighted in the book. After all, Preston explains that the support of the Honduran government was critical for these efforts, and there were Hondurans, Honduran-Americans, and other Latin Americans who were part of the expedition that Preston joined.

However, just about the only Indigenous people of the area who feature in Preston’s story are the soldiers sent by the Honduran government to accompany the expedition. Although Preston praises the soldiers’ skills and knowledge of the dangerous rainforest environment, the local men he lived with in camp for days remain unnamed. Even if the men wanted to or were supposed to remain anonymous, which I doubt, they aren’t even given pseudonyms to help personify them.

It takes until the expedition has already been at the archaeological site for a few days before the only anthropologist in the group, Alicia González, gets local information from these soldiers who grew up in the area. Unsurprisingly, it turns out they are able to provide the expedition with a number of helpful insights and observations at the site. González also visited the closest Indigenous community, Wampusirpi, and heard from an unnamed “man in his eighties” about his understanding of the recent history of the site. It seems Preston didn’t visit the community himself; he must have been too busy talking with the other Americans in camp.

Wampusirpi in eastern Honduras—the local Indigenous community that Preston apparently didn’t visit

The fact that Preston cites no firsthand information from the soldiers or the local elder, and does not name any of them, indicates to me he must have made little to no effort to talk to them, or even to get more details from the people like González who did talk to them. Or, if he did in fact get more details, he didn’t find it important to include these details in his book.

I have to wonder: Is it possible Preston went on this expedition to Honduras and wrote The Lost City of the Monkey God while speaking little to no Spanish? Even still, he could have used a translator and featured the real perspectives and insights of local people. Instead, it seems he continued to prioritize the spectacle of “discovery” made by an expedition largely funded and staffed by white Americans.

Some of the individuals whose views Preston chooses to highlight instead of the locals are British members of the expedition who are ex-members of the SAS (British special forces) brought along to ensure the group’s safety. Speaking about the local Honduran soldiers, one of these men says “I know soldiers,” and states he believes it will be the soldiers, not outside groups like narcotraffickers, who will be most likely to loot the archaeological site after its discovery by the expedition.

Preston provides no immediate follow-up to this claim with evidence that confirms or denies it, resulting in a slanderous implication against the Indigenous soldiers that goes unanswered. Only much, much later in the book does Preston state that the British man’s prediction did not come true. No looting had taken place after the long term stationing of local Honduran soldiers at the site.

a photo taken by one of the expedition members of soldiers who Preston didn’t name, didn’t seem to talk to, and was fine with leaving implicated as potential looters (source)

Chapter 19, which has the tagline “These are our ancestral fathers” gave me real hope Preston would seriously engage with local Indigenous perspectives on the archaeological site and its history, if only for one chapter. My hopes were dashed when I found out the tagline was merely a quote from the Honduran president promoting the importance of the find. The official government statements are discussed—presumably because they approved of and promoted the expedition—but no local perspectives are featured.

The name officially given to the site by the Honduran government, by the way, is la Ciudad del Jaguar (the City of the Jaguar), not “the City of the Monkey God.” There are criticisms of both names, but especially “the City of the Monkey God,” because that name comes from sensationalized stories spread by an American expedition in the 1930s, and not any authentic local knowledge. For his title, however, Preston didn’t follow the official name chosen by Honduran government, but a name that sounded just a little more exotic and mysterious.

It takes until page 199 (two thirds of the way through the book) for Preston to spend any time discussing the probable culture of the people who built the City of the Jaguar. To me, this is the most important and most interesting part of the story, but clearly wasn’t the priority in the story Preston wanted to tell. In the chronology of Preston’s book, the history starts with the white men who wanted to find the “lost city,” and the people who built the site only become worth speculating on once the site has been “discovered” by his expedition.

As far as I could tell, there is just about one quote in the entire book that comes from an Indigenous person. It’s from Francisco Hernández Arana Xajilá in his Annals of the Cakchiquels, and he was a Maya writer, not someone Indigenous to the immediate area of Mosquitia. And, what’s more—this lone Indigenous voice heard in all of Preston’s story? It comes in the very last chapter.

I will note that Preston does make an impassioned plea for a few paragraphs in the last chapter for the reader to empathize with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas because of how their lives and societies were devastated by disease as well as the attacks of Europeans. He calls the Great Dying in the Americas “the greatest catastrophe ever to befall the human species,” and twice in the book refers to it as genocide.

Despite these sympathetic sentiments closing out the book, I will stand by my statement that The Lost City of the Monkey God is a shocking example of Indigenous erasure. Call me naïve, but I find it astonishing that a book published in 2017, named for and seemingly focused on a city built by Indigenous people, located on Indigenous land and surrounded by contemporary Indigenous communities, could so thoroughly and completely ignore those Indigenous people and their perspectives.

It doesn’t actually matter that much how sympathetic Douglas Preston is to the Indigenous people of Mosquitia, past or present. What matters more is whether they are actually part of the story he tells—and they aren’t. They are so tangential to Preston’s story that they don’t need to be mentioned at all throughout the start of the book, or in the vast majority of the chapters. They don’t need to be named, quoted, interviewed, visited, or consulted.

And, the repeated claim of the book is that the City of the Jaguar was “lost,” even though local people knew it was there all along.

That looks like the very definition of Indigenous erasure, and it got published in 2017.

Academic Unseriousness

The second part of what made The Lost City of the Monkey God so disappointing was how sensationalist and academically unserious it is.

I’d never heard of Douglas Preston before reading this book, but I think it’s telling that he is apparently better known for writing fiction than nonfiction. The full title of the book is The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story. If those last three words had to be added as a tagline, it doesn’t inspire confidence.

Even if he writes more fiction than nonfiction, I have no problem with calling Preston a journalist. I understand he’s written nonfiction articles for prestigious outlets for decades—probably for longer than I’ve been alive. Still, I get a little exasperated with journalists writing books about history, anthropology, archaeology, and other academic subjects.

Yes, journalists tend to be—or should be—effective writers. In theory, a journalist should be able to report on any kind of story. However, as a general rule, journalists have no inherent expertise. They may have some background that leads them to become interested in the subject, but they may only spend a year or two, maybe even less, doing all the research and work they need to write a book for a mass audience.

Compared to academics, it seems to me that journalists tend not to truly struggle with the subjects that they write about. Or, if there was a struggle, it was probably quite brief, since a deep and prolonged struggle would probably doom the prospect of publishing their book in a timely manner. As a result, I find journalists are highly susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect, and their books about academic subjects exhibit a lot of misplaced confidence. Personally, I would much rather read an academic’s deeply-informed doubts than a journalist’s overly-confident pronouncements.

Of course, there are journalists who spend decades and entire careers covering a single topic. I have the utmost respect for these professionals, and I’m not talking about them. The people I find much more suspicious are those who flit from topic to topic on a whim.

Although it took years for Preston to follow the story of The Lost City of the Monkey God as it developed, he was clearly working on many other projects. In the years 2012–2015, stretching from the 2012 LIDAR survey that set the events of the book in motion to the 2015 expedition that forms the central piece of action, Preston published no less than twelve books—ten fiction and two non-fiction. Yes, that’s twelve books published in four years. Granted, Preston was a co-author for many of these books, but his prolificacy is striking.

There was a bit of a slowdown in Preston’s publishing from 2015 to 2017, perhaps indicating that The Lost City of the Monkey God required some serious effort, but he still managed to get two more novels published during that same time.

Ultimately though, I don’t need to speculate about the seriousness of Preston’s career as a writer of nonfiction. I don’t know his writing habits or research process. Instead, I should focus on what is and isn’t included in his text.

For a book about an archaeological discovery, it’s downright shocking how little evidence there is in The Lost City of the Monkey God that the author engaged with the scholarly literature about the site. Preston describes an interview he conducted with one archaeologist who sharply criticized the methods of his expedition, and in response he offered only mild protest and excuses. Later in the book, he bluntly disagrees with criticisms from other archaeologists, saying it is “false” that the expedition members hadn’t done their research. Preston also said he had “extensively” quoted the relevant academic literature in a previous article. It’s all the more confusing to me, then, if he did such extensive research for previous writing, that such research hardly appears in his book.

Throughout the book, Preston uses language again and again that implies or states outright that no human being would have touched the City of the Jaguar archaeological site for centuries. Then, on page 178, Preston momentarily admits that the expedition found banana trees — a species from Asia that arrived through the Columbian Exchange—in the area. Preston calls these banana trees “the only sign we ever saw of post-Conquest habitation.” And yet, it’s an indisputable sign that completely undermines Preston’s central narrative, that his expedition had “discovered” a “terra incognita”—a “lost” city that no one knew about.

Preston acknowledges that his coverage of the expedition’s findings was criticized by archaeologists at the time who said the expedition had made, in their words, “false claims of discovery,” and, as summarized by Preston, “had disrespected [I]ndigenous people by failing to recognize that they already knew of the site.” Curiously, though, Preston doesn’t explicitly say that the archaeologists were criticizing his writing, but rather “the stories published in National Geographic and the New Yorker.” As the journalist covering the expedition, Preston wrote both of these stories! It’s curious that he distances himself from being the central actor involved in this controversy, perhaps to give himself more of an air of objectivity, as if he didn’t take anything personally.

Preston claims that he agrees with “most” of the arguments around the terminology of “discovery” and use of words like “lost.” But then he claims, “It poses a challenge for those of us writing about archaeology for a lay audience,” because you can’t avoid those words “without tying the English language up in knots.”

It is absolutely absurd that Preston would acknowledge these arguments and claim he mostly agrees with them, only then to ignore them throughout his entire book. It is actually quite simple to avoid this problem using simple words in English:

Local people clearly visited and knew about the site, so it was not ‘lost’ to them.

That’s it. That’s the kind of sentence Preston needed to write, which I think successfully avoids “tying the English language up in knots.” Instead, he wholeheartedly embraces calling the site “lost,” from the title of the book onward.

Preston briefly mentions a university talk called “The Lost City That Isn’t” that was given about the narratives being shared about the site, but he doesn’t share any of the substance of the arguments from that talk and doesn’t engage with them. Nor again does he acknowledge how much of the writing that created the narratives being critiqued was his own.

Even if, as Preston alleges, much of the academic criticism that immediately followed the expedition lacked a strong foundation, or was based more on semantics and politics than true academic disagreement, I can’t help seeing where the academic critics were coming from. Preston’s writing about the expedition is so distant from the careful language academics would use, I think it’s pretty easy to understand why people would perceive the expedition as a gang of irresponsible adventurers, even if that wasn’t the full picture.

And, as much as people love to dismiss conversations about semantics, it remains true that the language we use is important, and shapes the way we think. Even if an author writes a sentence explaining how a certain term isn’t really accurate, if that’s the term they use again and again in their writing, that’s the idea that will stick with the reader.

The use of the term “post-Conquest” is a good example of how Preston insists on using “popular” or widely-recognized language, even if it directly contradicts historical reality. Preston openly acknowledges at one point in the book that “the Spanish never conquered” Mosquitia. But, his continual use of the term “post-Conquest” to refer to the last 500 years of history only serves to reinforce the false idea that the Spanish conquistadors instantaneously conquered all of Central America in the early 1500s. It’s arguable that Mosquitia has still never entered a “post-Conquest” era since it was never conquered by the Spanish, and, as Preston describes, it isn’t even fully controlled by the Honduran government today.

Nearing the end of the book, Preston acknowledges that a group of Indigenous leaders in Honduras criticized the government’s excavations and referred to the widespread use of the name “Monkey God” as “denigrating, discriminatory, and racist.” Preston doesn’t respond to this particular charge, but follows up by stating that the Miskito people’s “roots” are not in the area of the site, and they are not the same as the Pech and Tawahka people, “who are believed to be the actual descendants of the ancient people of Mosquitia.”

It’s quite telling that, instead of reckoning with the argument that the sensationalist talk of a “Monkey God” engaged in by him and others is racist, Preston only seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the Indigenous leaders, because they’re not the “actual descendants” of the people who built the site.

It would have been wonderful if Preston had actually written more about the “actual descendants” of the people who built the City of the Jaguar. I would have loved to read so much more about the Pech and Tawahka, their history and culture, and the connections that can be drawn between the City of the Jaguar and present Pech and Tawahka communities. But Preston didn’t write about that. The “Pech Indians” only have three entries in the index—the same number as UC Berkeley. Remember—this is the nation that probably built the city the book is named for.

Douglas Preston, a highly successful author and probably perfectly decent man who nonetheless seems unable to respond directly to serious academic criticism of his writing (source)

There are a few other things that jumped out at me as indicators that Preston didn’t take his research seriously:

Preston casually refers to how “humans first walked into the Americas fifteen to twenty thousand years ago.” He then blithely adds an asterisk, stating in a footnote that this claim is “much disputed.” If Preston knows his statement is “much disputed,” why did he write it in his text as if it’s a fact? There is plentiful evidence that puts both parts of his sentence in doubt—both the timing and the walking. Preston didn’t have to write it. Or, he could have just added the word “possibly” to his sentence and moved on. But he didn’t. It seems he felt he had to state it as a fact.

Preston also takes the time to cite Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, including a lengthy block quote, which helps demonstrate how disconnected he must be from serious archaeological and anthropological circles. He mentions critique of Diamond’s conclusions, but doesn’t name the authors of those critiques or engage with their substance. He later cites Diamond yet again with his book Guns, Germs, and Steel. If Preston cared what anthropologists thought about him, he wouldn’t be citing Diamond so earnestly. Jared Diamond’s sensationalist books are popular, but they’re also roundly critcized by scholars as making major simplifications and mischaracterizations.

Again and again, it seems Preston isn’t interested in sharing careful scholarship with his readers, in responding to criticism with serious arguments, or even in admitting that some ideas are uncertain. Instead, he’s more interested in making references to what his audience would deem to be common, familiar knowledge—things they can connect with to feel good as they read. Sure—his readers all know that “humans first walked into the Americas fifteen to twenty thousand years ago.” That sounds familiar! That’s what they were taught in school! And yeah—his readers have probably heard of Jared Diamond. He’s a famous scholar! He wrote that book Guns, Germs, and Steel!

I never expected The Lost City of the Monkey God to be an academic book. It’s clearly not, and not every book needs to be. However, if Preston had a goal of sharing archaeological knowledge with the general public through his book, he should have put a lot more time, care, and effort into that job. Instead, his shallow and flippant mentions of academic scholarship and criticism are utterly incomplete and unserious.


If The Lost City of the Monkey God was written by a student in one of my Advanced Placement history classes… Well, first I would congratulate them for becoming an accomplished author.

But, if I was grading the book like I grade an AP essay, the biggest question I would ask my student would be:

“What’s your thesis? What is the central argument you are trying to make?”

As far as I can tell, Douglas Preston doesn’t have one. There is no real argument he is making in his book, whether its about the best methods for advancing archaeological knowledge, the meaning this archaeological site should hold for the people of Honduras, or anything else. Instead, Preston is merely interested in telling a story—or rather, a string of loosely-connected stories—and tossing a variety of interesting facts and details into his story to keep his readers entertained.

The book is essentially nonfiction junk food. In reading it, I digested some stories about past adventurers, a recent semi-scholarly archaeological expedition, and a few bits of sugary tidbits of history and science in between. I don’t know if there were any ideas shared that were supposed to challenge me, that I could agree or disagree with. Where was the protein to help my brain work?

I haven’t even mentioned yet the long tangent in the book about leishmaniasis, the parasitic disease Preston and other expedition members contracted. Summaries of the book seemed to promise that the mystery surrounding the diagnosis of this disease would tie in somehow with the story of the archaeological site. It didn’t. The remote rainforest happens to have these parasites, and members of the expedition were infected. Many readers may have found the discussion of the disease interesting, but again, that information did not connect with any central argument in the book. Preston’s long digression seemed to have no point.

Except, I suppose, by writing about tropical diseases, Douglas Preston was able to mention the book The Hot Zone, written by his brother, Richard Preston. Douglas doesn’t mention in the text that Richard is his brother, continuing his pattern of distancing himself from the things he mentions in his book, even when there’s a clear personal connection. It turns out that The Hot Zone was also criticized for sensationalizing the risks of Ebola and other viruses—so perhaps there’s a pattern within the family.

If I were to draw some major lessons from The Lost City of the Monkey God, for myself and for any would-be author of nonfiction, they would be as follows:

  1. Acknowledge, name, center, and give voice to the people who made your story possible.
  2. Take scholarship seriously, respect it, and respond to it fully and directly.
  3. Give your writing a purpose beyond entertaining the reader. Information doesn’t mean much if we don’t know what to do with it. Stories don’t mean much if they don’t have a lesson.

I believe those are principles I can follow in my writing, and they’re the kind of principles I’d like to see followed in every piece of nonfiction I read. For anyone writing a book about a journey to another place, regardless of the form it takes, I think it’s fair to ask, “Did you even talk to the locals?”

It may be that some readers of this article will think I’ve been overly harsh toward Douglas Preston and The Lost City of the Monkey God. (Although, honestly, anyone who thinks that probably won’t have read this far.)

I want to give Preston his due: The book was entertaining and informative, and, as I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t regret reading it. There were some sections I enjoyed with little to no criticism at all.

My favorite piece of historical analysis Preston offered up in the book was a comparison he makes between Spanish colonization of the Americas and Spanish colonization of the Philippines. I’m not sure if the comparison was Preston’s original idea, but he suggests that Filipinos were likely much more resistant to colonization and better able to maintain their cultures because they were unaffected by new epidemic diseases the way Indigenous peoples in the Americas were.

Now, this point was not made in depth or supported by much evidence, but I did appreciate that Preston made a solid historical argument. Not too many writers make comparisons of colonization across continents, and I love it when people do that.

Truly, it doesn’t surprise me that The Lost City of the Monkey God received accolades and became a bestseller. It does read rather like an extended National Geographic article, or a series of National Geographic articles, and everyone loves National Geographic! (Or, at least, they used to.)

However, what did surprise me was how the book ended up feeling so empty.

Based on the title alone, I figured it wouldn’t offer the most complete or sensitive treatment of Indigenous perspectives. But really, Indigenous individuals and voices were almost entirely absent, and discussion of Indigenous history was minimal.

I figured the book would focus on the author’s personal experiences as part of the expedition, and it would tie together the stories of previous adventurers with his own. But actually, Preston seems surprisingly detached from his own story, even when he mentions direct criticism of his own writing. And, despite spending so many pages writing about the white men who searched from the “lost city” in the past, he doesn’t draw a strong throughline (or distinguish a clear contrast) with the contemporary expedition of mostly-but-not-entirely white men he was part of.

Just like you might feel after eating a bag of cheese puffs, after I read the book I was left wanting more substance. What is the evidence for the connections between the Pech and Tawahka nations and the City of the Jaguar? What is the relationship between the Honduran government and Indigenous communities, and how might Preston’s expedition have been affected by that relationship? What did the Honduran soldiers and other locals think about the expedition publicizing a city built by their ancestors that they knew about but wanted to be left alone?

Those are all questions I would have loved to see asked and answered.

If you’d like to read a little more about the City of the Jaguar and archaeology in Honduran Mosquitia, I recommend starting with this article, written by an academic with extensive experience in the region.

Have you read The Lost City of the Monkey God? Do you agree with my criticisms, or was I overly harsh? Comment below with your thoughts.



Peter Stanton

I’m an Alaskan history teacher in Ketchikan writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. I also write regularly about language, reading, travel, and politics.