Friday, June 15, 2012

The City of the Monkey God - or, not

If you've ever been an adolescent boy, and I have, you have an idea how cool it would be to visit a Lost City of the Monkey God. Especially if it had an impressive high priestess, as in this illustration by Harry Roland of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar (1916).

The turgid prose of the novel includes this description of her:
At first La closed her eyes and clung to Tarzan in terror, though she made no outcry; but presently she gained sufficient courage to look about her, to look down at the ground beneath and even to keep her eyes open during the wide, perilous swings from tree to tree, and then there came over her a sense of safety because of her confidence in the perfect physical creature in whose strength and nerve and agility her fate lay. Once she raised her eyes to the burning sun and murmured a prayer of thanks to her pagan god that she had not been permitted to destroy this godlike man, and her long lashes were wet with tears. A strange anomaly was La of Opar  — a creature of circumstance torn by conflicting emotions. Now the cruel and bloodthirsty creature of a heartless god and again a melting woman filled with compassion and tenderness. Sometimes the incarnation of jealousy and revenge and sometimes a sobbing maiden, generous and forgiving; at once a virgin and a wanton; but always — a woman. Such was La.

She pressed her cheek close to Tarzan's shoulder. Slowly she turned her head until her hot lips were pressed against his flesh. She loved him and would gladly have died for him; yet within an hour she had been ready to plunge a knife into his heart and might again within the coming hour.
But adolescent boys' dream die hard. And some recent high-tech archaeological research in the jungles of Honduras provided the occasion for a flare-up, as Rosemary Joyce reports in Good science, big hype, bad archaeology Berkeley Blog 06/07/2012:

But all too often, this good science is then hyped as if it was totally unprecedented, surprising, supposedly shattering all our previous ideas. So good science becomes bad archaeology.

Unfortunately for me and my colleagues in Honduran archaeology, the latest such incident is in our bailiwick. In mid-May, Spanish-language news sources in Honduras reported an announcement by the president of the country that LiDAR images had possibly revealed a "lost city", Ciudad Blanca. One government official went so far as to say it "might be the biggest archaeological discovery in the world of the twenty-first century".
Thomas Maugh reports for the Los Angeles Times, A lost city found in Honduras; is it the fabled Ciudad Blanca? 06/07/2012, on the City of the Monkey God aspect:

Since Spanish explorer Herman Cortes first noted the existence of Ciudad Blanca, the White City, in 1526, archaeologists, explorers and treasure hunters have been searching for the site, reputed to contain vast wealth. Many have claimed to find it, including the CIA's Theodore Morde, who based the bizarre travelogue "Lost City of the Monkey God" on it. None of those claims have held water, however, and contemporary archaeologists are not even sure the city ever existed. But now a team from the University of Houston, using laser-based light detection and ranging (LIDAR) from a survey plane, have found the ruins of an ancient city deep in Honduras' Mosquito Coast region and hidden by centuries of jungle growth. The city may or may not be Ciudad Blanca, but it certainly appears to be a major archaeological site.

Ciudad Blanca plays a central role in many Central American stories and mythology. It has been cited as the birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. Some previous "sightings" have included reports of golden idols and elaborately carved white stones, which have given the city its name. No reputable source has verified these claims, however.
I believe this is the first time I've seen the conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), aka Hernando Cortes, referred to as "Herman".

Joyce also links with approval to this account of the legend of Ciudad Blanca: Chris Begley, Ciudad Blanca Legend Archaeology of the Mosquito Coast of Honduras n/d (accessed 06/11/2012).

Still, we can dream about how cool it would be to fight killer lions and make out with an exotic jungle priestess in a city full of priceless gems:

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