Daring adventurers unearth a buried civilization.
In his thrilling debut history, journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist Carlsen traces the arduous journeys of lawyer John Lloyd Stephens and architect/artist Frederick Catherwood into the jungles of Central America. Both seasoned travelers to Rome, Greece, and throughout the Middle East, in 1839, when the two boarded a ship bound for the Gulf of Honduras, they had read only “vague reports of intricately sculpted stones” hinting at the existence of “a hidden unknown world.” Those reports, and the intrepid voyages of naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt, fueled their “hunger for adventure, the quest, the whiff of danger.” Danger proved more than a whiff on 2,500 miles of life-threatening travel—both men contracted malaria and other tropical diseases, and civil wars raged—as they pursued their dream. In a battered Toyota, Carlsen followed their footsteps, and he evokes in palpable detail the tangled forests, punishing deserts, and cliffhanging mountain paths that they traversed. Stephens and Catherwood had no idea what to expect: common knowledge had it that Central America had been inhabited by primitive indigenous tribes. But they found shocking evidence of a sophisticated culture. “Architecture, sculpture, and painting, all the arts which embellish life, had flourished in this overgrown forest; orators, warriors, and statesmen, beauty, ambition, and glory had lived and passed away,” Stephens wrote in a travel book, impressively illustrated by Catherwood, that became a bestseller. “It was a mystery,” Carlsen writes, “of staggering implications.” As the “acknowledged progenitor of American archaeology,” Stephens could only guess at what he had found: he lacked the methodology and tools that would enable later archaeologists to date findings and flesh out Mayan history. A subsequent trip in 1841 yielded another volume, so eagerly anticipated that it was a bestseller even before “rapturous reviews” appeared.
A captivating history of two men who dramatically changed their contemporaries’ view of the past.