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Review: 'Jungle of Stone' a thrilling true story of rediscovering Maya civilization

Jungle of Stone is a tale of two men, fathers of archaeology in the Americas, that makes Indiana Jones look like a stay-at-home slacker.

Full of astonishing adventures and breathtaking discoveries, Jungle of Stone is, best of all, a true story. William Carlsen's book, subtitled The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya, offers a window into the early days of archaeology (so early the word had not yet been coined) and much further back into the nearly 2,000-year-long reign of a sophisticated indigenous civilization throughout the lands that are now Central America and southeastern Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.

The Maya dominated that huge area from about 800 B.C. to 950 A.D., with a population estimated to have been as high as 10 million at some points, Carlsen writes. But they had long vanished from history by 1839, when John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood landed in Belize to begin an epic journey on the mere rumor of peculiar stone ruins in the jungles of Guatemala and Honduras.

Stephens was an American, born in New Jersey in 1805 and raised in New York City, then a city of 75,000 with Houston Street as its northern border. A lawyer with an outgoing personality, Stephens was also a successful author. His two travel books about his adventures in Egypt, the Holy Land, Greece, Turkey and Russia, written in a lively and accessible style, were runaway bestsellers, and he came to Central America with another book in mind. He also had in hand a diplomatic appointment from U.S. President Martin Van Buren to seal a trade agreement with the just-formed United Provinces of Central America. (Recently freed from the yoke of Spanish colonial rule, the entire region was in political turmoil.)

It's unclear where and when Stephens and Catherwood first met. It may have been in 1836, after Catherwood, a British architect and engineer, moved his family to New York. He, too, had traveled extensively around Europe and the Middle East, and, Carlsen writes, "something viral — an almost pathological compulsion to push to the edge, to test the limits — had infected both men in the desert, and neither man seemed able to shake it."

Catherwood, six years older than Stephens, was a talented illustrator whose training as an architect informed his meticulous drawings. As self-effacing as Stephens was gregarious, Catherwood remains in many ways a mystery. Stephens never described "Mr. Catherwood" in the more than 1,800 pages he wrote about their journeys, and, Carlsen writes, "no image of Catherwood, no drawing or daguerreotype of him, has ever been found." There's one possible self-portrait, a lanky figure Catherwood sketched in the middle ground of his illustration of a temple at Tulum in Mexico.

When they arrived in Belize in 1839, the plan was for the pair to produce another travel book. What they discovered in the jungles in two long trips over three years exceeded their wildest dreams — and almost cost them their lives, many times over.

"They had been expecting scattered stone ruins, at best," Carlsen writes of their arrival at Copán, near the Guatemala-Honduras border. What they found was a 100-foot-tall wall, several hundred feet long; pyramids faced with stone steps and topped with temples; and dozens of stelae, monoliths towering 10 feet or more and covered with incredibly intricate carvings, including depictions of Maya god-kings.

Copán was just the beginning. Over about three years, Stephens and Catherwood would find the sites of more than 40 cities, filled with architecture and art of stunning refinement and skill.

The pair's quest is astonishing simply as a journey. Riding on mules or traveling on foot for hundreds of miles over multiple mountain ranges and through steaming jungles and rocky deserts, with local guides rather than any maps to show the way, Stephens, Catherwood and their party were chewed bloody by ticks and mosquitoes, repeatedly brought low by malaria and often threatened by warring factions. To modern travelers who can be practically paralyzed by a weak cellphone signal, their trip is mind-boggling — yet Stephens' writing suggests they took it, mostly, with utter good cheer. Stephens, in particular, had a swashbuckling penchant for crawling into dark tunnels, being lowered into deep cisterns, clambering up crumbling pyramids and talking his way out of sticky situations with armed revolutionaries.

Stephens' notes and Catherwood's drawings (and, on their second trip, newfangled daguerreotypes) would record their findings for the world. More recent indigenous civilizations in the Americas, such as the Aztec and Inca, were well known from historical accounts, but it was clear the Maya were a much earlier culture. The two became convinced that theories that the Maya must have been from the Old World — that they were the Lost Tribes of Israel, wandering Egyptians or even the survivors of Atlantis — were bunk, and that the culture was indigenous. Later research, of course, has proved them right.

Contemporary archaeologists will shudder at Stephens' and Catherwood's methodology (or lack thereof), including their blithe use of ruins as living quarters and their tendency to ship home all manner of artifacts from the sites. But in situ excavation methods were decades in the future, and what was lost to what now seems like careless treatment should be weighed against what was gained by bringing Maya civilization into the world's consciousness.

Carlsen, formerly a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting, brings both research skills and a gift for narrative to this book. He has lived in Guatemala and traveled throughout the region that Stephens and Catherwood explored. And he writes poignantly of Stephens' and Catherwood's lives after their Maya explorations.

The Maya civilization diminished, Carlsen writes, thanks to "(i)ncessant wars, ecological damage, overpopulation, and finally drought." But the Maya people never vanished. Today, an estimated 7 million people of Maya descent live in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and the southeastern states of Mexico — the lands of their historical kingdom — many still speaking Maya languages.

The great cities of their ancestors are known the world over and draw millions of tourists: Tulum, Palenque, Chichen Itza, Tikal and many more. Travelers who marvel at them now can marvel a bit at the two men who brought them back into the light.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya

By William Carlsen

William Morrow, 544 pages, $28.99

Review: 'Jungle of Stone' a thrilling true story of rediscovering Maya civilization 04/21/16 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2016 9:42am]
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