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Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya Hardcover – April 26, 2016
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From the Publisher
William Carlsen's Journey to 'Jungle of Stone'
Stella at Copan at present
Stella at Copan as drawn by Catherwood
The Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal as drawn by Catherwood
A contemporary photo of the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal
Just out of the army in the late 1960s, I entered the University of California, Berkeley, on the G.I. Bill. I knew I would still have to work myself through school (I majored in of all things Rhetoric—very practical). My first choice in the university’s 'work-study' program was a job in one of the university's many libraries. While in the army I had spent most of my free time in post libraries, always with my head in a book. Now, I found myself working as a library page in the university's Bancroft Library, a research repository for Western history collections. While there I was asked to retrieve handwritten correspondence from Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain, two authors I revered, and to my disbelief I held in my hands many of their letters as I brought them up from the stacks to researchers.
Decades after my first encounter with the Bancroft Library, I found myself there once again. My wife and I lived for many years part time in Guatemala, where I had fallen in love with a nineteenth-century writer named John L. Stephens. I had traveled to several of the astonishing stone ruins of the ancient Maya scattered in the jungles of Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. But I became ever more enthralled with that civilization through the eyes of Stephens, who in the 1840s published riveting books about his adventures with an artist named Frederick Catherwood and their discovery of the lost civilization of the Maya. I decided to follow their 2,500-mile journey through the jungle in my beat-up 1985 Toyota Corolla, a car without air conditioning or radio and the closest thing I could find to the mules the two men had used during their expeditions.
On returning to my home in San Francisco, I discovered to my surprise that Stephens's letters and personal papers were located across the Bay at the Bancroft Library. There, spellbound by his personal writings and letters that revealed his deep friendship with Catherwood, who had so brilliantly illustrated their travels of exploration and adventure together, I began my own journey that resulted in 'Jungle of Stone,' a work aimed at telling not only the story of their extraordinary lives but the discoveries they made that changed the world's understanding of the history of the Americas before Columbus.
“The book succeeds in all ways. … A highly readable, fascinating historical narrative.” (Providence Journal)
“Carlsen’s cogent and well-written dual biography successfully illuminates the fascinating tale of these intrepid pioneers of a lost civilization. ... [An] adventure tale that make[s] Indiana Jones seem tame.” (Library Journal)
“[A] gripping, informative history.” (San Jose Mercury News)
“Thrilling. ... A captivating history of two men who dramatically changed their contemporaries’ view of the past.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
“Lively. ... Ably researching [Stephens and Catherwood] and affectingly describing their friendship, Carlsen makes an exemplary contribution to the lost-cities genre.” (Booklist (starred review))
“Jungle of Stone is a tale of two men that makes Indiana Jones look like a stay-at-home slacker. … Full of astonishing adventures and breathtaking discoveries. … [Carlsen] brings both research skills and a gift for narrative to this book. … Thrilling.” (Tampa Bay Times)
“Carlsen is an engaging guide, at home in the jungle. ... There’s plenty to like in [his] account.” (Wall Street Journal)
“Carlson’s book brings these important explorers back to the limelight they so richly deserve.” (The Explorers Journal: The Official Quarterly of The Explorers Club)
“Carlsen’s masterful chronicle of [Stephens and Catherwood’s] explorations is a welcome excursion to a fascinating story set in the golden age of exploration.” (The Missourian)
“With verve and vigor... Carlsen finely explicates the challenges of the Catherwood-Stephens expedition and the wonders they found.” (Publishers Weekly)
From the Back Cover
In 1839, rumors of extraordinary yet baffling stone ruins buried within the unmapped jungles of Central America reached two of the world’s most intrepid travelers. Seized by the reports, American diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and British artist Frederick Catherwood—both already celebrated for their adventures in Egypt, the Holy Land, Greece, and Rome—sailed together out of New York Harbor on an expedition into the forbidding rainforests of present-day Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. What they found would rewrite the West’s understanding of human history.
In the tradition of Lost City of Z and In the Kingdom of Ice, former San Francisco Chronicle journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist William Carlsen reveals the extraordinary story of the discovery of the ancient Maya. Enduring disease, war, and the torments of nature and terrain, Stephens and Catherwood meticulously uncovered and documented the remains of an astonishing civilization that had flourished in the Americas at the same time as classic Greece and Rome—and had been its rival in art, architecture, and power. Their remarkable book about the experience, written by Stephens and illustrated by Catherwood, became a sensation, hailed by Edgar Allan Poe as “perhaps the most interesting book of travel ever published” and recognized today as the birth of American archaeology. Most important, Stephens and Catherwood were the first to grasp the significance of the Mayan remains, understanding that their antiquity and sophistication overturned the West’s assumptions about the development of civilization.
By the time of the flowering of classical Greece (400 b.c.), the Maya were already constructing pyramids and temples around central plazas. Within a few hundred years the structures took on a monumental scale that required millions of man-hours of labor, and technical and organizational expertise. Over the next millennium, dozens of city-states evolved, each governed by powerful lords, some with populations larger than any city in Europe at the time, and connected by road-like causeways of crushed stone. The Maya developed a cohesive, unified cosmology, an array of common gods, a creation story, and a shared artistic and architectural vision. They created stucco and stone monuments and bas reliefs, sculpting figures and hieroglyphs with refined artistic skill. At their peak, an estimated ten million people occupied the Maya’s heartland on the Yucatan Peninsula, a region where only half a million now live. And yet by the time the Spanish reached the “New World,” the Maya had all but disappeared; they would remain a mystery for the next three hundred years.
Today, the tables are turned: the Maya are justly famous, if sometimes misunderstood, while Stephens and Catherwood have been all but forgotten. Based on Carlsen’s rigorous research and his own 2,500-mile journey throughout the Yucatan and Central America, Jungle of Stone is equally a thrilling adventure narrative and a revelatory work of history that corrects our understanding of Stephens, Catherwood, and the Maya themselves.
“Thrilling. . . . A captivating history.”—Kirkus Reviews (Starred)
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Says author William Carlsen: “Today the ancient Maya are recognized for having achieved one of the most sophisticated early civilizations on earth. Tourists by the millions, from every part of the globe, annually descend on Maya ruins in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize.”
But it was not always this way, and that is what this book is about: The story of the earliest explorations into the jungles of Mexico and Central America and the words and thoughts produced by these two explorers about what they found and what they surmised.
In the Acknowledgements section of the book, Carlsen states his passion for his work: “I will hold in my heart always the extraordinary Maya people….May you forever keep your rich culture alive for the benefit of us all.”
I’ve personally had the pleasure of traveling in Mexico and Central America. I’ve been to many of the places talked about in the book. But I really treasure the way “Jungle of Stone” puts the pieces together, capturing the historic details and bringing the people involved in the early explorations to life.
The story starts in the early 1800s, in the Age of Discovery. This was a period when Europeans and Americans knew little about the Latin American before Columbus. The Spanish conquistadores were all about enriching themselves. They were not in the New World to learn about and/or preserve indigenous native culture. In fact, the Spanish shut off the New World south of the emerging United States for centuries.
But there were rumors of ruins of ancient civilizations found by the Spanish. Popular culture speculated that the works had to be by Egyptians, the Lost Tribes of Israel or others. The general thinking was that no indigenous people in the Americas would be capable of creating sophisticated works of art.
The book is all about the adventures of John Lloyd Stephens and his colleague Frederick Catherwood. Each had extensive travel experience, including in the Middle East, decades before Mark Twain would publish his book, “Innocents Abroad.” Catherwood was a professional architect by trade. Stephens was a lawyer who had made good money writing a book about his travels in Egypt, the Holy Land and Petra.
They began their great adventures in Latin America in 1839. They teamed up for 13 years to explore Mayan ruins in Latin America, their first conquest being Copan in Honduras. They were stunned by what they found.
They went were few white men had been before. They followed some of the same paths used earlier by Hernan Cortez. They continually faced dangers from bandits or hostile Indians. They traveled through areas of active wars. Mosquitoes, ticks, snakes, scorpions, rain, heat, mud and all kinds of other nuances and obstacles were encounter along the way. This was not an adventure for sissies.
Britain was the great world power at the time. The U.S. was not yet a major world power. Stephens, as an American, dreamed of bringing Mayan treasures back to New York as the foundation of new prestigious museums that would put the U.S. on the world map. At the time, few in the world knew anything about the existence of the art and architecture of the Mayans.
Cameras did not exist, so it was the detailed drawings by Catherwood that would be an essential element in a future publication of a book by Stephens. The book, Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, published in 1841, was met with great success, eventually going through 12 printings and sold all over the world. Stephens’ important conclusion was that the Mayan work was original and without influence of “models or masters.”
The two were off on the trail once again in 1841, this time to focus on the Yucatan Peninsula. Catherwood would be meticulous in the detail of his drawings. Bouts of malaria slowed them down, but they were prodigious in their work, the result of which was the 1843 work entitled, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Like Stephens earlier works, it was a great financial success.
Stephens and Catherwood talked about exploring further south, where Machu Picchu would not be discovered by the West for another 67 years. But the steam engine and the railroad was all the rage at this time. Catherwood took a job working on a line in British Guyana. Stephens would work on the railroad across Panama, essentially until he worked himself to death in 1852.
Further exploration of the Mayan ruins would wain, or the most part, until the early 1900s. But the foundational information documented by Stephens and Catherwood laid a foundation for all that was to come. And what a story it is, as beautifully written by Mr. Carlson in this very fine book, which I highly recommend.
I greatly enjoyed the story told in the way it was told.