Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya. Author: William Carlsen. Publisher: HarperCollins. 2016. 
 
One reviewer said that this book about two intrepid explorers of the 19th Century is an "adventure tale that make[s] Indiana Jones seem tame.” So wrote a review in the Library Journal of Jungle of Stone, by William Carlsen. It was during the presidency of Martin Van Buren in 1839 that American diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and British artist Frederick Catherwood followed the mysterious rumors of buried cities in the trackless rainforests of Central America. Both were already seasoned travelers in Greece, Palestine, and Egypt, where they explored ruins and remains of civilizations already familiar to Westerners. 
 
What they found in their travels to modern-day Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico would re-write human history and confirm that in the Americas there were pre-Columbian civilizations worthy of study. 
 
 
Author William Carlsen, who once wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and who lived for years in Guatemala, has written an important book about the efforts of Catherwood and Stephens to bring to light an unknown culture. They endured disease, war, and the torments of nature and terrain, but managed to meticulously uncover and document 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.
 
Upon their return, a two-volume oeuvre was written by Stephens and illustrated by Catherwood, "Incidents of Travel in Yucatan," and became a 19th Century sensation and hailed by none less than famed poet and author Edgar Allan Poe as “perhaps the most interesting book of travel ever published.” It is recognized as having given birth to the study of Maya culture.
 
Author William Carlsen
 
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. Maya cities continue to be uncovered and new data revealed about they mastered the rainforest, even while the mystery of their disappearance remains unknown.
 
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.
 
A Maya stela, as drawn by Frederick Catherwood, at Quirigua, Guatemala
 
Today, the tables are turned: the Maya are justly famous, if sometimes misunderstood, while Stephens and Catherwood have been nearly 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.


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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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