ODD TRUTHS: ZORA THE EXPLORER

Earlier this year, National Geographic reported that a team of archaeologists had discovered a legendary city in the remote La Mosquitia Valley of Honduras. The expedition’s ethnobotanist is quoted as saying that the area is “the most undisturbed rain forest in Central America”. Amazingly the ruins—which are still being excavated—point to the existence of a previously undocumented Mesoamerican civilisation: the so-called “City of the Monkey God”. Apparently, the myth has attracted a number of explorers since the time of the conquistadores:

“For a hundred years, explorers and prospectors told tales of the white ramparts of a lost city glimpsed above the jungle foliage. Indigenous stories speak of a ‘white house’ or a ‘place of cacao’ where Indians took refuge from Spanish conquistadores—a mystical, Eden-like paradise from which no one ever returned. Since the 1920s, several expeditions had searched for the White City, or Ciudad Blanca. The eccentric explorer Theodore Morde mounted the most famous of these in 1940, under the aegis of the Museum of the American Indian (now part of the Smithsonian Institution).”

It’s also likely that the same legend captivated famed anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston. In a 1947 letter to her editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, she explicitly mentions “a lost city in the mountains of the Department of the “Mosquitia”: 

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At the time, Hurston was not just the most recognisable African-American anthropologist alive. She was also one of the many intellectual luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Notasulga, Alabama, she’d been educated at Barnard College (now affiliated with Columbia University) and had studied under influential scholar Franz Boas. Her books Mules and Men (1935), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Tell My Horse (1938) had catapulted her into literary stardom and demonstrated that she was capable of conducting extensive research and writing detailed fiction. Ever fond of field work, she’d also been initiated by voodoo priests and had had the rare experience of meeting a zombie face-to-face.

Zora Neale Hurston. Photo via University of Florida Digital Collections.

Zora Neale Hurston. Photo via University of Florida Digital Collections.

Zora Neale Hurston. Photo via University of Florida Digital Collections.

Zora Neale Hurston. Photo via University of Florida Digital Collections.

In short, Hurston’s curriculum vitae was off the charts. In fact, it was her seminal work on Haitian voodoo traditions that first brought her to the attention of Reginald Brett, a gold miner working in British Honduras. Brett tipped her off about a long-lost Mayan city, and Hurston–fed up with the melancholy of New York–was instantly overwhelmed with wanderlust. After securing funds, Hurston set off for Honduras and booked a hotel in the coastal city of Puerto Cortės. Coincidentally, she arrived a year after the first “International Conference of Archaeologists of the Caribbean”, which was held in Tegucigalpa.

Promotional stamp for the first "International Conference of Caribbean Archaeologists".

Promotional stamp for the first “International Conference of Caribbean Archaeologists”.

Her plan was to finish writing her novel Seraph on the Suwanee and strategise for the expedition. Unfortunately however, her dreams for the trip were crushed by hard reality. Torrential rainstorms constantly prevented her from making any real excursions into the jungle, and in February of 1948, she travelled back to New York to make the final revisions on Seraph. Sadly, Hurston didn’t get a chance to return to Honduras. She died twelve years later, in 1960. Nevertheless, even though she did not live long enough to see the lost city, Hurston followed her instincts and pursued a centuries-old fable that has now (thanks to modern archaeology) become a reality.

Zora Neale Hurston. Photo via University of Florida Digital Collections.

Zora Neale Hurston. Photo via University of Florida Digital Collections.

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