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Jungle of Stone

The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya
Narrated by: Paul Michael Garcia
Length: 16 hrs and 35 mins
Categories: History, Ancient
4.5 out of 5 stars (7 ratings)

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Summary

"Thrilling.... A captivating history of two men who dramatically changed their contemporaries' view of the past." (Kirkus)

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 - each 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 The Lost City of Z and In the Kingdom of Ice, former San Francisco Chronicle journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist William Carlsen reveals the unforgettable true story of the discovery of the ancient Maya. Enduring disease, war, and the torments of nature and terrain, Stephens and Catherwood uncovered and documented the remains of an astonishing civilization that had flourished in the Americas at the same time as classic Greece and Rome. Their remarkable book about the experience became a sensation and is recognized today as the birth of American archeology. Most importantly, Stephens and Catherwood were the first to grasp the significance of the Maya remains, recognizing 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 BC), the Maya were already constructing pyramids and temples around central plazas. Within a few hundred years, the structures took on a monumental scale. 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. The Maya developed a unified cosmology, an array of common gods, a creation story, and a shared artistic and architectural vision. They created dazzling stucco and stone monuments and bas reliefs, sculpting figures and hieroglyphs with refined artistic skill. At their peak an estimated 10 million people occupied the Maya's heartland on the Yucatan Peninsula. And yet, by the time the Spanish reached the "New World", the classic-era Maya had all but disappeared; they would remain a mystery for the next 300 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 the Maya and the two remarkable men who set out in 1839 to find them.

©2016 William Carlsen (P)2016 HarperCollins Publishers

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  • thomas
  • 10-01-17

Unsung Explorers at the Heart of History

What did you love best about Jungle of Stone?

I enjoy micro history books. Detailed books on subjects on the fringe of what is popular history. This book is a great example of that genre and very well done. These two men lived incredible lives and were at the heart of exploration, creating a chronicle of central American and Mexican culture that changed the way we think about history in general. Fascinating account.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Jungle of Stone?

Their ability to bounce back from adversity time and time again.

What about Paul Michael Garcia’s performance did you like?

History books can be tricky. Getting overly dramatic takes away from the story but merely reading doesn't do the job. I thought he hit just the right tone.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

The things people can do with their lives when they put their mind to it is truly incredible.These men changed the world and were on the cusp of modernity. Though I will never be an explorer it truly is inspirational.

Any additional comments?

I am not a historian. I am just a guy who likes different types of books over the course of a year. If you are a varied reader and have an interest in the Mayan and Inca cultures I think you will enjoy it.

15 people found this helpful

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  • Stuart
  • 01-09-16

Great history and characters, a bit too tangential

A great story with inspiring characters. The level of depth is astounding and paints a strong picture of the two men as they travel throughout central America. The book is very tangential at times and this doesn't play well with the audiobook format as it is easy to get lost.

In terms of information on the Maya, it is certainly there and is very interesting, but is only introduced about half way through the book. This title is first and foremost about Stevens and Catherwood, with the Mayan cities as a backdrop for their life stories.

Nevertheless, a good overview of Mayan civilization, its successes and eventual downfall is given. The 1800s were an incredible time and discovering many of these ruins for the first time in Western history is a marvel well conveyed by the author.

14 people found this helpful

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  • Allen
  • 23-02-17

Lacking on adventure, misleading title

Reads more like a biography of Stevens and Catherwood. Narration is good, but I was disappointed how little there was about the discoveries and time in the jungle. The first third I thought I had misread the title of the book. This book is a lot more a full life biography of Stevens and Catherwood than an adventure narrative. Boring in parts even. If you seek Central American ancient civilization discovery adventure try "Lost City of the Monkey God" instead.

11 people found this helpful

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  • David
  • 21-07-16

You could not find a better place to start

I have always been a bit perplexed on things Mezoamerican and this book provided a lot of much needed focus. Its not as if I never put my toe in and I even have a Great Courses lecture series. But its really all about the Maya. A seriously high civilization from a seriously small place and very very alien. I spent half my time googling places and people and it was well worth the effort. Google mayan art and think about it!

5 people found this helpful

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  • Martin Fierro
  • 19-05-16

Great Presentation of a Fascinating Story

I studied several books to prepare for a trio to the Yucatan focused on Maya archeological sites.
This book covers much of what I learned, skillfully interwoven with the story of two adventurers who (at great personal risk and pain) brought some of the mysteries of the Maya to the world.
Well worth the read.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 07-05-16

Hard to follow.

Tried twice but very difficult to listen to. Perhaps it would be a better read.

4 people found this helpful

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  • AAH
  • 23-07-16

rediscovering Maya

An interesting narrative of the 1840s - both archaeological and biographical. I never realized that central America had such a rich archaeological heritage. The discovery of the Mayan sites , laying of the Panama railroad, and struggles in the lives of RL Stevens and Fredrick Catherwood are all interwoven in this interesting narrative. Be sure to see Catherwood's wonderful lithographs of the Maya on the net.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Rick
  • 18-01-19

Ghost Cities in the Jungle

When two fearless explorers set out in 1839 to investigate reports of stone ruins in the thick jungles of Central America, they had no idea they would turn the history of the Western Hemisphere on its head. It was a time when the world was thought to be only a few thousand years old. The Maya—and, for that matter, the Aztecs and Incas—were believed by many to be descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.

John Lloyd Stephens, an American writer and diplomat, and British artist Frederick Catherwood discovered and documented the remains of stunning city-states that had been home to an estimated ten million Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The more sophisticated their culture proved to be, the more public opinion held that it must have been the work of ancient visiting Europeans, or Asians, or even refugees from the Lost City of Atlantis. The indigenous people of the region just weren’t capable of such things, the argument went.

But the adventurers proved them wrong. “At the zenith of their achievements,” writes William Carlsen, “during a 600-year period lasting through the 10th century AD, the Maya were in a class of their own in the Americas.” And then they vanished, for reasons the book details, and the jungle engulfed their cities and swallowed their pyramids, centuries before Stephens and Catherwood arrived.

Their work was meticulous and free of hyperbole, unlike most other explorers of their time. They measured, filled notebooks with details, and Catherwood produced hundreds of spectacular drawings that are definitely worth googling. They published best-selling books on their findings, and held public exhibitions.

And their exploits were worthy of an Indiana Jones movie. They threaded their way through civil wars and treacherous characters, endured physical hardships of blistering heat, voracious insects, malaria and injuries. They nearly starved, became lost, and their equipment failed. Today, with modern technology like airborne Lidar that sees through the jungle canopy with lasers, the true dimensions of the Maya civilization are becoming clear. But these guys did it the hard way.

This could have been a shorter true-life adventure. But in nearly 17 hours of scrupulous detail and historical context—certainly including plenty of harrowing exploits—the author has produced a work that skews more scholarly. Exactly, perhaps, the way Stephens and Catherwood would have done.

Narrator Paul Michael Garcia is a good fit for relating this long and complex story, including heroic efforts at pronouncing countless Spanish words, some of them incorrectly. He is a steady presence in the winding tale of two extraordinary lives and the remarkable civilization they uncovered and shared with the world.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Vicky
  • 12-02-18

Lndmarks of a People; Stories in Stone

Oblivion beckons for what we hold most dear… our memories. Memory loss is not the affliction solely of individual human beings. Society itself, in a never ending rush to discard all that is cherished of the past, often through fascination with the new, and even in distrust of what is passed down unwitnessed by our own eyes, simply ‘forgets’ to remember the evidence of our progress, and especially of our mistakes. When we ignore the landmarks of our past, we lose our way. How can we know where we are going, unless we know where we have been? 

Here is the story of Classical Mayan architecture and the Golden-age of Mesoamerican history in stone ruins. John Lloyd Stephens and Frank Catherwood, the acknowledged progenitors of American archaeology, forged a new narrative of the ‘New World’ that had yet been untold and unwritten. Jungle of Stone tells the remarkable human story of these two men and a forgotten civilization buried in the jungles of the Yucatan peninsula. The author, William Carlsen, leaves out nothing in the story as he sketches a brief bio of their personal lives. 

Stephens had studied originally for the Law profession, but was drawn away from New York to the Mediterranean for his health, where he indulged in a study of the great sites of Europe, Egypt, and the Middle East. Taking Catherwood, an architect/ artist he met there, they journeyed to Central America and began exploring and recording the many ruins of the Maya Empire. Before that, it was thought that the Americas had been sparsely populated by roving bands of hunter/gatherer tribes. Of course, the population of the area had been greatly reduced because the diseases Columbus and others brought to the coast had rushed far inland, devastating empires ahead of the Conquistadores. 

I read this book as part of my Journey Around the World in 80 Books challenge for the Honduras. (My book-trip will continue from here to El Salvador.) I debated before buying the book, unsure how detailed it might be, and not wanting one of the trend of ‘pop-history’ books that float around today rewriting the real history. There was none of that here. I chose the Audible originally and quickly decided to splurge for the Kindle version as well to continue in Whisper-sync, because the pronunciation of some of the city names was excellent. This was even better when I realized the Audible included many very good illustrations and maps. So, it is certainly not a book I would suggest going with the Audible alone. 

One of the more fascinating aspects of Maya studies for me has always been the limitations they had with muscle, technology, and tools. The book includes details on the facts; such as the lack of larger land animals in the Mesoamericas for protein, not even wheels for technology, and the use of Stone Age tools. But, the book also includes details of competition between a British expedition that tried to ‘out-scoop’ Stephens’ expeditions. There is much here that could not even be gained from the individual primary sources of Stephens’ own books written during his expeditions, though I certainly hope to get good hardback copies of those for all of Catherwood’s excellent artwork. And, interesting details are included like the fact that barbecue was first discovered in this area (and among the Taino Indians.)

From the Mayan Cities of Copan and Palenque to Chichen Itza and many cities in between; Stephens and Catherwood uncovered the story of the Americas etched in the hieroglyphs and carved bas-reliefs of a lost people. They found themselves often in the midst of revolutions and wars, and survived diseases and malaria to recount their discoveries, some of which have been since left in rubbles, and are preserved only in the drawings of their books. Across mountains and through jungles, this book brings the story to life.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Michael
  • 26-05-17

Interesting History - Confusing Time Line

It is interesting to find out the history of the discovery of the old Mayan ruins. Parts of the narrative hold for excitement and adventure, but the constant changing of narratives concerning several individuals, and trying to go back and cover their history, makes the story more difficult to follow.

2 people found this helpful