I read Jungle of Stone book by William Carlsen just in time for my Mexico trip and I liked it. The book is about John Stevens and Frederick Catherwood as they both make their journey to Mexico and Central America in search of stones in Jungle and end up discovering Maya Civilization. Even the locals had no idea about this civilization and it is because of the expedition of these two men that the Europeans realized that western hemisphere had an advanced civilization which could match some of the ancient civilizations in the East.
The author has done extensive research on the lives of these two men who were involved in the discovery of the Maya Civilization. However, there is not a whole lot of information on the Mayans or their civilization or their stone structures. This is where I ended up getting disappointed with this book. I am not sure why the author thought that we would be interested in the lives of these men, instead of the civilization. I did like the portion of the book that spoke about the ruins and the civilization but beyond that, I got bored reading about biographies of every person involved in the discovery. I was least interested in reading about the personal lives of these men. For me, they were just explorers and I got bored with any detail about their life that did not involve exploration or adventure. Instead of dedicating chapters and chapters on their lives, the author could have given us more information about the Mayan civilization. I wanted to understand what each building meant in the ruins, how the hieroglyphics were decoded, how the Mayan calendar can be read and so much more about Maya but all these were very briefly touched upon.
So the book starts with the men making a trip to Central America in search of stone buildings and after that, the author gets distracted with the political turmoil in Guatemala. There is mention about others who had seen these ruins before these two men and had written reports about them. But these reports were lost in some archives and never came to light. Author spends next few chapters on the politics of the country which was slightly intriguing since I had no idea about that country. After that, he goes back in time and talks about Stephen’s expedition to Greece, Egypt, Petra, Jerusalem etc, which was also interesting to read since it was again a travel story. But I did not understand how it was relevant for a book on Maya Civilization.
He talks about another expedition put forth by the British to explore these ruins. Then finally when the author starts talking about the ruins, he skims over their discoveries as if in a rush to get to other topics. He is always talking about mosquitoes, malaria, rain and other problems faced by these men. The temples, palaces and other stone structures are briefly touched upon. Nothing is described in detail in any of the sites they visit. This is where the problem lies since anyone picking this book would want to read more about the ruins and not about the men involved in finding the ruins.
These two men make two different trips to Mayan Ruins. Their second trip is mostly to Yucatan which is when they find Chichen Itza and Tulum. Again, I felt these chapters lacking in details. The author did make up for it by having a dedicated section which talks about everything we know currently about this civilization. That section of the book was the best and I did learn a lot about these ancient people. After this section, the author again goes into some tangent about Panama Railroad construction and politics of US and Central American countries. This is where I lost interest in the book. The last few chapters were dragging, talking about some random people and events in history, which had nothing to do with the topic of the book. I skimmed through the last few chapters and ended up closing the book after being disappointed with the content.
I wish the book had less of these digressions and the author focused on the topic at hand – which was ruins. The author wanted to highlight how difficult it was to make a trip to Central America and Mexico due to all the political issues, but he ended up putting readers to sleep in the process. The editor could have done a better job I guess. There is a comparison of Mayan pyramids with Egyptian pyramids and I loved that section a lot. It was interesting to see how two different civilizations who were not in contact with each other ended up building similar structures for different purposes. While one was a tomb, the other was a temple. The chapter that mentions self-mutilation and human sacrifice practices in Maya was great as were the descriptions about their Gods and how the King was considered to be a shaman of the God. There is a short section about Cenotes too and how the civilization disintegrated and fell.
Anyway, it was interesting to learn how Europeans thought these structures were built by someone who had come from Europe or Asia. It was only after the fall of Spanish Empire that these ruins came into light. They did not think the indigenous population of America, whom they considered to be savages could build something that spectacular. The author also highlights the destructive nature of Europeans and the way they destroyed all the stone structures that were constructed by native Americans in the past. Some of these were hidden in thick jungles and thankfully survived. I think not much is known about this civilization even today and the scholars themselves have multiple theories since this civilization was long gone when Europeans landed in the western hemisphere. They only have the hieroglyphs and stone inscriptions to make deductions about these lost people and their lives.
What blew my mind was that this civilization had invented their own calendar system using which they were able to predict eclipses and other cosmic events. They had their own hieroglyphics and wrote about their kings. They cultivated corn and did not domesticate animals it seems. They did not use pulley or wheels and did not use metals, yet ended up building such wonders. They were not in touch with the rest of the world so everything they built, they built on their own. There was always exchange of information and ideas in Europe and Asia, but they did not have that advantage. I would love to read and learn more about this lost civilization.
I give this book 3.5 stars. The middle section of the book was amazing and deserves 5 stars. I am cutting 1 star for all the irrelevant material and biographies present in the book. The book about Machu Picchu that I read earlier was perfect and I sort of expected this book to match that book I guess, which is why I ended up getting disappointed. Please let me know if you have read a better book about the Maya Civilization.
The Maya are fascinating and I would agree- if I was reading a book like this I’d want the focus to be on the ruins themselves as well, and the civilization. Sounds like a missed opportunity really. too bad the author focused on other things. I’ve always thought it super interesting the similarities between pyramids around the world. I’m also interested too when they find things built by “savages” that turn out to be quite advanced.
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On second thoughts, I am reducing this book to 3.5 stars. There is so much about Maya and their ruins that I am able to read online which this book does not have. I think the author did not really understand his readers and their expectations from this book.