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Colonel Percy Fawcett's Search for the Lost City of Z
Was the lost city right under Fawcett's nose?
Explorer Colonel Fawcett disappeared in the wilds of Brazil way back in 1925, and thereafter perhaps 100 people have died looking for him. Author David Grann wrote a book about Colonel Fawcett entitled, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Considering himself a “Fawcett freak,” Grann wants to find Fawcett’s lost city about as badly as Fawcett did - and he took a trip to the jungles of Brazil just for that purpose!
Who was this Percy Fawcett character?
Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett was born in 1867 in Devon, England. His wife, Nina, called him Puggy, because of his tenacity. Fawcett obtained the military appellation, Colonel, while serving in the British military during World War One, seeing plenty of bloody action as an artillery officer.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Fawcett took a course to be a gentleman explorer at the Royal Geographical Society. Beginning in 1906 Fawcett went on numerous surveying expeditions in Bolivia and Brazil, particularly the area known as the Mato Grosso. In this dangerous, unexplored country Fawcett encountered numerous complications, such as a 60-foot anaconda, jaguars and pumas, poisonous snakes such as the pit viper, hostile Indians, pests such as biting flies, gnats and mosquitoes, huge tarantulas and scorpions, not to mention vampire bats, which suck blood from animals and people, as well as potentially fatal diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. For all his trouble, Fawcett eventually became known as the world’s foremost authority on South America.
At least in his younger years, Fawcett was considered indestructible. Diseases and pests bothered other people, not Fawcett, and his stamina was beyond anyone’s. Because of this perhaps, Fawcett didn’t have much tolerance for people who couldn’t keep up with him. During the 1911 expedition, Fawcett trekked with Antarctic explorer, James Murray, who kept tagging behind (at the time Murray was 64.) Finally Fawcett left Murray with a frontiersman, who took him back to civilization. Murray’s bitterness over this incident never abated.
Fawcett had his own ideas about how to deal with calamities. When dealing with murderous Indians, Fawcett refused to use firearms (only once did he, when he apparently had no choice.) Once, along the Heath River, while the Guarayo Indians showered Fawcett and his men with long, poison-tipped arrows, Fawcett ordered his men not to shoot their rifles; instead, he had one man play the accordion, and then the arrows stopped falling. Then Fawcett, unarmed, approached the Indians waving a white scarf, crossed the river, offered himself as their prisoner, and eventually made friends with the natives!
Over the years, when in need of solace, Fawcett studied the occult and Buddhism. In fact, during the war, Fawcett used the Ouija Board to locate enemy positions and then fired upon them with a 9.2 howitzer!
What about Fawcett’s search for the lost city of Z?
During Fawcett’s travels in Amazonia, he became fascinated with the possibility of finding a lost city. Of course he had heard the tale of El Dorado, an ancient city filled with gold located somewhere in the Amazon jungle. But the Holy Grail for Fawcett and so-called Fawcett Freaks alike was a manuscript in Brazil’s National Library in Rio de Janeiro. This manuscript describes a Portuguese expedition in 1753, when a bandeirante or “soldier of fortune” discovers a lost city in an impressively tall range of mountains, though its exact location wasn’t given.
Z is what Fawcett began calling this hypothetical lost city, though he was skeptical that it had anything to do with fabled El Dorado, probably nothing more than an “exaggerated romance,” as he called it. Fawcett thought Z was built by people of European ancestry, perhaps the Celts, who had built the city with blocks of limestone or granite, and these impressive folks were prosperous, intelligent and, of course, very civilized.
Fawcett’s quest for Z reached a fever pitch when Hiram Bingham was the first person of European ancestry to lay eyes on Machu Picchu in 1911. Bingham found no gold there, just riches known as artifacts. Soon, Bingham was world famous, and even elected to the U.S. Senate.
So Fawcett kept looking for Z.
In 1921, Fawcett mounted an expedition from Cuiabá to the Xingu River, which ended in failure; and for the first time he showed vulnerability, injuring his leg. Astonishingly, later that year, Fawcett left by himself from Bahia in Brazil, traveling west for three months, until he returned in failure. (Just imagine being alone in the trackless jungle for three months!)
What about Fawcett's vanishing act?
In 1925, Fawcett set off on another expedition with his son, Jack Fawcett, and his good friend Raleigh Rimmel. (Fawcett always preferred small expeditions carrying as few supplies as possible.) The trio left Cuiabá, heading north into the Xingu region. The last people to see Fawcett and his companions were natives who lived at the Bakairí Post, which Fawcett passed on his way. The three of them were called “the Christians.”
As the trek got underway, Fawcett kept tabs on the expedition of Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice who ventured 1,200 miles north of Cuiabá, looking for a lost city. A very wealthy man, Dr. Rice used two large boats, a wireless radio and a 160-horsepower hydroplane, with which he hoped to make aerial observations and, when necessary, bombard hostile Indians!
Fawcett sent his last message via native runner from Dead Horse Camp B and then headed northeast, though some people think he may have gone north to Pará or even northwest to . . . wherever. Fawcett, his son and friend, Rimmel, were never seen or heard from again.
Who went looking for Fawcett?
Numerous people went looking for Fawcett and company, some as early as 1928. George Miller Dyott, a member of the Royal Geographical Society, started the first effort to either rescue Fawcett or find his earthly remains. Dyott’s expedition was well-stocked with supplies and gifts for the Indians, who came from a long ways to get their share. Constantly wary of the potentially dangerous natives, particularly the Kayapós, Dyott didn’t stay anywhere for long. Months later, Dyott and his men finally left the jungle sick, emaciated and mosquito-bitten. Dyott claimed he had proof that Aloique, chief of the Nahukwá, had murdered Fawcett, but this proof was nothing more than Aloique’s unreliable testimony. Dyott wrote about his exploits in the book, Man Hunting in the Jungle.
In more recent times, banker James Lynch and his 16-year-old son James Jr. retraced in 1996 Fawcett’s journey to a Kuikuro village in the Xingu (near Fawcett’s last known position), where they were kidnapped by the Kalapalos Indians, whose punishment for trespassing was either death by piranhas or stinging bees. The Indians didn’t release Lynch and his son until after he gave them all his supplies and equipment worth an estimated $30,000. About his search, Lynch said, “I don’t think anyone will ever solve the mystery of Fawcett’s disappearance. It’s impossible.”
Did the author find Z?
In 2005, while researching the book, David Grann went looking for Fawcett and Z. While traveling by road north of Cuiabá, he spied what appeared to be ancient ruins along a nearby ridge, but these turned out to be nothing more than natural rock formations, a common illusion in Brazil. Grann was struck by how much deforestation had changed the land since Fawcett’s time; much of the jungle had been cleared for the cultivation of soy beans. He even talked to a woman at the Bakairí Post, who, born around 1910, was the last person alive who had seen Fawcett before his disappearance.
Often accused of having murdered Fawcett, the Kalapalos Indians in the area told Grann that their oral tradition says they warned Fawcett not to travel northeast – the direction he told them he was going - because the Indians there would probably kill him. Yet Fawcett still went that way.
In addition, Grann wrote that some people think Fawcett descended into a subterranean city in the Roncador Mountains, where he may still live! In 1968, Udo Luckner formed the Magical Nucleus, whose quest was to locate this portal to the Other World, as they called it, and then join Fawcett. Luckner predicted the world would end in 1982, and when this didn’t come to pass, the group disbanded.
(There are more occult-related possibilities in Fawcett’s story, but Grann doesn’t cover them in this book.)
On a more scientific note, Grann met archaeologist Michael Heckenberger, who took him near Fawcett’s last known position, and there Heckenberger showed Grann the remains of numerous earthworks, particularly terraces, mounds, canals, causeways and reservoirs, as well as streets set at right angles, all constructed by people between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1600. Heckenberger told Grann there were as many as 20 such settlements in the area and that the inhabitants had died of European-induced diseases. Was this actually Fawcett’s Z? There were no ruins of stone-built edifices - much less impressive buildings such as pyramids or temples - but the people who built these structures must have been quite advanced.
Could old Puggy Fawcett have walked right by his fanciful lost city without seeing it?
The prevailing theory is that Amazonia is incapable of supporting large population centers, or cities, because the soil is poor. But if nutrients are added to the soil by applying large amounts of organic matter and charcoal, producing what is called Indian black earth, numerous crops can be produced with regularity. Using similar techniques, incidentally, the Maya did quite well in the jungles of Mesoamerica! (For information regarding the Maya’s agricultural techniques, see the article “Lasers in the Jungle” in the July/August 2010 issue of Archaeology magazine.)
Heckenberger published his discoveries in the book, The Ecology of Power: Culture, Place and Personhood in the Southern Amazon, AD 1000-2000.
David Grann’s book contains a very good overview of Colonel Fawcett’s saga, legend and obsession, as well as an engrossing account of the author’s own contemporary search, covering the ground, as it were, which may have taken him to the very streets of Z – or at least a Z-like place, if you will. But if you really want to get the details about Fawcett’s adventures read Exploration Fawcett, written by Fawcett’s son, Brian, published in 1953. (In the United States, the book was entitled Lost Trails, Lost Cities.) As a scrapping good tale of exploration and adventure, nothing beats it!
As for the demise of Colonel Fawcett and his companions, David Grann offered no opinion. It seems unlikely that one particular injury or illness would have killed all three – an old man and two young ones - but a succession of mishaps could have, who knows? However, the consensus of the book seems to be that hostile Indians, of whom there are still many in the area, may have abducted and killed them.
If you want to watch a documentary about Fawcett’s last trek and also listen to Heckenberger’s theories regarding pre-Columbian civilizations in the Mato Grosso, go to the Web site for the National Geographic Channel and click on Lost Cities of the Amazon. Do it right now!
But before you do that, please leave a comment!
By the way, The Lost City of Z, a movie based on Fawcett’s adventures in South America, was released in 2017.
Please buy some material about archaeology . . .
Why not buy Grann's book?
© 2010 Kelley