In The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, David Grann outlines the life of Percy Harrison Fawcett and his exploration of the Amazon rainforest. Fawcett became convinced that a lost civilization was buried in the Amazon, but he disappeared in 1925 while attempting to find it. Grann, a journalist who has written for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, also ventured into the jungle and provides details of his own struggles with obsession and the Amazon.

In 1886, Percy Harrison Fawcett was a lieutenant for the British army stationed in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). There, Fawcett met his wife, Nina. He also discovered his love of exploring. During one outing, he came across ancient ruins that were buried in the jungle. Although he did not realize it at the time, this journey would shape the remainder of his life and that of his family.

After marrying Nina, Fawcett returned to England determined to become an explorer. In 1901, he took classes with the Royal Geographical Society under Edward Ayearst Reeves. Reeves’s job was to train gentlemen explorers. Fawcett studied hard and graduated with distinction. While Grann admits surprise that there was such a thing as an explorer’s school, he points out that there were still vast tracts of land that British and European maps described as “unknown” or “unexplored.” Among the least well-explored areas was the Amazon rainforest.

This sense of mystery led many Europeans to create imaginative explanations about those who lived in the Amazon jungle. In fact, some Europeans speculated that the people of the Amazon might not have heads—perhaps their faces were buried in their chest and shoulders. Over the centuries, these myths continued to grow and led to questions over whether the Indians had souls and whether they could be “civilized.” The British found the unknown fascinating, and Grann points out that this fascination was often a response to the scientific breakthroughs of the nineteenth century. As scientists were coming up with theories to explain the origins of life, many people turned to spiritualism, including Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was also inspired by the mysteries of the Amazon when he wrote The Lost World. This obsession with the unknown fuelled the Royal Geographical Society’s urge to send Englishmen to every corner of the earth. Consequently, expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic poles and into Africa were not only common but captured the common mind. Explorers like David Livingstone and Sir Ernest Shackleton were famous for their exploits.

While the Amazon, its rivers, and its inhabitants may have been unknown to...

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