The Lost City of Z

by David Grann

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1109

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 cartographers, everyone knew that the jungle was exceedingly dangerous. Grann points out that entire European colonizing armies had been lost to the diseases and predators of the Amazon. In addition to venomous snakes like the jararaca and gigantic snakes like the anaconda, there were also piranhas, electric eels, and a host of parasites and blood-sucking insects. Europeans often characterized the Indians of the Amazon as dangerous savages. The jungle seemingly offered no sustenance—insects devoured any food on the ground, and the trees and rain leached away the soil’s nutrients.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the academic consensus has long been that the Amazon was too harsh an environment for a “great civilization” to have existed there. The Amazon is not an Eden; rather, it is a “counterfeit paradise.” The soil simply would not support agriculture and cities. This belief has at times also been supported by racial prejudices against the Indians. The reason explorers encounter small tribes in the jungle is that the harsh environment can only support small populations. Yet the first Spanish conquistadors in South America reported large populations and cities. There is also the myth of El Dorado, a city so prosperous that its kings were covered in gold dust every day.

However romantic and unlikely the myth of El Dorado may be, Percy Harrison Fawcett became convinced that an ancient civilization once existed in the Amazon and had since been buried beneath the jungle. Fawcett’s expeditions slowly shifted from exploration to quests to find the lost city he called “Z.” Fawcett was not alone in his search. Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice, Jr., an American millionaire, also began to launch expeditions searching for the lost city. Although their searches were interrupted when the First World War began, they both set out again in the 1920s. Unfortunately for Fawcett, he could not afford to finance numerous expeditions, but neither could many other people after all the resources expended on the Great War. By 1925, Fawcett managed to raise funds and set off into the jungle with two men: his son, Jack, and Jack’s friend, Raleigh Rimell. They were never heard from again.

Grann explains that the obsession offered by the Amazon and Z was soon equaled by the obsession to find out what happened to Fawcett. Fawcett’s wife pleaded with the Royal Geographical Society to finance expeditions to search for Fawcett. Although she long maintained a skeptical position whenever an explorer claimed to have solved the mystery of Fawcett’s disappearance, she eventually turned to psychics for her answers. Other explorers followed Fawcett’s path and also disappeared. Fawcett’s surviving son, Brian, entered the jungle in the 1950s, but he too failed. One scientist claimed to have found Fawcett’s remains. Others claimed to find evidence that Indians murdered Fawcett. Yet another expedition was launched in the 1990s, but its leaders were kidnapped by Indians and held for ransom.

Grann describes himself as the sort of man who always takes the elevator rather than the stairs, yet he too entered the Amazon in search of Percy Fawcett and Z. Like Fawcett before him, Grann admits that the jungle had taken hold of him, and he endured stomach parasites during his search. For all his inexperience, Grann’s expedition was in some ways successful. With guides and twenty-first-century supplies, he was able to penetrate the jungle and make contact with Kuikuro Indians. Although Grann did not find Fawcett’s body, he completed Fawcett’s quest to find Z.

In the jungle, Grann made contact with Michael Heckenberger, an American anthropologist. There, Heckenberger revealed evidence for the lost city of Z, including the remains of moats and roads that were built to sophisticated designs. He also showed Grann pottery remains that he had carbon dated to show they predated European contact. Heckenberger theorized that European diseases decimated a rich and sophisticated population that had conquered the jungle. Grann suggests that these discoveries are revolutionizing contemporary archeology and anthropology in the Americas.

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