Being a keen fan of exploration stories, I’ve read a lot of accounts by various machete wielders about their travels through jungly swamps in search of lost civilisations. None, however, captured my imagination quite like Colonel Percy Fawcett did when I read his epic adventures in Exploration Fawcett (now re-printed by Phoenix Press and well worth the price). Compiled by his son from his father’s notes and log books, Exploration Fawcett takes the reader inside the first seven expeditions by the intrepid Colonel.
It’s all in there… gigantic anacondas (Fawcett claimed to have seen one 65 feet long), dogs with two noses, troglodyte cannibal tribesmen, the zip of poisoned arrows as the team play bagpipes to sooth the natives… the kind of stuff, in fact, you would expect from a Conan Doyle or Rider Haggard novel. Which makes sense as both those authors met the Colonel and said later they were inspired by his diaries.
There was more than the mere touch of the romantic explorer in Fawcett, which is why his eventual mysterious disappearance in 1925 while searching for the fabled “Lost City of Z”, identified by some as El Dorado, seems the natural way for his tale to end. Before setting out on his last journey, Fawcett ordered his son to make sure nobody would send a party to look for them should they go missing as it was “too dangerous”. Despite his instructions, hundreds have tried to unravel the mystery surrounding him and many have died in the search.
The reason why Percy Fawcett is occupying my mind at the moment is twofold…
Firstly, I have a copy of a recent book by David Grann called The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon sitting on my bedside table waiting to be read. Grann stumbled across Col. Fawcett while researching a story on the mysterious death of a Sherlock Holmes expert. He came across the headline “THREE MEN FACE CANNIBALS IN RELIC QUEST” and became hooked. He then made the, obviously rational, decision to fly to the Matto Grosso in the Amazon to search for clues to the Colonel’s disappearance himself.
Apart from having a dangerous romp through the Amazonian jungle, David Grann also brought attention back to the Fawcett saga and Brad Pitt and Paramount have optioned the book and whispers from the movie industry indicate a director is attached to the project and the green light has been firmly lit.
My second reason is far more recent however. In a column by Ben Macintyre on Times Online, I was thrilled to read that this months Antiquity, a quarterly journal of world archaeology, has announced that Col. Fawcett’s fabled “Lost City of Z” may not have been fabled at all.
Recent archaeological research, using satellite imagery and radar, has uncovered convincing proof of large pre-Columbian settlements in the very places where Fawcett searched and vanished: not merely houses, but moats, roads, bridges, avenues and squares laid out with geometric precision.
Fawcett spent 20 years sifting the evidence, gathering the stories of early conquistadors, examining pottery shards he uncovered above the floodplains in the Bolivian Amazon and, above all, questioning the many, previously unknown and often wary, tribes throughout the region. He, certainly, felt the city existed and was absolutely certain of what he was looking for…
The central place I call Z is in a valley … about ten miles wide, and the city is on an eminence in the middle of it, approached by a barrelled roadway of stone. The houses are low and windowless and there is a pyramidal temple.
And now, nearly 85 years after he was swallowed by the jungle, it looks like the Colonel, who was often scoffed at by armchair critics, may be proved right after all. I raise a glass of sherry in salute, Sir.
Further Reading at The Notes: We’re keen on a bit of archaeology here. Here’s a link to another interesting story – Lost Army Found
While, if you’re interested in how cities become “lost” in the first place, here’s a modern example – Abandoned City – The Slow Death of Detroit