The Lost City of “Z”

Percy Fawcett was a daring officer in the British Army.  He had worked at the Royal Geographical Society in London learning how to do surveying and map making. In 1905 he was approached by the RGS to go to South America to survey the region between Bolivia and Brazil in order to draw an agreed boundary to prevent a war.  He accepted this daunting task and in 1906 at the age of 39 spent three years with a small expedition trudging through the thick Amazonian jungle. I had read about his exploits and finally someone has made a movie about him, which I have just seen, entitled “The Lost City of Z.”   This is based on a book by David Grann in 2009 named “The Lost City of Z: A tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon.”  Note that the character of Indiana Jones was partly based on him, as well as such books as “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle (better known for his “Sherlock Holmes” stories) and many subsequent imitations.

Fawcett lead several expeditions to the Amazon region, and found that giving gifts to the local Indian chiefs was the best way to avoid conflict.  He claimed that in the jungle he had found remains of an ancient city, but was unable to follow-up this finding.  In 1914 he rejoined the British Army and fought bravely as a reserve officer at the Battle of the Somme, where he was partially blinded in a gas attack.  He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order in 1917 and retired from the Army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

He then returned to his obsession to try to find this lost city in the Amazon jungle, that he called “Z.”  In this exploit he was definitely influenced by the success of the findings of Aztec and Maya ruins in the jungles of Central America and of the Inca city of Machu Pichu in Peru discovered by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.  In contrast however, Fawcett preferred to travel in a small close-knit group.  In 1925, at the age of 58, accompanied by his son Jack and a few friends, he returned to the region in an attempt to find the so-called “lost city of Z.”  In doing so he was influenced by a ms he found in the National Library in Rio de Janiero written in 1753 by a Portuguese bandeirante named Joao da Silva Guimaraes (many of these so-called “bandits” were former Crypto-Jews escaping the Inquisition) that described such a city.   He was also influenced by the teachings of Madame Blavatsky, who was a Russian occultist and a founder of the Theosophical Society, who believed in the existence of superior human civilizations.

In 1925 he and his companions disappeared in the region of the Matto Grosso.  The site of his last camp are known, but their fate is unknown.  He wrote a will requesting that if he did not return no-one should search for him in case they suffered the same fate.  But, in fact his disappearance became an international cause celebre and many did in fact try to discover his fate.  It is said that ca. 100 people have died in numerous expeditions in the region to find either his remains or the lost city of “Z.”   Until now no-one has been successful.

The movie is a Hollywoodized version of the story, quite accurate, yet full of minor distortions.  For example, although Fawcett claimed to have found some ruins near the source of a river that he had mapped, he apparently had no physical evidence for his claim and he never actually returned to that location.  His expeditions were relatively amateurish affairs with insufficient supplies and planning. It is probable that in his last expedition they lost most of their belongings in a river accident, they were all ill and did not have any gifts with which to placate the hostile Indians.  At the end of the movie a compass is given to the Chairman of the RGS as an indication that Fawcett was still alive. However this item was actually found many years later in the custody of an Indian Chief. Finally, there is a statement at the end that tries to exonerate Fawcett by claiming that a network of an advanced civilization has been found in the Amazon jungle, but this claim is unsubstantiated.




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