Book Review: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

LostCityZby Anniel   8/3/14
Author: David Grann. Doubleday, also available on Kindle  •  In 2005, author David Grann, a journalist, in the “grip” of a story, traveled more than ten thousand miles from his home in NYC to the Xingu River, one of the longest tributaries of the Amazon. He was searching for any clues on the long missing Fawcett Party and the Lost City of Z, a fabled city of wealth and splendor lost to time and jungle.

This book is, in part, the true story of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, 57 years old in January, 1925 when he, his 21 year old son, Jack, and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell, would make their journey by ship from Hoboken, New Jersey, thence to Rio de Janeiro and then into the Amazon Basin. There the three men would attempt to locate El Dorado, or, as Fawcett termed it, the Lost City of Z, which had been his obsession for over two decades. Considered the last of the great Victorian explorers, Colonel Fawcett had been on a tour across the US to raise funds for his last ditch attempt to find the great city. In making this effort, the publicity he created caused a world-wide mania for constant news of his expedition.

The story of Colonel Fawcett is offset throughout the book with the more hilarious story of the author, David Grann, a city boy journalist, who followed Fawcett’s known footsteps to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Fawcett and the two young men. He traveled into the remote region with no skills at all. His first trip to an outfitter store to buy a “few things” for a jungle expedition will leave even the most hide-bound city dweller laughing and asking how Grann could possibly survive.

Grann writes: In 2004 . . . I stumbled upon a reference to Fawcett . . . As I read I became intrigued by the fantastical notion of Z: that a sophisticated civilization with monumental architecture could have existed in the Amazon. Like others, I suspect, my only impression of the Amazon was of scattered tribes living in the Stone Age – a view that derived not only from adventure tales and Hollywood movies, but also from scholarly accounts.

Based on his feeling of intrigue, Grann set out in 2004 to discover everything he could about Fawcett and why he was so certain the lost city existed. He searched archives of The Royal Geographic Society in London; met with members of Fawcett’s family, who showed him letters, journals and maps that even some in the family didn’t know about; went to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, where in 1888 then 22 year old Fawcett had been stationed while in Britain’s Royal Artillery; and even visited the sites of WWI battles where Fawcett had served.

When he went into the jungle, Grann followed Fawcett’s route as faithfully as possible until he reached the last village where Fawcett and the boys had been seen. He clearly describes his own jungle experience, which, in 2005, was vastly different than Fawcett’s had been in 1925, but it was still the jungle and some things never change. It was still hot, buggy and wet, but no fresh drinking water was readily available. Grann’s method of travel ranged from the primitive to more modern, but even that was worn and very uncomfortable.

The first part of his book is a biography of Fawcett, establishing his credentials, his career as a soldier in the Royal Artillery, his marriage and family.

It was while stationed in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, that Fawcett became enthralled with adventure and the quest for treasure, a quest that never left him. He was a man with unrivaled powers of endurance, who never stopped once he determined to do something. This was his greatest strength, and also his greatest failing. He felt it was a moral duty to keep moving under the most trying of circumstances, and he was willing to desert sick and exhausted men, even leaving them to die if necessary, so he could keep moving towards his goal.

He finally joined the Royal Geographic Society so he would have sponsorship for his travels. Established in 1830, it was the main mission of the Society to finally map the entire world. If the men doing the mapping happened to be spies for the British Empire, well, that was OK, too.

It was when he was sent to the Amazon Basin that Fawcett found where he truly belonged. The Amazon Basin is an area almost as large as the continental United States and Fawcett explored and mapped huge unexplored regions there. He made friends with unknown tribes and made it his policy to never act aggressively towards any Indian. He loved the jungle, and the natives, in spite of the terrible hardships he faced.

Somewhere along the way, Fawcett began to take seriously the first-hand accounts written by Spanish Priests and soldiers who were the earliest non-native travelers into the Amazon. Without exception, they reported large, rich cities and huge populations along the Amazon River.

After the Spanish lost many expeditions searching for those reported cities, including one group where 4,000 men died from starvation, illness and Indian attacks, the stories were ignored and said by all to be lies and exaggerations. That the jungle and the natives had always been in the Stone Age became the accepted narrative.

El Dorado, Fawcett’s Lost City of Z, became his place of fabled mystery. He found a map in Brazilian archives he was sure showed the right location, and he knew that one day he would look up and there it would be – the Lost City of Z.

And so in 1925, Colonel Fawcett would take the two young men with him into the Matto Grosso, the “thick forest” to find his dream. For five months Indian couriers were sent out with letters to family and dispatches to newspapers who had helped finance the expedition. Then – nothing. Fawcett and his companions vanished into the Matto Grosso without a trace.

For years thereafter hundreds of search parties, expeditions and individuals went into the jungle to find Fawcett and the two young men. Many of them also disappeared. As late as 1996 a party, led by a Brazilian adventurer named James Lynch, went into the Matto Grosso to check Fawcett’s last known location. The whole Lynch party was captured by Indians and held as prisoners for 5 months until a ransom worth $30,000 was paid for them.

Before the author went into the jungle he spoke by telephone with Dr. Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist from the University of Florida and a noted expert on the Amazon. Heckenberger told Grann to look him up if he reached the village where Fawcett was last seen because he was doing research in the area.

Grann finally reached the last place Fawcett was seen, and learned that Heckenberger had lived in the next village for 13 years. He had also been adopted as a son by the Chief of the village. Grann felt that he had learned all there was to know about the fate of Fawcett’s party, but he still felt dissatisfied about the Lost City, so he went to meet with Heckenberger, and was finally shown Z – which lay buried underneath the encroaching jungle.

In his 13 years in the jungle Heckenberger paid a high price for his work. He had endured bugs, skin and intestinal diseases, fevers, hunger and pain. But in the process he discovered many cities, all surrounded by moats, connecting roads, some over 150 feet wide, causeways, canals, and palisade walls. He and his crew had also found a place by a river where there is an ascending ramp with another descending ramp on the other side. The bridge it once held would have been 250 feet long.

All throughout the area, overgrown now by jungle, are the remains of large, round interconnecting cities, all designed along east – west cardinal points with living areas radiating out into what would have been farmland. Heckenberger and other workers have also found an observatory made of huge rocks, still mostly covered with vines, that rivals anything found elsewhere. No one knows where the rocks came from, nor how they were moved.

Heckenberger postulates that the Matto Grosso was not always jungle, but was once open grasslands, a savannah where over 10 million people lived. The area was full of these thriving cities and people before the Spaniards arrived, bringing the illnesses that decimated the civilization, leaving only a few survivors.*

Just a few observations about Colonel Fawcett and his obsession with Z. In the end, even if he was right about Z, Fawcett was insane in what he demanded from himself, other people, and mostly from his destitute wife and children. Much as they all loved him, he was not a good husband or father. In some ways he was a great, but deeply flawed man.This book makes it clear that men can become so addicted to adventure that nothing else matters.

Fawcett was also wrong in believing it was a moral failure for men to become exhausted and ill. Some of the men he called slackers and cowards were being eaten to death internally by maggots, and Fawcett knew it. Yet still he drove them on without adequate food, water and rest, and without mercy.

Men can also be addicted to which kind of place they love. An explorer who had been with Shackleton in Antarctica signed on with one of Fawcett’s smaller expeditions. He could face darkness, brutal cold, wind and open spaces, but he could not face heat, bugs, internal maggots, hunger, thirst, feeling trapped by vines and trees, not being able to breathe freely or to see the sky. There was nothing about the jungle he was prepared for or could deal with. He was all but dead when Fawcett abandoned him. Fortunately a friendly Indian found him and got him to help. When Fawcett found out he was alive he called the man’s report about the trip and how he had been treated a lie and said that the man was a slacker. The royal Geographic Society and most of its members thereafter stopped supporting Fawcett, and he had to raise his own funds to support his growing mania.

The battles and turf wars between competing theories of different geologists and anthropologists as presented in the book are also an interesting study of how politics in one form or another invades everything in life. Who gets grants and why. Who gets heard and how. Every advance in understanding is bitterly resented and fought against by the researchers who didn’t discover or postulate it.

It seems there ought to be some places where the advancement of knowledge should be more important than ego.

This book is well written and a great read. Grann does answer the lingering questions about Colonel Fawcett, and about the Amazon.

*Dr. Heckenberger’s work has been published in a book entitled The Ecology of Power: Culture, Place and Personhood in the Southern Amazon, A.D. 1000-2000. Available on Kindle. • (1766 views)

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One Response to Book Review: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Once the various native tribes realized how obsessively the Spanish were hunting for gold, they tended to talk up the great wealth of other places far enough away that this would get the conquistadors out of their hair. I suspect this is where the stories of El Dorado came from. Still, one might remember that Great Zimbabwe was discovered in that same period, and was an equally remarkable discovery. Many thought it had to be built by people from elsewhere (probably a Mediterranean civilization) since the locals obviously were never capable of building such a place.

    I seem to recall that Candide spent some time in El Dorado, which no doubt really did appear to be the Best of All Possible Worlds. (Leonard Wibberley wrote a modernized version of Candide, Adventures of an Elephant Boy, in which the title character is sent for by President Pangloss of the Best of All Possible Nations.)

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