Percy Harrison Fawcett was utterly convinced that there was evidence hidden in the Amazon jungle of an ancient civilization. He had found shards of pottery and rock paintings, he had spoken to Indians who had oral histories of their ancestors, and he himself had been farther into that “green hell” than any other European man, and had survived. Though the scholarly opinion at the time was that the Amazon was so inimical to human life that tribes could evolve no farther than the Stone Age, scratching a bare living from poor soil and evading the many predators, Fawcett strenuously disagreed. He claimed that many centuries ago, there had been a vast and complex civilization hidden in the jungle, and that he could discover the lost city of treasure. He called it simply Z. In 1925, after many trips into the jungle, Fawcett and his son Jack headed in one last time. They were never seen again.
Fawcett was obsessed with his vision. He had always loved exploring, and had trained with the Royal Geographic Society to learn the anthropological, astronomical, and geographical tools he would need for his travels. (He was, in a way, part of the inspiration for Indiana Jones.) Though expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic were more prestigious and better funded, Fawcett was made of the same stuff as the Arctic explorers: he was monomaniacal, stoic, difficult to work with — he rarely got sick himself and believed those who did get sick were cowards — and quirky. Like many of his generation, he consulted spiritualists and believed in the occult; he left his wife and family for years at a time while he was traveling; he was touchy and proud. But he surveyed thousands of miles of blank spaces on South American maps, learned about animals, plants, and fish, and made friends with supposedly hostile indigenous tribes and learned their languages. (In this last he was very unlike most Arctic explorers, who generally steadfastly refused to learn anything from indigenous people, including how to hunt for food. Fawcett’s mind was very much more open to the realities of survival than, say, R.F. Scott’s.)
David Grann makes it clear in The Lost City of Z that the Amazon is and was no place for light-hearted vacationing. Despite its lush plant life, it’s nearly foodless: you can’t eat liana vines, and the swarming insects have stripped the forest floor bare of anything that’s not virulently toxic. The insects themselves are horribly dangerous, from fire ants to malarial mosquitoes to maggots that infest living people. Jaguars drop from the treetops. The rivers are full of piranhas, electric eels, and candiru (don’t even ask.) Explorers died from disease, broke legs, starved to death, went mad, committed suicide. But Fawcett was utterly convinced that such a place could harbor a civilization that could have given birth to the legend of El Dorado.
Grann is wonderful at tracing the history. He goes into detail about things that may seem like digressions (spiritualism, World War I) but that eventually add to a marvelous holistic understanding of the time and place that produced Fawcett. He also provides us with a glimpse of the Amazon today, when he himself visits the place where Fawcett and his son were last seen. The book is well-researched and extremely readable (my only cavil was that I would have liked numbered end notes, but I know those are out of fashion for whatever reason.) The ending, which gives at least a partial answer to all the questions about Fawcett’s fate and the truth about the lost city of Z, is surprising, hugely satisfying, heart-racingly interesting. I absolutely loved reading this. It opens a window into a whole area of history and the world I knew almost nothing about.