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

David Grann

(Doubleday; US: Feb 2009)

I’ve been waiting for this book since 2005. That’s when David Grann’s article about explorer Percy Fawcett and his quest to find the mythic city of El Dorado in the Amazon appeared in The New Yorker.


The story has everything to fire the imagination: Romance, nostalgia, bravery, monomania, hardship, adventure, science, tragedy, mystery. No wonder Brad Pitt snapped up the movie rights before The Lost City of Z was even published.


Fawcett was last in the line of heroic explorers that included Henry Stanley, Richard Burton and Ernest Shackleton—men who left Europe in search of adventure and science in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Taking the Amazon as his specialty, Fawcett led a number of grueling expeditions before disappearing into the jungle in 1925, when he was 57.


The mystery of Fawcett’s last expedition, which also claimed the life of his 21-year-old son Jack, has proved to be an irresistible obsession. Dozens of explorers sought to follow his steps and find El Dorado, which Fawcett cryptically called “Z”. Grann calculates 100 or more of them perished.


A New Yorker who prefers elevators to stairs and doesn’t even like camping, Grann came under Fawcett’s spell, too. He examined the explorer’s papers at the Royal Geographical Society in London. Through a Fawcett descendant, Grann uncovered a previously unknown cache of diaries that pointed to the actual path the explorer took on his last expedition.


The Lost City of Z does not disappoint. It is at once a biography of Fawcett, a history of the era of exploration, a science book on the nature and ethnography of the Amazon, and a thrilling armchair adventure. Grann induces awed respect for Fawcett’s drive, energy, physical abilities and intelligence. He also knocks the romance off the proposition of tropical exploration.


Fawcett and his underlings coped not only with exhaustion, starvation, disease, wild animals and hostile Indians, but also with an unending scourge of insects, including maggots that bored under the skin, causing a ceaseless discharge of slime and puss. One Fawcett companion counted 50 maggot holes in and around one elbow.


Blessed with athleticism and a near-superhuman resistance to disease and parasites, Fawcett drove his men mercilessly, viewing death as evidence of laziness. A man of his time, he respected Indians for their intelligence, physical strength and mastery of their environment, yet could not believe them capable of civilization without benefit of some ancient Caucasian influence.


Grann’s own Brazilian adventures are mild compared with those of Fawcett. He does not find the bones of the great explorer, but using the tools of modern journalism—research, persistence, interviewing—he comes up with a highly plausible explanation of what happened to the expedition. Best of all, Grann finds El Dorado.


Actually, he finds University of Florida archaeologist Michael Heckenberger, who lives among the Kurikuro Indians and has uncovered evidence that an advanced civilization existed in the Amazon until European contact brought new diseases. This urban culture built roads, bridges and causeways but lived in harmony with nature, and left none of the monumental architecture Fawcett looked for.


Indeed, Fawcett frequently noted the widespread examples of sophisticated pottery in the jungle. It turns out he stood in the middle of Z. His preconceptions prevented him from seeing it.

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