In the summer of 2005, rains flooded the Amazon, rendering it virtually impenetrable. Bridges were swept away, and, amid vast stretches of mud, small holes appeared where pit vipers and armadillos had buried themselves. Then the sun came out and scorched the region. Rivers sank by 30 feet; bogs became meadows; islands turned into hills. Finally, after weeks of waiting, I headed into the jungle, determined to solve what has been described as 'the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century.' I was searching for signs of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, the legendary British explorer who, in 1925, had disappeared in the forest, along with his son and another companion.
Percy Fawcett with Raleigh Rimell and one of their guides shortly before the expedition vanished. Photo: Royal Geographic Society/Simon and Shuster
Although I don't even camp and suffer from a degenerative eye condition that makes it hard to see at night, I had, in the course of writing a book about Fawcett, become consumed with the mystery. In the first decades of the 20th century, Fawcett had been acclaimed as one of the last of the great amateur archeologists and cartographers – men who ventured into blank spots on the map with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose. Fawcett had survived in the jungle for years at a time, without contact with the outside world; he was ambushed by hostile tribesmen, many of whom had never seen a white man before; he emerged with maps of regions from which no expedition had returned. The London Geographical Journal observed in 1953 that 'Fawcett marked the end of an age. One might almost call him the last of the individualist explorers. The day of the aeroplane, the radio, the organised and heavily financed modern expedition had not arrived. With him, it was the heroic story of a man against the forest.'
After nearly two decades of exploring the Amazon, Fawcett had concluded that the world's largest jungle – a wilderness area virtually the size of the continental United States – concealed a fabulous kingdom, which he had named, simply, the City of Z. Since the discovery of the New World, perhaps no place on earth had so ignited the imagination – or lured men to their death – as the Amazon. Thousands of conquistadores had died futilely looking for the glittering kingdom of El Dorado, which was said to be so plentiful in gold that its inhabitants ground the metal into powder and blew it through 'hollow canes upon their naked bodies'.
Yet, unlike so many of his predecessors, Fawcett was not a soldier of fortune or a crackpot. A decorated war hero and a recipient of the Royal Geographical Society's prestigious Gold Medal, Fawcett had spent years gathering evidence to prove his case – digging up artefacts, studying petroglyphs, and interviewing tribes. In 1925, captivating the imagination of the world, he had set off into the Brazilian jungle with his 21-year-old son, Jack, and Jack's best friend, Raleigh Rimell. For five months, Fawcett had sent dispatches, which were carried through the jungle by Indian runners. Then the expedition vanished without a trace.
Although Fawcett had warned that no one should follow in his wake due to the danger, scores of scientists, explorers, and adventurers attempted to recover the party, alive or dead, and to return with proof of Z. Some searchers were wiped out by starvation and disease; others were killed by tribesmen who fired arrows dipped in poison. Then there were those adventurers who had gone to find Fawcett and, instead, disappeared along with him in the forests that travellers had long ago christened the 'green hell'.
I was surprised to learn that, unlike other lost explorers, Fawcett had made it all but impossible to trace him. Fearing his rivals might beat him to his discovery, Fawcett, who had once been a British spy, had kept his route secret; in letters he had even communicated in code. And so before entering the jungle I had located Fawcett's granddaughter, Rolette de Montet-Guerin, in the hopes of gleaning more information. After we spoke for a while at her home in Cardiff, she led me into a back room and opened a large wooden trunk. Inside were Fawcett's tattered diaries and logbooks. 'You can look through them, but you must guard them carefully,' Montet-Guerin said.
I examined each book for clues: there were drawings of starnge hieroglyphics. Fawcett wrote that the Botocudo Indians had told him a legend of a city 'enormously rich in gold – so much so as to blaze like a fire.' Fawcett added, 'It is just conceivable this may be Z.' Then in the log from 1921, I noticed several coordinates – Fawcett's planned route to Z. The coordinates showed that previous parties had headed, often fatally, in the wrong direction.
Armed with this new information, I travelled to Cuiabá, the capital of the Mato Grosso region, along the southern edge of the Amazon basin. The history of the interaction between brancos and indios – whites and Indians – in the Amazon often reads like an extended epitaph: tribes were wiped out by disease and massacres; languages and songs were obliterated. But some tribes have managed to insulate themselves in the jungle. Even today the Brazilian government estimates that more than 60 Indian tribes have never been contacted by outsiders. The region where Fawcett disappeared is now part of Xingu National Park, Brazil's first Indian reservation, which, along with an adjoining reservation, is the size of Belgium. In 1996, a Brazilian expedition led by an adventurer named James Lynch had entered Xingu, vowing to solve the Fawcett mystery; instead, the group was kidnapped by a tribe. Lynch, who eventually paid a $30,000 ransom and escaped with his companions, had warned me to be careful. 'Remember,' he said, 'most Fawcett expeditions never come back.'
The Kalapalo Indians were believed to know what really happened to Fawcett and his party. Photo: Simon and Shuster
To assist me, I recruited a Brazilian guide, Paolo Pinage, who had once worked for FUNAI, the government agency set up to protect the indigenous population. After we mapped out our route, we rented a truck and headed north toward Xingu. The rainy season had washed away almost all of the asphalt on the road, leaving behind a combination of ditches and puddled gullies. In places where Fawcett had described cutting and hacking through dense woods, I was shocked to find that there was no jungle; it had all been cut down. Days elapsed before the forest began to emerge around us. Finally, as branches clapped against the windshield, we reached a barbed wire fence; the boundary of the Xingu National Park.
The chief of the Kalapalo Indians, Vajuvi, agreed to take us to his village in Xingu. In 1951, a Brazilian official had claimed that one of the Kalapalos admitted that members of his tribe had killed Fawcett and his two young companions. Since then, many historians suspected that was how the expedition met its end. Vajuvi told me, 'There are many things about the Englishmen that only Kalapalo people know.'
By the Kuluene River, one of the largest headwaters of Xingu, we abandoned our truck and loaded our gear into Vajuvi's small aluminium boat. As we sped up river, terns with yellow beaks fluttered among the green thicket along the banks. Macaws cackled and howler monkeys screamed. Before sundown, we docked along the shore and followed Vajuvi up a short path, until we stood at the edge of a circular plaza that was more than 100 yards in circumference and dotted with thatched houses that resembled the overturned hulls of ships. 'Kalapalo,' Vajuvi said proudly.
Several dozen people were walking across the plaza, their naked bodies adorned with exquisite ornamentations – monkey-tooth necklaces; swirls of black pigment from the genipap fruit; swathes of red pigment from the uruku berry. The village, which had about 150 residents, was highly stratified. Chiefs were anointed by bloodlines, as with European kings. Fawcett wrote of the southern basin of the Amazon, 'The whole of this region is saturated with Indian traditions of a most interesting kind,' which 'cannot be founded upon nothing' and which suggest the prior presence of 'a once-great civilisation'. Most modern scientists had come to view Fawcett's theory of an ancient civilisation as fantastical. They considered the Amazon a 'counterfeit paradise', a place that, for all its fauna and flora, is inimical to human life. When I asked Vajuvi whether he knew of any significant ruins in the surrounding jungle he shook his head. Yet he said the tribe had an oral history about Fawcett and his party, who were among the first white people the Kalapalos had ever seen. The history had been passed down for generations, with remarkable precision, including even accurate details about the equipment Fawcett carried. 'No one knew who they were or why they had come,' Vajuvi said. 'They were hungry and tired from marching for so long, and the people in the village gave them fish. The old man said, "We must be going now." The people asked them, "Where are you going?" And they said, "That way. To the east." We said, "Nobody goes that way. That's where the hostile Indians are. They will kill you." But the old man insisted. And so they went.'
Vajuvi pointed eastward and shook his head. 'In those days, nobody went that way,' he said. For several days, he continued, the Kalapalos could see the smoke of Fawcett's campfire above the trees but on the fifth day it disappeared. Vajuvi said that a group of Kalapalos, fearing that something bad had happened to them, tried to find their camp. But there was no trace. 'People always say the Kalapalos killed the Englishmen,' Vajuvi said. 'But we did not. We tried to save them.'
A few days later, Pinage and I decided to follow the Kuluene River north in the direction of the Kuikuro village. I had learned that an American archeologist, Michael Heckenberger, was doing research in that area, which, according to Fawcett's blueprints, was closer to where Z would have been situated. It was also where James Lynch and his men had been kidnapped.
Vajuvi guided us upriver in his boat and left us on the shore where a boy was fishing. 'The village is inland,' Vajuvi said. 'You'll have to walk from here.'
We had too much baggage to carry, and Pinage asked the boy if he could borrow his bicycle. The boy agreed, and Pinage told me to wait while he went to find help. Hours had passed when four boys showed up on bicycles. They strapped the cargo on the back of their bicycles, but they had no room for a large cardboard box, which weighed about 40 pounds, or for my computer bag, and so I carried them myself. In a mixture of Portuguese, Kuikuro, and pantomime, the boys explained that they would meet me in the village, waved goodbye, and vanished down the path on their rickety bikes.
With the box resting on one shoulder and the bag in my hand, I followed on foot, alone. The path wound through a partially submerged mangrove forest, and the vestiges of the path soon disappeared underwater. I was unsure which way to go and I walked for an hour with no sight of anyone.
The box on my shoulder had grown heavier, as had the bag for my laptop, which, among the mangroves, seemed like an absurdity of modern travel. Occasionally, I slipped in the mud, falling in the water. I yelled out Pinage's name, but there was no response. Each time I thought that I had reached the end of the mangrove forest, a new swathe opened up before me. Then I heard a noise. I stopped but didn't see anything. As I took another step, the noise grew louder. A dark object darted in the tall grass, then another one, and another. 'Who's there?' I asked, in Portuguese.
I walked faster, but the water deepened and widened until it resembled a lake. I was looking dumbfounded at the shore when I noticed, tucked in a bush, an aluminium canoe. Though there was no paddle, I climbed in, short of breath. Then I heard the noise again and bolted upright. Out of the tall reeds burst dozens of naked children. They seized the canoe and began to swim me across the lake. When we reached the shore again, I stumbled out of the canoe, and the children followed me up a path. We had reached the Kuikuro village.
Pinage was sitting in the shade of the nearest hut. 'I'm sorry I didn't come back for you,' he said. 'I didn't think I could make it.'
A moment later, a Kuikuro Indian instructed us to follow him, and escorted us to the house of the chief, Afukaká. Standing beside the chief was a curious pale figure with intense eyes. It was Heckenberger. He told me he had tried to conduct his own inquiry into Fawcett's fate. 'I want to show you something,' he said.
The author (red T-shirt) and several others near Bakairi Post, before heading into thicker jungle. Photo: Simon and Shuster
Seizing a machete, he led Pinage, Afukaká, and me into the forest. After walking for a mile or so, we reached an area where the forest thinned. Heckenberger pointed to the ground with his machete. 'See how the land dips?' he asked.
Indeed, the ground seemed to slope downward for a long stretch, then tilt upward again, as if someone had carved out an enormous ditch.
'It's a moat,' Heckenberger said.
'What do you mean, a moat?'
'A defensive ditch,' he added, 'from nearly 900 years ago.'
Pinage and I tried to follow the moat's contours, which curved in a circle through the woods. Heckenberger said the moat had originally been between a dozen and 16 feet deep, and was nearly a mile in diameter.
Heckenberger walked over to a rectangular hole in the ground, where he had excavated part of the moat. Using radiocarbon dating, he had dated the trench to about AD 1200. He pointed the tip of his machete to the bottom of the hole, where there seemed to be a ditch within the ditch. 'That's where they put the palisade wall,' he said.
I asked why anyone would build a moat and a stockade wall in the middle of the wilderness. In response he bent down and rooted through the dirt, picking up a piece of hard clay with grooves on the edges. He held it up to the light. 'Broken pottery,' he said. 'It's everywhere.' I thought of how Fawcett had once asserted that on certain high grounds in the Amazon 'very little scratching will produce an abundance of ancient pottery'.
Heckenberger said that we were standing in the middle of a vast ancient settlement. He started walking once more through the forest, pointing out what was, increasingly clearly, the remains of a massive man-made landscape. There was not just one moat but three, arranged in concentric circles. There was a giant circular plaza where the vegetation had a different character than that of the rest of the forest, because it had once been swept clean. And there had been a sprawling neighbourhood of dwellings, as evidenced by even denser black soil, which had been enriched by decomposed garbage and human waste.
Altogether, he had uncovered 20 pre-Columbian settlements. Occupied roughly between AD 800 and 1600 AD, they were about two to three miles apart and were linked by causeways and geometrically aligned roads. According to Heckenberger, each cluster of settlements contained anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 people, which means that the larger community was the size of many medieval European cities. 'These people had a cultural aesthetic of monumentality,' Heckenberger said.
Susanna Hecht, a geographer at UCLA, called Heckenberger's findings 'extraordinary', and other archeologists and geographers later described them to me as 'monumental' and 'earth shattering'. They were proof that the rainforest once contained what Fawcett had envisioned: a prosperous, glorious civilisation. Other scientists, using aerial photography and satellite imaging, have also begun to find enormous man-made earth mounds often connected by causeways across the Amazon. Geologists have uncovered so much black earth from ancient settlements that they now believe the Amazon may have sustained millions of people. Together, these revelations are transforming the perception of what the Americas looked like before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
As we returned to the Kuikuro village, Heckenberger stopped at the edge of the plaza and told me to examine it closely. He said that the civilisation that had built the giant settlements had been nearly annihilated by diseases from Europeans. Yet a small number of descendants had survived, and we were no doubt among them. For a thousand years, he said, the Xinguanos had maintained artistic and cultural traditions from this highly advanced, highly structured civilisation. He said, for instance, that, like the ancient settlements, the present-day Kuikuro village was organised along east and west cardinal points and its paths were aligned at right angles, though its residents no longer knew why this was so.
While Pinage and I headed toward the chief's house, Heckenberger picked up a contemporary ceramic pot and ran his hand along the edge, where there were grooves. 'They're from boiling the toxins out of manioc,' he said. He had detected the same feature in the ancient pots. 'That means that a thousand years ago, people in this civilisation had the same staple of diet,' he said. He began to go through the house, finding parallels between the ancient civilisation and its remnants today: the clay statues, the thatched walls and roofs, the cotton hammocks.
'To tell you the honest-to-God truth, I don't think there is anywhere in the world where there isn't written history where the continuity is so clear as right here,' he said.
Several Kuikuros were circling through the plaza, dancing and playing flutes. They were celebrating a festival for fish spirits, and Heckenberger said that everywhere you looked in the village 'you can see the past in the present'.
I began to picture the flautists and dancers in one of the old plazas. I pictured them living in two-storey houses, not scattered but in endless rows, where women wove hammocks and baked with manioc flour. I pictured the dancers and singers crossing moats and passing through tall palisade fences, moving from one village to the next.
The musicians were coming closer to us, and Heckenberger said something about the flutes, but I could no longer hear his voice over the sounds. For a moment, I could see this vanished world as if it were right in front of me. Z.
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- The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer's Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon' by David Grann (Simon & Schuster, £16.99) is available from Telegraph Books for £14.99 plus £1.25 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or go to books.telegraph.co.uk