The Lost City of Z and Spanish Conquest of South America
The Legend of El Dorado
Although the legend of El Dorado persisted, few believed the conquistador Orellana—certainly not his superiors, decidedly not the scientists who eventually came to study South America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But generations of obsessives started journeys to seek it, among them Orellana himself, Sir Walter Raleigh, former president Teddy Roosevelt—and between 1907 and 1925, Percy Harrison Fawcett.
Fawcett's expeditions through the rain forest took years away from his family and the lives of many of his associates. The conditions in the Amazon as described in The Lost City are horrific. Deadly snakes, insidious insects (cyanide-squirting millipedes, poisonous ants, parasitic worms, berne flies, piums, kissing bugs, maggots, mosquitos, chiggers, "eye licker" bees), poison frogs, electric eels, piranha, a whole range of diseases (malaria, espundia, elephantiasis, yellow fever), and constant and unending rain. Not to mention local residents, who are understandably hostile to the intruders.
Why would anybody walk into such a place, especially when so few walked back out? Fawcett did, again and again and again, until he and his last party, made up of his son and his son's friend, disappeared in 1925.
The Amazon is Calling
After Fawcett disappeared, the search for the lost city became the search for Percy Fawcett—at least 100 people died looking for Fawcett's party. The book begins with a preface in which Grann himself is in the Amazon; and the book's narration slides back and forth between Fawcett's search for El Dorado and Grann's search for traces of Fawcett. At first, Grann's explanations to his wife, to us, and ultimately to himself about why he went looking for evidence of Fawcett or the lost city, are unbelievable (what is he, nuts?), but slowly, very slowly, the obsession invades the reader. What did happen to Percy Fawcett?
The Lost City of Z - Bottom Line
The archaeological bit of this story comes late to the party—Michael Heckenberger, who has discovered such interesting things about the Amazon doesn't turn up until the final chapter. But ultimately, The Lost of City of Z makes Percy Fawcett as sad and iconic a figure as Heinrich Schliemann. Like Schliemann, Fawcett was a man who was so intent on his obsession that he risked everything, his family, his health, his life—and in the end, missed the forest for the trees.
The Lost City of Z is compelling reading. Suspicious, fit to the ultimate buffness, unforgiving, short-tempered and pitiless, the mad and manly Fawcett would seem a perfect role for Brad Pitt, who has bought the movie rights and will be filming in Bolivia this year. What is he, nuts?
National Geographic's Lost Cities of the Amazon is a video on Heckenberger's research, with more detail about Orellana and worth investigating as well.