Illustration of El Dorado

The Lost City of Z and the Mysterious Disappearance of Percy Fawcett

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Since Europeans first arrived in the New World, there have been stories of a legendary jungle city of gold, sometimes referred to as El Dorado.  Spanish Conquistador, Francisco de Orellana was the first to venture along the Rio Negro in search of this fabled city.  In 1925, at the age of 58, explorer Percy Fawcett headed into the jungles of Brazil to find a mysterious lost city he called “Z”.  He and his team would vanish without a trace and the story would turn out be one of the biggest news stories of his day.  Despite countless rescue missions, Fawcett was never found.  Was he killed by Amazonian tribesmen? And is there any factual basis for his Lost City of Z?

Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett was born in England in 1867 and was a famous British explorer who’s legendary adventures captivated the world.  An officer in the Army and trained surveyor, Fawcett was the last of the great territorial explorers; men who ventured into blank spots on the map with little more than a machete and a compass.  For years he would survive without contact in the wilderness, and befriend tribes who had never before seen a white man.  His exploits in the Amazon inspired books and Hollywood movies; Indiana Jones is purportedly based on Fawcett.

Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett in 1911.

Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett in 1911. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The Amazon wilderness is about the size of the continental United States and during Fawcett’s time, it remained one of the last unexplored regions on the map.  In 1906, the Royal Geographical Society, a British organization that sponsors scientific expeditions, invited Fawcett to survey part of the frontier between Brazil and Bolivia.  He spent 18 months in the Mato Grosso area and it was during his various expeditions that Fawcett became obsessed with the idea of lost civilizations in this area.

The wild wilderness of the Amazon in Brazil, where Percy Fawcett conducted numerous expeditions

The wild wilderness of the Amazon in Brazil, where Percy Fawcett conducted numerous expeditions ( Wikimedia Commons )

Fawcett describes the city of Z

Fawcett formulated theories of a city he called ‘Z’ in 1912.  His conviction was fueled in part by the rediscovery of the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu, in 1911, hidden away in Peru’s Andes Mountains.  During his travels, Fawcett also heard rumors of a secret city buried in the jungles of Chile that was said to have streets paved in silver and roofs made of gold.  Of Z itself, Fawcett had a specific idea of what the city looked like.  In a letter to his son Brian, Fawcett wrote:

I expect the ruins to be monolithic in character, more ancient than the oldest Egyptian discoveries. Judging by inscriptions found in many parts of Brazil, the inhabitants used an alphabetical writing allied to many ancient European and Asian scripts. There are rumors, too, of a strange source of light in the buildings, a phenomenon that filled with terror the Indians who claimed to have seen it.
The central place I call “Z” — our main objective — is in a valley surmounted by lofty mountains. The valley is about ten miles wide, and the city is on an eminence in the middle of it, approached by a barreled roadway of stone. The houses are low and windowless, and there is a pyramidal temple. The inhabitants of the place are fairly numerous, they keep domestic animals, and they have well-developed mines in the surrounding hills. Not far away is a second town, but the people living in it are of an inferior order to those of “Z.” Farther to the south is another large city, half buried and completely destroyed.

Manuscript 512

In 1920, Fawcett came across a document in the National Library of Rio De Janeiro called Manuscript 512.  It was written by a Portuguese explorer in 1753, who claimed to have found a walled city deep in the Mato Grosso region of the Amazon rainforest, reminiscent of ancient Greece.  The manuscript described a lost, silver laden city with multi-storied buildings, soaring stone arches, wide streets leading down towards a lake on which the explorer had seen two white Indians in a canoe.  On the sides of a building were carved letters that seemed to resemble Greek or an early European alphabet.  These claims were dismissed by archaeologists who believed the jungles could not hold such large cities, but for Fawcett, it all came together.


Peter Harrap's picture

I have a good copy I treasure of “Exploration Fawcett” by the man himself edited from his diaries by his son Brian. It is my favourite travel book, and can enlarge enormously upon your feel for the guy, who was quite extra-ordinary.

He was a far greater explorer than were Scott or Amundsen, because he surveyed entire areas that his expeditions mapped for the first time. How he survived as long as he did is a miracle.

The number of accounts of how they died is huge, as are the number of bones claimed as theirs (some examined by the Royal Anthropological Institute in London and not his), but you need to read this account even to gain an inkling of how much work he did there, and now they are finding old towns overgrown by jungle everywhere he looked!!


How he survived as long as he did was no miracle. He did it with the help of the indigenous peoples of that region, as did the ungrateful white europeans here in the USA, many of whose descendents, who read only history written by their own kind, if indeed they read anything at all, prefer to see as a "miracle", as apparently do you, Peter Harrap.

Tsurugi's picture

This descendant of ungrateful white Europeans would be thrilled to read other histories. You've got history books written by Amazonian and North American tribes?? That's amazing.

If you get a chance, you might want to look up the definition of the word "indigenous"--you know, since most of the North American tribes have traditions saying they came here from somewhere else.
Take your time though. It must be tiring, carrying that giant chip on your shoulder everywhere you go.

Pathetic statement coming from a guy living in the US poo pooing on an Englishman traveling what is today still an extremely dangerous area of the Amazon. Of course he used indigenous peoples, he would be an idiot if he didn't. The "miracle" is the fact you don't understand what a saying means to the reader. Instead you ignorantly keyed onto the word miracle as if he really meant it was mystery as to how he survived so long by himself... It's not like this was Fawcett's first time to the rodeo and if you read his accounts you would understand there were other opportunities for his untimely death. Keep hating Americans even though you live with them troll.

Please read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for a good collection of stories from the North American Indian point of view.


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