Human beings have always been drawn to the prospect of mysterious, unexplored places. The thought that there is a place beyond our knowledge and understanding out there in some remote corner of the world enthralls us. Likewise, we have always been enamored with the idea of lost jungle cities and mythical lost civilizations. That some place could exist frozen in time and far from the modern world, waiting to be found in some ancient, forgotten corner has been a siren’s call for explorers throughout the ages.
The world it seems likes to keep its mysteries close. Some of these explorers have ventured forth into the dark jungles of the world seeking such places and failed to find what they were looking for. Yet others have gone forth into the unknown and never returned, leaving us to eternally wonder if they ever found what they were seeking. One such expedition was led by British explorer Percy Fawcett, who went in search of a mythical city within the unexplored jungles of the Amazon and dropped off the face of the earth, igniting an unsolved mystery that has endured for the better part of a century.
Percy Fawcett was one of the great explorers of the 20th century, a true, real-life Indiana Jones figure who spent much of his life mapping and charting unexplored parts of South America. Indeed, it has been said that Fawcett served as an inspiration in the creation of the character of Indiana Jones. Fawcett’s road to adventure started in the Royal Artillery, where he served in Ceylon. Fawcett found the military life to be far from satisfying. He yearned for adventure and exploring undiscovered lands. The many blank areas on maps of the time beckoned to him. Fawcett had always had a deep fascination with surveying, and so he pursued studies in this area by joining the Royal Geological Society in 1901, where he learned surveying, navigation, and mapmaking. He would later go on to join the British Secret service in North Africa in the hopes of furthering his surveying skills, though most of his duties required him to aid in spying on the sultan of Morocco.
In 1906, the president of the Royal Geological Society approached Fawcett with the prospect of mapping large portions of South America in the area of Bolivia and Brazil. At the time, much of this region was what was called “rubber country” due to its vast, untapped reserves of rubber trees, a highly valued resource at the time. The problem was that despite all of this economic potential there were few delineated borders within South America and much of it was uncharted, with no reliable maps. The lack of clearly defined borders had caused tension between South American countries vying for resources, and so the Royal Geological Society had been commissioned as a neutral third party to go in, map the area, and draw up borders. The Society had chosen Fawcett as the man they wanted to take over this challenging and dangerous undertaking.
Despite the innumerable dangers inherit to such a project, such as disease, dangerous animals, and unfriendly natives, for Fawcett it was a dream come true. He accepted the offer and later that same year, in June of 1906, embarked on what would be his first expedition into the Amazon. He was accompanied by his second in command, Arthur Chivers, 20 native porters, and numerous pack animals. These first steps into his exploration of South America would turn out to be less than smooth. At the time, the jungles of South America were considered to be untamed lands, long dismissed by Westerners as dark, savage, uninhabitable badlands. It was to be far from an easy undertaking.
On that first expedition, the geography of the region itself made things difficult from the start. The expedition and its pack mules carrying all of their supplies had trouble ascending the craggy, narrow, and precipitous path up the mountains that led to the area they were meant to map at 17,000 feet. On top of the supreme effort needed to make the perilous climb- the expedition was only covering a couple of miles every four hours- they had to contend with the thin air of those altitudes, which made the trek more strenuous and threatened to cause their pack animals to collapse with exhaustion.
Opon reaching their destination, it eventually took 18 months of toiling in harsh conditions and insect infested jungles to map out their section of the border and finish the job, during which Fawcett quickly gained a reputation as being a tough-as-nails, nigh indestructible explorer who never wavered in his resolve and seemed to be impervious to jungle parasites and diseases. He also was known for his peaceful approach towards native tribes, always shunning the use of firearms even when the natives were less than welcoming. As difficult as that first expedition had been, Fawcett would nevertheless ultimately spend 3 years with the Boundary Commission exploring and charting the region, losing quite a few men and coming close to death himself on several occasions.
All of these expeditions held tales of adventure and mystery and were fraught with peril. There were fights and disagreements within the groups, and on several occasions expeditions were attacked by native tribes, who were wary of outsiders. Natives once fired volleys of arrows at the explorers as they boated down the Heath River, and another time one boat pilot was found by Fawcett with reportedly 43 arrows sticking into him after going off into the jungle to inspect a road. Nevertheless, Fawcett continued to refuse to resort to violence against these tribes.
In addition to dealing with infighting and savage natives, the expeditions encountered various other dangers lurking within the uncharted jungles. A whole deadly menagerie of poisonous snakes and spiders, vampire bats, giant anacondas, electric eels, ferocious piranhas, jungle cats, and other dangerous animals all conspired to make the expedition members miserable. One expedition member lost several fingers to piranhas, and on another occasion, an enormous anaconda was shot and killed which was estimated by Fawcett to have been over 60 feet long. Fawcett also described horrifying bugs such as large ticks that attached like leeches, red, hairy, flesh-eating chiggers, cyanide-squirting millipedes, and the so-called "sauba ants," that could reportedly reduce clothing and bedding to threads in a single night.
The ever present specter of disease and parasites also hung heavily over the expeditions. The thick clouds of mosquitoes in the region carried a myriad of diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and elephantiasis. There were also parasitic worms that caused blindness, and flies that used stingers to deposit larvae into the skin that would then proceed to burrow through flesh. On one expedition in 1911, Fawcett was accompanied by the famed polar explorer James Murray and another explorer by the name of Henry Costin. Murray's knee became infested with maggots, which convinced Fawcett to drop him from the expedition at a remote outpost settlement, and Costin was infected by a flesh eating parasitic worm that ate away most of his face and caused him to lose his sanity. Fawcett, as usual, remained unscathed.
Even the landscape itself did not seem to want Fawcett’s expeditions to survive. One expedition lost most of its supplies when some of their rafts were thrown by rapids off of a waterfall to be dashed to pieces on the rocks below. On another trip, while trying to determine the source of the Rio Verde, the expedition faced starvation when they had to abandon most of their food supplies due to unnavigable rapids. They left most of their supplies and continued along the river on foot. The journey took longer than anticipated, and the crew spent 10 days living off little more than some bird eggs and rotten honey before they found the river source. They then made their way across the perilous and alien terrain of the Ricardo Franco Hills, which Fawcett noted as being flat topped and with vegetation on the top that was cut off from the jungle below. It was these mysterious flat-topped hills with their isolated forests in the clouds that would later inspire Fawcett’s friend, Arthur Conan Doyle, to write his famous book “The Lost World.” The expedition was finally able to kill a deer to survive, and after 20 days without food were able to make it across the landscape to complete the job. Five of the original nine members of the expedition had died of starvation.
Even in the face of such hardships, Fawcett loved what he did and was very good at it. Over the years, he charted vast swaths of unexplored territory and consistently produced detailed maps of areas no outsider had ever returned from alive. He became highly renowned for his abilities, garnering a reputation as an expert of South America.
In addition to charting the geography of South America and making geological finds, Fawcett also made several unique zoological discoveries. During his travels, he claimed to have catalogued new species of mysterious creatures not known to science, such as dogs he described as having double noses, and a giant, poisonous spider he called the “Apazauca spider.” Fawcett also reported twice seeing an unidentified creature the size of a hound said to have both canine and feline traits in Bolivia. The creature has come to be known as the Bolivian Mitla, as well as Fawcett’s Cat-Dog, and is only known from Fawcett’s own accounts.
It was during the later years of his various expeditions that Fawcett began to become obsessed with the idea of lost civilizations within the Amazon. He had always harbored a strange fascination with such things, and had reportedly spent some of his time in Ceylon looking for lost treasure in the jungles there after coming into possession of an old treasure map. In 1920, Fawcett came across 18th century documents in the National Library of Rio De Janeiro from a Portuguese explorer who had claimed to have found a walled city reminiscent of those of ancient Greece surrounded by high mountains deep within the Brazilian rainforest somewhere in the Mato Grosso region. The documents captured Fawcett’s imagination, and he became convinced that this lost city, which he called simply “Z,” was out there waiting to be found.
Although he first took the city to be that of some lost European settlers, Fawcett eventually worked the documents into an elaborate theory he had concocted concerning the lost continent of Atlantis, the survivors of which he surmised had made it to South America to construct a new civilization within the jungles of Brazil. This theory was further strengthened when Fawcett received a jungle relic in the form of a 10 inch black basalt figurine from Sir H. Rider Haggard. Fawcett, who had spent many years studying and dabbling in the occult, had the figure examined by a psychometrist, a person who is said to be able to invoke the origin of objects just by holding them. The psychometrist informed Fawcett that the basalt idol had come from Atlantis. The idol and the existence of Z seemed to validate Fawcett's theory, and so he thought he would be able to prove his ideas as true if he could only locate the city.
Fawcett's conviction that Z existed was fueled by the discovery of other lost cities within the jungles of South America in prior years. In 1911, the America explorer Hiram Bingham had discovered the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, hidden away in Peru's Andes Mountains, a groundbreaking find that had made him famous. During his travels, Fawcett had 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 very specific idea of what the city would be like. In a letter to his son Brian, Fawcett described the lost city of Z:
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 barrelled 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.
In 1921, Fawcett set out to find Z but this first expedition would turn out to be disastrous. Not long after departing, the men became demoralized by the constant hardships, dangerous animals, and diseases that were rampant in the jungles. The expedition quickly derailed, and Fawcett was left to try again. Undeterred, the ever tenacious explorer departed once again in search of his fabled city, this time completely by himself. Unafraid and undaunted by the perils of the jungle, Fawcett departed alone later that same year from Bahia in Brazil. He traveling for three months in this manner before returning in failure once again. The idea of the lost city of Z consumed Fawcett. Author David Grann, who wrote the book Exploration Fawcett: Journey to the Lost City of Z, ominously describes the explorer's obsession thus:
"There was, by the end, a maniacal quality to him. And I think with obsession, there are kind of two qualities about it: there is the fruits of obsession, which can lead to wonderful discoveries - Fawcett made many interesting discoveries - but there could also be a lethal quality to obsession, and in this case, there really was."
The years passed, but Fawcett’s overwhelming obsession did not fade. In April, 1925, he would try again to find Z, this time better equipped and prepared. Joining him this time were his good friend Raleigh Rimell, his eldest son, Jack Fawcett, two Brazilian laborers, eight mules, two horses, and a few dogs. It was a much smaller expedition than previous excursions, as Fawcett reasoned that fewer people would be less likely to be perceived as a threat and attacked by unfriendly native tribes. Fawcett never doubted for a minute that the mysterious city they sought was out there. He wrote:
"Whether we get through and emerge again or leave our bones to rot in there, one thing's certain, the answer to the enigma of ancient South America and perhaps of the prehistoric world - may be found when those old cities are located and opened up to scientific research. That the cities exist, I know.
The expedition was very well-equipped and well-financed by various scientific societies and newspapers. They were also well prepared, with their journey meticulously plotted and planned out. With such resources, preparation, supplies, and under the leadership of such an accomplished and experienced explorer, it seemed that nothing could possibly go wrong. The expedition embarked on April 20, 1925, from the town of Cuiabá. As they started their trek into the Amazon, Fawcett uttered the simple and somewhat haunting words:
“The forest in these solitudes is always full of voices, the soft whisperings of those who came before....”
On May 29th, 1925, Fawcett and company had reached the edge of unexplored territory, staring into jungles that no outsider had ever seen before. He explained in a letter that they were crossing the Upper Xingu, a southeastern tributary of the Amazon River and had sent their Brazilian travel companions back, wishing to continue on alone. At this point, Fawcett still seemed very confident in his ultimate success. At a place called Dead Horse Camp, so named because he had had to shoot a horse there on a previous expedition, Fawcett proclaimed "We hope to get through this region in a few days.... You need have no fear of any failure." With those positive words, the expedition pressed on into uncharted jungle. It was to be the last anyone would ever hear from them.
The expedition had previously stated that they had planned to be gone for around a year, so when two years passed without any word from them, people began to worry. Fawcett’s expedition to find the City of Z had been much publicized, so there were millions of supporters back home who collectively scratched their heads at the prospect of such an esteemed and seasoned explorer disappearing without a trace. At first, people assumed that the explorer must have been killed by aggressive native tribes or wild animals, or perhaps had succumbed to disease, but nobody knew for sure. People wanted answers, but this was hindered by Fawcett’s own insistence that no one ever come looking for him if he should disappear.
Not long after the expedition's disappearance, a tantalizing piece of evidence surfaced in 1927, when a nameplate belonging to Fawcett was found in the possession of an indigenous tribe, but this would later prove to be a memento from an expedition the explorer had taken 5 years prior. Fawcett's son, Brian, made two separate trips to the region to try and figure out what was going on. During one of his trips, a rather compelling story was relayed to him by a French traveler in Lima, Peru. The traveler told Brian that he had come across an old man who had seemed sick and confused wandering along a jungle road in Minas Gerais, a Brazilian state near Mato Grosso. When asked his name, the old man allegedly had answered that he was Fawcett. The Frenchman had never heard of the explorer and so had thought nothing of the encounter until talking to Brian.
It was not long before Fawcett’s specific instructions to not look for him were ignored and expeditions were mounted to try and find out what had happened to him. Such efforts were encouraged by additional reports trickling out of the region of sightings of a very much alive Fawcett in the jungle and rumors that he had been captured by natives or even that he had somehow gotten amnesia and was now living as the chief of an Amazonian tribe. There was even a report of a dog emerging from the jungle that was thought to be one of the animals from Fawcett's expedition. Numerous expeditions seeking answers would be mounted within the ensuing decades, many of which were just as mysterious as Fawcett's own, and even those that would suffer the same fate.
One of the first proper expeditions to try and locate Fawcett was undertaken by the American explorer George Dyott in 1928. Dyott was accompanied by a film crew and gave regular progress reports throughout his investigation. Although the expedition was unable to locate Fawcett, they did manage to find a trunk that was thought to have belonged to the explorer. Dyott also claimed to have been told that the Aloique Indians had killed off the expedition not long after they’d pushed into the unexplored forest, a claim that was met with a high degree of skepticism due to the secondhand nature of the information. A chieftain of a local tribe had also reported to have seen an older white man traveling through the jungle accompanied by two younger men, although it was unknown what had become of them. Dyott’s expedition was finally forced to abandon their search after being driven off by hostile natives in the area and suffering the ravages of the harsh conditions.
In 1932, a Swiss trapper named Stefan Rattin claimed to have found an old Englishman living out in the jungle of the Mato Grosso region, where he was reportedly being held captive by Indians. The description certainly seemed to fit Fawcett, and Rattin himself later went back with two others to try and rescue him. They too would vanish into the jungle without a trace.
In 1933, a rather bizarre and ultimately doomed expedition was mounted by a famous B-movie star of the era by the name of Albert de Winton. De Winton was most well-known for roles in low budget jungle adventure films, and his search for the missing explorer seemed like a publicity stunt more than anything else. The actor approached the search for Fawcett with gusto and all of the tact only an attention-starved actor can muster, reportedly gaudily dressing up in a stereotypical Hollywood jungle explorer costume as if the expedition was but another role. Several months after heading into the jungle, a message arrived from de Winton delivered by an Indian runner that included the frightening and cryptic message: “I'm being held captive by a tribe. Please rescue me. Please save me.” The actor was never seen again, his fate uncertain, swallowed up by the jungle just as Fawcett had been.
In 1951, a Brazilian environmentalist named Orlando Villas Boas claimed to have come across the actual bones of Fawcett, and later stated that analysis had confirmed this. Fawcett's surviving family members refused to accept this and were suspicious that the bones seemed too small and lacked Fawcett's dentures. Indeed, further analysis established that the bones were not those of Fawcett, but rather the remains of a tall Indian tribesman. Villas Boas also made the claim that he had discovered the shocking revelation that the Kalopalo Indians had killed Fawcett, but in 1998 the English explorer Benedict Allen spoke with the tribe and they denied ever having any part in the disappearance of the Fawcett expedition.
In 1996, the rich banker James Lynch and his son tried their hand at an expedition in search of Fawcett which would turn out to be a harrowing ordeal. The party made their way to Fawcett's last known position, a place called Kuikuro village in the Xingu. There they were captured by a tribe known as the Kalapalos, who were known for their harsh punishments for trespassing into their territory. Lynch and company were held captive and the tribe threatened to execute them by piranha or jungle bees until the terrified banker offered up over 30,000 dollars in supplies and equipment in exchange for their release. Lynch came up with the theory that Fawcett had falsified his last known coordinates in order to throw off those who would follow, and that previous expeditions to determine his fate had been looking in the wrong place. Lynch would go on to claim in exasperation:
“I don’t think anyone will ever solve the mystery of Fawcett’s disappearance. It’s impossible.”
In total, 13 expeditions would be launched in an effort to find answers to Fawcett's fate, and over 100 people would lose their lives or join the doomed explorer to vanish into the jungle never to be heard from again. These expeditions were unable to find what they were seeking, but occasionally would turn up the odd trinket that would draw them deeper into the mystery and add just enough incentive for more people to try: a nameplate, a compass, a ring inscribed with the Fawcett family motto, a trunk, all ultimately leading to nothing. In addition to these relics, there were rumors of light skinned, blue eyed Indians in the forest that were said to be descendants of the lost expedition members. In 1943, a man by the name of Edmar Morel brought forward a white skinned Indian boy named Dulipé, who he claimed was the son of Jack Fawcett. In the end, it turned out the boy was just an albino and had no relation to Fawcett.
Steeped in such intrigue and mystery, the lost Fawcett expedition has attracted much speculation and numerous theories over the years, running the gamut from the somewhat plausible to the full on bizarre. Perhaps most believable is the idea that the expedition succumbed to disease, wild animals, starvation, hostile natives, or some other peril of the jungle. It is unclear how such a well equipped expedition led by a tough explorer who had survived countless other similar dangers could meet this fate, but it seems possible. The author David Grann himself stated after extensive research on the Fawcett expedition that this was what most likely had happened in the end. Still others maintain that the explorers ended up living with one of the many uncontacted tribes of the region, choosing to live in peace far from civilization. This has become a popular theory with many permutations.
In 2004, the writer and television director Misha Williams visited the area of Fawcett's expedition and obtained permission to search through previously off limits documents and correspondence. After analyzing these documents and speaking at length with Fawcett's surviving family members, Williams came to the conclusion that Fawcett had never planned to return, and had intended to form a new society out in the jungle based on the tenets of a belief system known as theosophy. According to Williams, Fawcett intentionally disappeared to start his cult like commune, and went through great lengths to make sure no one would ever find him. He claims that others were planning to secretly join Fawcett at a later time and that the explorer was rather enamored with the idea of going to live in the jungle, once writing:
'The English go native very easily. There is no disgrace in it. On the contrary, in my opinion it shows a creditable regard for the real things in life.'
Other versions of the "going native" theory exist as well. The Italian scientist Michele Trucchi, who had conducted his own expedition to the area, claimed that Fawcett and Rimmel had died early on and that only Jack Fawcett had survived. Trucchi said that the eldest son of Fawcett had contracted leprosy and decided to stay behind with Indians to live out the rest of his days away from civilization. A Brazilian ethnologist by the name of Willy Aureli had his own version of the theory, stating that Fawcett himself was the only survivor, and that he had eventually become the chief of a tribe of cannibals.
A more bizarre and outlandish theory that briefly gained some traction with more fringe elements is the idea that Fawcett found the opening to a vast, magical subterranean city in the Roncador Mountains and descended into its depths where he continues to live to this day. Several mysterious letters over the years were purported to support this theory. One letter was received by Fawcett's youngest son Brian in 1952. The letter was allegedly from a German settler living in Brazil and it was written:
"Your father and brother were advanced souls who were actually worshipped by the Indians and were alive in the subterranean cities of Matalir and Araracauga in the Rocandor section of Mato Grosso... from these secret places issued Flying Saucers to make global reconnaissance flights."
Another letter was allegedly received in 1956 by Dr. Henrique de Souza, president of the Sociedade de Teosofica Brasileira. The letter in this case was similar, stating that Fawcett was still alive and living underground in " a subterranean city in the Serra do Roncador in Mato Grosso."
The theory that Fawcett was living in some mysterious underground city became so popular that in the 1960s, a man named Udo Lucknor formed a cult around it called the Magical Nucleus. Calling himself "The High Priest of the Roncador," Lucknor claimed that Fawcett's City of Z was a spiritual realm that the explorer had gained access to through his indomitable will. The cult sought to locate the portal to this magical world and join Fawcett there. The cult disbanded in 1982, when their doomsday prediction of the world's end failed to pan out.
One other theory is that Fawcett actually found what he was looking for. In this scenario, Fawcett found his beloved City of Z, and it was so grand and magnificent that he chose to spend the remainder of his days there in its grandeur, forever hidden from the outside world. It is an alluring idea to think that after so much toil and hardship the intrepid explorer had finally found his own Shangri La standing in the jungle just as striking and majestic as he had always imagined it would be.
What happened to Fawcett and his expedition? What secrets are the trees privy to that have managed to evade us? After all of these years, nobody knows. The disappearance of the Fawcett expedition remains one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century, and has led to one of the longest ongoing manhunts ever. One wonder what events unfolded there in the thick Amazonian jungles all those years ago. Did Fawcett find what he was looking for? Did he live out his days in peace? Or did he finally succumb to the myriad dangers that he had managed to avoid for so long, his legendary luck finally running out? Perhaps we will never know. For now there are only echoes of the past pervading the trees. Perhaps Fawcett was right when he said those profound and somewhat hauntingly prophetic words "The forest in these solitudes is always full of voices, the soft whisperings of those who came before...." One could perhaps add "and after" to that.