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Lost City of Z: The Mysterious Disappearance of Percy Fawcett

The explorer's disappearance continues to fascinate.

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  • Photo Credit: Internet Archive / Flickr

 "I expect the ruins to be monolithic in character, more ancient than the oldest Egyptian discoveries."  

That's how Percy Fawcett described the lost city—which he called Z "for the sake of convenience"—that he believed he could find in the depths of Amazon rainforest. No one knows what he found, for Percy Fawcett vanished in his quest to reach the lost city, never to be seen again. Well over a century later, the enduring mystery of Fawcett’s disappearance continues to beguile.

Before he set out to find the lost city of Z, which he thought might be the fabled city of gold commonly known as El Dorado, Fawcett had already made several expeditions to South America. His first was in 1906, during which he claimed to have shot a 62-foot-long anaconda, and spotted animals heretofore unknown to science, including giant spiders and cat-like dogs. 

A member of the Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett had served in the Royal Artillery and worked for the British Secret Service in North Africa. He was friends with authors like H. Rider Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Fawcett's expeditions served as partial inspirations for Doyle's adventure novel The Lost World .

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  • A young Percy Fawcett atop his horse

    Photo Credit: Getty Images

Between 1906 and 1924, Fawcett made no less than seven expeditions to South America, most of them in Brazil. During that time, he gradually formulated his theories about the lost city that he called Z. These theories were partly informed by his studies in the region, the accounts of natives, and his interest in the occult. Fawcett had been given a stone idol of black basalt by H. Rider Haggard. He believed that this idol might have a connection to both the lost city of Z and Atlantis.

According to letters published by Fawcett's son Brian after his disappearance, Fawcett took the idol to a "psychometrist." Pyschometry is the supposed psychic ability to feel or learn things about a place, event, or person by touching a related item. Fawcett’s psychometrist claimed to see a "large irregularly shaped continent stretching from the north coast of Africa across to South America." The psychometrist then claimed to see earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and to hear a voice that said, "The judgment of Atlanta will be the fate of all who presume to deific power!" 

Fawcett believed that it was possible that Atlantis had once been connected to Brazil, and that "belief in it—with or without scientific corroboration—affords explanations for many problems which are otherwise unsolved mysteries." Fawcett's search for the lost city of Z was put on hold by the outbreak of World War I, which saw Fawcett return to England to lead an artillery brigade. It wasn't until 1925 that he was finally able to renew his quest.

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  • Percy Fawcett in 1911

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fawcett's return to Brazil in 1925 was financed by a London-based group known simply as "the Glove.” On this trek, he took only a small number of companions: his eldest son Jack, Jack's friend Raleigh Rimmell, Brazilian porters, two horses, two dogs, and eight mules. The last communication from Fawcett's group with the outside world came from what was known as Dead Horse Camp, named for the place where Fawcett's horse had died on a previous expedition in 1920.

After that final letter, Fawcett, his son, and Raleigh Rimmell disappeared. Fawcett had left behind strict instructions that, should he not return, no rescue missions be sent, as the risk was simply too great. Regardless, many attempts were made to discover what had become of Fawcett's group, both immediately following his disappearance and in the years that followed. 

The true scale of these missions—and the lives they claimed—is as fabled as Fawcett’s own quest. Author David Grann claims in his book The Lost City of Z that scores of explorers plunged into the jungle, and as many as 100 men died as a result. Explorer John Hemming, on the other hand, asserts the number of expeditions to be far fewer, with just one person dying in the process. 

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  • An older Fawcett, taken not long before his final venture to South America

    Photo Credit: Getty Images

While many assumed that hostile tribes in the region had killed Fawcett and company, inevitably other stories and rumors about his fate surfaced. Some claimed that Fawcett had lost his memory and was living as the chieftain of a tribe of cannibals. Another tale suggested that Fawcett had, in fact, never intended to return to England; his true intention had been to establish a theosophical commune in the depths of the jungle, dedicated to the worship of his son Jack.

In 1951, an activist named Orlando Villa-Boas discovered bones, which he claimed were the remains of Percy Fawcett. Later scientific analysis proved otherwise. Fawcett's life and his quest for the lost city influenced countless fictional retellings and was the subject of more than one documentary film.

In 2005, writer David Grann visited the Kalapalo tribe of Brazil and discovered that they had passed down an oral history of a man he determined to be Fawcett, who they claimed had stayed at their village before heading eastward. The Kalapalo said that they saw smoke from the expedition's campfires for five nights after Fawcett and his companions left their village. In 2009, Grann published his findings in the aforementioned book The Lost City of Z. A film version, starring Charlie Hunnam, was released in April.

[Via History.com; The Telegraph; Wikipedia]  

Featured photo: Internet Archive / Flickr