Cover image of "The Lost City of Z," a book about exploration in the Amazon

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

You probably haven’t heard of Colonel Percy Fawcett. But in his day a century ago he was a superstar. The media of his time ranked him with such celebrated explorers as Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone, who searched for the source of the Nile; Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered Troy; Howard Carter (King Tut’s Tomb); and Hiram Bingham III (Machu Picchu). Fawcett (1867-1925) was an eccentric English soldier and geographer with superhuman survival skills. This engrossing book traces the man’s amazing story. From his early days in the British colonial army in Sri Lanka. Through his many fabled travels into the then-uncharted Amazon Basin. To his tragic end there in 1925. Fawcett’s adventures in search of the “lost city of Z” uncovered startling new facts about pre-Columbian civilization that only today we are coming to appreciate.

An obsessive quest for the “lost city of Z”

Fawcett, his eldest son Jack, and Jack’s good friend, Raleigh Rimmel, disappeared after penetrating the Amazon jungle in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state more deeply than any outsider had previously gone. On earlier trips, Fawcett had demonstrated a unique ability to befriend some of the region’s most hostile tribes, largely by demonstrating his extraordinary courage, an unwillingness to use force, and a gentle manner. Circumstantial evidence, much of it uncovered for the first time by David Grann in researching this book, points clearly to Fawcett and his companions’ deaths at the hands of a tribe immune to his considerable diplomatic ability.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann (2009) 352 pages ★★★★★ 

Overlap map showing the dimensions of the Amazon Basin
Most of us find it hard to grasp just how much territory the Amazon region covers. This overlay map suggests the true dimensions. It also makes clear that the Amazon is not confined to Brazil but straddles nine countries. Image: Reddit

An ancient pre-Columbian civilization populated by millions

Almost to the end, The Lost City of Z appears to be the tale of a madman obsessed with an impossible vision. Experts have long held that the Amazon region cannot support a sizable population or a sophisticated society. But Fawcett was right all along. Decades later, a University of Florida anthropologist named Michael Heckenberger returned to the area where Fawcett disappeared. There, after thirteen years of intensive archaeological research, he turned up incontrovertible evidence of an ancient society. Although Fawcett never realized it, he had indeed discovered the “lost city of Z.”

Image of Percy Fawcett and his companions in their search for the lost city of Z
Percy Fawcett and his colleagues in the Amazon. Fawcett is second from the left. Image: Adventure Journal

Why does this belated discovery come as such a surprise? Simple, really. The large buildings typical of that ancient society were not constructed of stone or brick. There’s none to be found in the jungle. Instead, the ancient Amazonians used products such as wood, vines, and fibers. No such buildings could possibly survive the onslaught of the rainforest once the society fell into decline and regular maintenance stopped. No matter how impressive, pre-Columbian civilization could not survive the onslaught of nature.

This is an exciting and satisfying book. I enjoyed it immensely.

About the author

Image of David Grann, author ot this book about the search for the lost city of Z
David Grann. Image: Matthew Richman via Guernica Magazine

David Grann has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 2003. Born in 1967 in Connecticut, he was the son of an oncologist father and a mother, Phyllis Grann, who was the first woman CEO of a major publishing firm. His work as a journalist has won numerous awards, including the George Polk Award. His later book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2017. Grann holds a BA from Connecticut College and an MA from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

I’ve also reviewed the author’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (The case that helped put the FBI on the map) and The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder (This bestselling maritime drama is hard to put down).

For my reviews of two other books about lost cities, see Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz (Join archaeologists at work around the world) and The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston (The true story of a lost city in Central America).

I’ve also reviewed David Grann’s excellent earlier book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (The case that helped put the FBI on the map).

This is one of the books I’ve included in my post, Gaining a global perspective on the world around us.

You may also enjoy browsing through 20 top nonfiction books about history and 10 great biographies. If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels. But if you’re looking for a broader view of human history, check out New perspectives on world history.

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