Pre-Columbian civilization in the Amazon

Image of The Lost City of Z, about a previously undiscovered pre-Columbian civilization

You may not have heard of Colonel Percy Fawcett, but it’s entirely possible your grandchildren will come to think of him in the company of Henry Stanley, David Livingstone, Heinrich Schliemann, Howard Carter, and Hiram Bingham. Fawcett, an eccentric Englishman with nearly superhuman survival skills, was the most famous explorer of the early 20th Century. This deeply engrossing book traces his amazing story from his early days in the British colonial army in Sri Lanka through his many fabled travels through the then-uncharted Amazon Basin, to his tragic end there in 1925. Fawcett’s adventures uncovered previously unknown facts about pre-Columbian civilization.


The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann (2009) 352 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)


Fawcett, his young son Jack, and Jack’s good friend, Raleigh Rimmel, disappeared after penetrating the Amazon jungle in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state more deeply than anyone 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 hand of a tribe immune to his considerable diplomatic ability.

An ancient pre-Columbian civilization populated by millions

Nearly until it comes to an end, The Lost City of Z appears to be the tale of a madman obsessed with an impossible vision: a lost civilization in the depths of the Amazon rainforest, where experts have long held that the region simply cannot support a sizable population or a sophisticated society. Imagine my surprise, then—imagine David Grann’s surprise!—when he discovered at the tail end of his researches that Fawcett was right all along! Thirteen years of intensive archaeological research led by Michael Heckenberger in the area where Fawcett disappeared in 1925 has turned up incontrovertible evidence of an ancient society—research that only very recently has been reported in scientific journals.

Why does this belated discovery come as such a surprise? Simple, really: the large buildings typical of that ancient society were constructed not of stone or brick—there’s none to be found in the jungle—but of natural 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 book. I enjoyed it immensely.

For further reading

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).

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

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