Atlantis Code and Prophecy
1925 ... Amazon Jungle ... Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British archaeologist and explorer, long with his son, Jack, disappeared under unknown circumstances during an expedition to find what he believed to be an ancient lost city in the uncharted jungles of Brazil.
The History Channel presented a special about Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett
and his quest to find The Lost City of Z (Wikipedia)
Q&A with David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z March 26, 2009
Grann spoke to The Afterword about lost worlds, getting lost in the jungle, and the era of exploration.
The Afterword: For those who need to do a little brushing up on their explorers, who was Percy Fawcett?
He was the last of the great territorial explorers who ventured into blank spots on the map with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, he explored the Amazon, a wilderness area virtually the size of the continental United States. He became convinced that this impenetrable jungle concealed the remnants of an ancient civilization, which he named, simply, the City of Z. In 1925, he set out to find it with his twenty-one-year-old son and his son's best friend. They never returned, giving rise to what has been described as "the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century."
What drew you to him?
Several years ago I read that Fawcett had been one of the real-life inspirations for Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World. Curious, I plugged Fawcett's name into a newspaper database and was amazed by the headlines that came up, including "THREE MEN FACE CANNIBALS IN RELIC QUEST" and tribesmen "Seize Movie Actor Seeking to Rescue Fawcett." As I read each story, I became more and more curious about how Fawcett's disappearance had once captivated the world, how hundreds of scientists and adventurers tried to find Fawcett's party and the City of Z, and how countless seekers died or disappeared in the process. What intrigued me most, though, was the notion of Z. For years, most scientists had dismissed Fawcett's theory, insisting that conditions in the jungle were too brutal to support a complex society. But recently some archeologists had begun to challenge this long-held belief and thought that a place like Z might really have existed -- a discovery that would transform our understanding of what the Americas looked liked before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Suddenly, the mystery seemed irresistible.
You admit you were a, um, novice when it comes to camping. What were you thinking, and, how many people attempted to talk you out of this journey?
When I first started researching the story, I never thought I would venture into the jungle. I'm out of shape; I hate to camp; I suffer from a degenerative eye condition that makes it hard to see at night. My intention was simply to write Fawcett's biography, and I spent most of my time safely combing through libraries and archives. But one day I tracked down Fawcett's granddaughter, who, at her home in Wales, showed me a large wooden trunk. Inside was a hidden trove of Fawcett diaries and logbooks. They held new clues to Fawcett's fate and the whereabouts of Z. And it was at that point that I decided, despite warnings from others, to head into the jungle.
What is it about these lost societies -- El Dorado, Atlantis -- that intrigue us?
The fascination with lost cities seems eternal. I suspect that part of it, like the earlier searches for mythical kingdoms, such as Prester John, reflects a longing to find some place that is better or richer or more fabulous than the one we inhabit. In 1928, after tens of thousands of people volunteered to search for Fawcett and his missing party, an American newspaper marvelled, "Perhaps if there were a sufficient number of jungles available and enough expeditions to go round, we would see the spectacle of our whole population marching off in search of lost explorers, ancient civilizations, and something which it vaguely felt was missing in its life." I also think there is a deep curiosity about how real civilizations, such as the Incas or Mayans, once flourished and eventually died out. Some of this interest is practical: What did these people accomplish that might help us navigate our way? And some of the fascination is simply wonder at how others lived in different places and ages.
At one point, you were literally lost in the jungle. Was there a point that you wanted to quit and go home to your family?
Being lost in the jungle was definitely the most terrifying moment of my journey. At that point I was desperate to turn back, but it was too late: I couldn't find my way out.
What was harder: trekking through the jungle, or actually sitting down to write the book? How long did it take you to finish?
Physically, the Amazon was much tougher, but psychically I'd probably say the book, which took me nearly four years to research and write.
I was going to ask a question along the lines of "Isn't it depressing that there is nothing left to discover -- that there are no more "blank spots on the map" -- but I guess your book makes clear that isn't the case. What do you think is still out there to uncover?
Though Fawcett marked the end of the age of real territorial exploration, there are still relatively unknown places, especially in the Amazon. Even today, the Brazilian government estimates that there are more than sixty Amazonian tribes that have never been contacted by outsiders. Sydney Possuelo, who was in charge of the Brazilian department set up to protect Indian tribes, has said of these groups, "No one knows for sure who they are, where they are, how many they are, and what languages they speak." Archeologists, using satellite imagery and ground penetrating radars to pinpoint buried artifacts, are beginning to make extraordinary discoveries in the Amazon that are overturning virtually everything that was once believed about the region and its early inhabitants.
It seems there was a time when the explorer or the adventurer was THE celebrity. In recent years, Steve Fossett is the first person who comes to mind who may have been on this level. What will it take for the adventurer to become engrained in the public consciousness again? Astronauts going to Mars?
I am not sure if explorers will ever hold the same place in the popular imagination. Fawcett's legend once contributed to radio plays, novels (Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust is believed to have been influenced by Fawcett's saga), poems, documentaries, movies, stamps, children's stories, comic books, ballads, stage plays, graphic novels, and museum exhibits. As I discuss in my book, there were not only geographical circumstances that made these figures legends; there was an array of cultural forces as well.
Do you know of any new expeditions to search for Z?
I don't know of any at the moment. My hope is that the book will have sufficiently cleared up the endless mystery surrounding Fawcett's fate and the City of Z, though undoubtedly someone else will get bitten by the bug and go marching off.
Brad Pitt has optioned the film rights to the book. Are you involved in writing the screenplay?
The book is being adapted into a screenplay by James Gray, who is also going to direct. He just made the brilliant movie Two Lovers, and I feel like I'm in hands far more capable than mine when it comes to making a movie.
What's your next project, and how do you top this?
Right now I'm working on a story for The New Yorker about the death penalty. As for the next book, I probably won't realize I'm embarking on one until I'm so wrapped up in the subject that I do something foolish, like plunging into the Amazon.
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