The Edwardian adventurer Percy Fawcett always had a way of defying the odds — until he vanished among the thick canopies of the Amazonian jungle. Ever since his disappearance, many have speculated about what really happened to the experienced explorer. And, more exciting still, what he might’ve found in the wilds of Brazil.
The search for Z
Believed to have been one of the models for Indiana Jones, Fawcett, with his Stetson hat and fashionable beard, certainly looked the part. And when he ventured out in search of a lost South American metropolis dubbed simply Z, the whole world watched in fascination.
Would he defy his critics and emerge from the Amazon victorious? Or would his ambition finally take him past the point of no return?
As the months and years ticked by with no news from Fawcett’s expedition, his peers were forced to admit that he was lost. And one by one, they mounted search operations to establish the explorer’s fate.
But the reports that trickled out of the jungle were garbled and contradictory, shedding little light on what’d happened to the missing men.
An incredible secret
Almost 100 years after Fawcett’s doomed expedition, his story continues to fascinate and inspire. During that period, researchers have discovered that the lost city of Z mightn’t have been a red herring after all.
From deepest, darkest Brazil, where large areas of rainforest remain untouched by Western explorers, an incredible secret’s emerged.
In April 1925 Fawcett left Cuiabá, then an isolated settlement in the heart of the Amazon jungle, and headed out into the unknown.
His mission was one that’d consumed his life for the past decade: to locate the remains of a civilization that once thrived in the Mato Grosso state of Brazil. And despite ridicule from the scientific establishment, he remained convinced that he’d succeed.
But how’d the son of a noble Victorian womanizer wound up here, thousands of miles from home, about to trek out into uncharted territory? Born in Devon, England, in August 1867 Fawcett joined the military at a young age.
And in 1886 he shipped out to Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon at the time, to serve in the Royal Artillery.
Royal Geographical Society,
As he rose through the ranks, Fawcett thrived in this new environment, spending his time roaming the ancient ruins of Ceylon. But still he craved more adventure.
And in 1901 he joined the Royal Geographical Society, or RGS, to hone his skills as an explorer, learning how to make maps and survey the land.
By the early 20th century, though, unexplored wildernesses were becoming pretty thin on the ground. So when Fawcett was offered a RGS commission to chart the jungle regions between Bolivia and Brazil, he jumped at the chance.
And in 1906 he traveled to the city of La Paz to begin his expedition — the first of many forays into the depths of the Amazon.
Hooked on the Amazon
From that moment onwards, Fawcett was hooked. And over the next two decades he returned to the Amazon a further six times, despite having a wife and young children at home.
During his expeditions, he traced rivers to their sources, mapped the uncharted jungle, and documented all manner of strange creatures.
The Lost World.
As Fawcett explored what he called “the last great blank space in the world,” he became a celebrity, his exploits recounted in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.
In fact, his adventures in the Amazon are said to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World in 1912.
A wild theory
In that book, a group of intrepid adventurers discover a remote region populated by dinosaurs.
And even though Fawcett didn’t spot any prehistoric creatures in the Amazonian jungle, he found himself drawn to an idea that many considered almost as far-fetched. By 1914, you see, he’d developed an extraordinary theory that challenged several popularly held beliefs.
On his wanderings through South America, Fawcett went to great pains to catalog the different cultures he encountered. And as he did, he realized that something wasn’t quite adding up.
At the time, most Western archaeologists held that the Amazon had always been an inhospitable place, inhabited by scattered tribes and not conducive to sizable civilizations.
After speaking with local tribes, though, a different story emerged. According to them, there were great ruins buried within the region, relics of a civilization far more advanced than anything found in the Amazon today. And these weren’t just stories, either.
On his expeditions, Fawcett also uncovered several out-of-place artifacts that hinted at the existence of a lost people.
Delving into the history books, Fawcett discovered reports from the Spanish conquistadors who’d been among the first Europeans to visit the Amazon.
And in them, he found accounts of big towns dotted throughout the jungle, connected by a network of roads. So were his peers back in England, he wondered, completely mistaken in their beliefs?
For the fellows of the RGS, the idea that an advanced civilization once thrived in the Amazon jungle was a complicated one.
After all, part of their remit was to justify the march of the British Empire by painting foreign peoples as savages who needed to be tamed. But if these great cities had existed, the indigenous inhabitants of Brazil clearly weren’t as primitive as many believed.
On the back of his discoveries, Fawcett formulated a theory: Brazil’s Mato Grosso state had once been home to an advanced culture.
He knew, of course, that tribes across South America had been wiped out by the arrival of European infections on their shores. Might the same fate have befallen these people, leaving their cities to be taken over by the jungle?
The birth of Z
Over time, Fawcett came to believe that some remnants of this civilization had survived in the form of a ruined metropolis, which he dubbed Z.
But before he could head to the Amazon to prove his theory, the political tensions of the early 20th century escalated into World War I. And despite his advanced years, he enlisted to fight.
After World War I
After the war, a psychologically scarred Fawcett returned to England, where he grew increasingly obsessed with finding Z. Yet the scientific establishment saw his theories as little more than fairy tales and refused to fund an investigation.
Undaunted, he mounted his own expedition to the Amazon, penetrating deep into the unexplored jungles of Mato Grosso.
This first expedition, though, was ultimately unsuccessful: a disease-stricken Fawcett was forced to shoot his horse and retrace his footsteps.
But before long, he’d begun planning his next attempt. This time, he turned to the U.S. for funding, securing the support of both the Museum of the American Indian and the American Geographical Society.
Lawrence of Arabia
While Fawcett’s plans might’ve raised a few eyebrows in the academic world, they raised heart rates elsewhere. As the public clamored for updates from the celebrity explorer, several individuals put themselves forward as candidates for the next expedition.
Reportedly, even T. E. Lawrence — better known as Lawrence of Arabia — was among the volunteers.
Fawcett, though, didn’t appear interested in putting together an experienced team. Instead he opted to take his son Jack along for the ride.
At just 21 years of age, the young man had little in the way of field knowledge — though he was passionately committed to his father’s beliefs.
Together with Jack’s 23-year-old close pal Raleigh Rimmell, the two Fawcetts made their way to Cuiabá, determined to uncover the truth about Z at long last. And at first, things seemed to be going well.
But before long, the harsh jungle environment began to take its toll on the inexperienced younger men.
Dead Horse Camp
Finally, more than a month after their departure from Cuiabá, the three men arrived at Dead Horse Camp, where the earlier mission had been abandoned. Dispatching their native guides back home, they resolved to push on alone — despite Raleigh’s declining health.
And on May 29, 1925, Fawcett penned a letter to his wife Nina, telling her, “You need have no fear of any failure.”
With that, Fawcett and his two companions headed into the jungle — and were never seen or heard from again. At least, that’s the official line.
In reality, there are several conflicting theories that’ve emerged over the years in an attempt to explain what really happened to the explorers.
Lost in the jungle
At first, there was little panic surrounding Fawcett’s disappearance, even when the messages from the jungle ceased. After all, the explorer himself had warned that he might be out of touch for a long time.
But when two years passed without any contact from the men, many began to accept that they, just like Z, were lost.
In January 1927 the RGS announced that it was ready to assist any parties willing to travel to the Amazon and determine the fate of the missing men.
Had they been killed by hostile natives, perhaps, or succumbed to the perils of the jungle? Or were they simply lost or injured somewhere, waiting to be rescued and brought home.
According to Harry Costin, a long-time friend of Fawcett, the first theory seemed unlikely. Apparently, the explorer had been well-versed in local customs and was unlikely to have angered the native tribes.
In fact, he always brought gifts intended for local chiefs as a way to ensure smooth passage through the jungle.
In February 1928 a British Naval Air Force commander named George Dyott mounted the first of many rescue missions. Near the spot where Fawcett and his companions had disappeared, he encountered a village belonging to the Nahukwá.
According to reports, he grew suspicious of their leader, eventually concluding that this man had murdered the missing party.
After emerging from the jungle, Dyott wrote a book in which he claimed to have uncovered Fawcett’s fate. Yet many remained unconvinced by his story, which had scant evidence to support it.
In fact, Nina took the opportunity to publicly reiterate that her husband and son could still be alive.
Then, in 1932 Stefan Rattin, a Swiss-born hunter living in South America, wandered into the British Embassy in São Paulo, Brazil, with an incredible story to tell.
The previous year, he claimed, he’d encountered a Mato Grosso tribe with an unlikely guest: an aging white gentleman with flowing hair.
Apparently, the captive had identified himself as a British colonel and asked Rattin to seek help.
Referring to one of Fawcett’s close acquaintances by name, the hunter gained a degree of credibility — though most treated his claims with suspicion. Undaunted, he went off to rescue the explorer, only to vanish into the jungle himself.
For years, there were few developments – even if speculation did still continue as to Fawcett’s ultimate fate.
Then, in April 1951 Orlando Villas-Boas, a supporter of indigenous rights, announced that the men had been murdered by members of the Kalapalo tribe. And he even claimed to be in possession of the explorer’s bones.
Eventually, though, tests revealed that the bones didn’t belong to Fawcett, casting doubt on yet another explanation.
Still, the idea that the three men had somehow run afoul of the Kalapalo — and been killed in retaliation — endured. And today, it’s perhaps one of the most popular theories regarding their disappearance.
A jungle cult
There are still some, though, who believe that Fawcett and his companions simply succumbed to the challenges of the jungle, perhaps through heat exhaustion or starvation. One unusual theory claims that the explorer never planned to leave the Amazon at all.
Instead, according to writer Misha Williams, he established a commune and began practicing a cult-like religion centered around Jack.
As recently as 2005 intrepid explorers have followed Fawcett’s footsteps into the jungle, hoping to track down any sign of the missing explorer. And as a result, this century-old story’s never been far from the public eye.
In 2009, for example, journalist David Grann published The Lost City of Z, an account of his own attempt to solve the mystery.
Fawcett comes to Hollywood
Six years later, in 2016 a movie adaptation of Grann’s book was released, featuring Hollywood stars such as Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, and Charlie Hunnam. And with that, the larger-than-life character of Fawcett was brought to a new generation.
But even after the use of new technology and research techniques, the mystery of his disappearance remains unsolved.
In recent years, though, the story’s taken on a new dimension with the discovery of Kuhikugu, an archaeological site buried deep in the Amazon jungle.
Initially unearthed by the University of Florida’s Michael Heckenberger, this complex once comprised almost 30 separate settlements and covered an area of approximately 7,700 square miles.
Bridges and canals
Like Fawcett’s fabled Z, Kuhikugu’s located in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. And like Z, it once featured a complex network of roads connecting settlements that spread out across the jungle.
On top of that, Heckenberger also discovered evidence of structures such as bridges and canals, suggesting that the inhabitants of this lost metropolis had been advanced.
Reclaimed by the jungle
Had Heckenberger, then, stumbled across the remains of Z? According to experts, Kuhikugu was inhabited until the 17th century, when European viruses decimated the native population.
After that, the jungle quickly reclaimed the city — leaving little more than ruins and rumors by the time Fawcett arrived in the Amazon.
Unraveling the mystery
Unfortunately, we may never know for sure what happened to Fawcett and his companions when they left Dead Horse Camp and trekked out into the unknown. And 100 years later, it seems unlikely that any solid evidence will ever emerge.
But thanks to the work of researchers such as Heckenberger, we might finally be able to unravel the mystery of Z.