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March 27, 2010

The Lost City of Z

A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
David Grann - ISBN 978-1400078455

While not exactly a riveting read, "Z" is a very informative and interesting book about the life and quests of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. He was the most dedicated and famous archaeologist of crossover period of the 19th/20th century, and his final search was for the fabled city: the mythical El Dorado, which he referred to as "Z." It was first described by Carvajal, and the Spanish Conquistadores strove relentlessly in the 16th century to find it.

Fawcett was no less a fanatic than DeSoto and DeVaca, though his quest was for the satisfaction and the glory of (re?)discovery, not conquest or gold. He began as an officer in Britain's military, but quit to seek adventure as an archaeologist and surveyor. For the Royal Geographic Society of London he first went to South America to define the disputed and previously totally unexplored border regions between Brazil and Bolivia. Here he became enamored of the jungle, its terror, its predatory environment and its challenges. He always managed to emerge from his treks intact, surviving adventures which destroyed others who attempted such. He was unflappable and indestructible. Grann makes clear the heroic deeds of Fawcett: his almost inhuman endurance, his dedication, grit and determination . . . and his seeming resistance to virtually all of the health risks posed by this hostile environment.

He chronicles his numerous other adventures, as he pursues the man's biography and psyche in depth. In my opinion he pursued the latter--and some of the adventures as well--to a degree so extreme that it makes the text drag, and at times it's boring. Half-way through I found myself scanning whole pages, sometimes more, to get back into the flow of the interesting part of the narrative. Still, his descriptions of the jungle and its unknowns are fascinating. This is the most predatory environment in the world, with more poisonous plants, animals and bugs than can be imagined. The natives can be as dangerous as well It is a rainforest in which one cannot find potable water; neither can the amateur find food. The Amazon is the size of Continental United States, and includes an island the size of Switzerland. The outflow of the Amazon River is 60 times that of the Nile: 57 million gallons per second. It is 4,000 miles long with a delta 200 miles wide, with tidal variations up to 65 feet and waves which move at 15 mph. 200 miles in the Atlantic you still find fresh water.

The indigenous Indians are savvy beyond belief. They call into the "barren" jungle, and a deer, boar or a monkey answers the call . . . to become food. The average explorer has for centuries limited himself largely to water transport, so the inlands and uplands were, and to great extent still are unexplored. Fawcett went on foot, overland, and discovered things not seen by others, including isolated tribes with which he had a knack of establishing friendly relations. He worked diligently to become reasonably conversant in the native languages. On his last expedition he found and commented upon elevated flatlands where there were hundreds of artifacts--mostly potsherds--in the remotest of places. He had actually found what he was looking for, but didn't recognize it.

He disappeared, along with his son and another young friend; they were never seen again. Numerous search parties were launched over nearly a century. None were successful. The death toll of those adventurers is estimated at over 100. The author was successful! He discloses his own quest in some detail. Having arrived in the area his intensive research had determined to be the probably location of "Z," he encountered an American archaeologist who had lived and studied in the area for 13 years. He undertook to explain, in finality, that El Dorado wasn't and isn't about gold, but about the discovery of an enormous (perhaps a million people) settlement dating from pre-Columbian, and perhaps pre-Christian times, lost in the heart of the Amazon. This was discussed in the book 1491 (reviewed here a year or more ago) in some detail. Atop enormous filled land were circular mounds 3 miles in circumference and connected by roads to at least 20 others in the area. The fill has human fingerprints all over it. These were wholly manufactured fields in this most desolate, infertile "desert jungle." It is estimated to have supported a huge population, the likes of this were never before suspected. They do, however, confirm what the conquistadors reported--massive settlements which, when return expeditions were made a century later, could not be found. They'd been decimated by European diseases before being revisited . . . and in most cases before the Europeans ever arrived. The diseases preceded them.

So Fawcett's quest was in vain because he wasn't looking for what he was looking at! He hadn't correctly interpreted what he found. Not altogether unlike the accidental discovery of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia. It was covered by jungle. Overlooked for centuries . . . and Angkor was constructed of stone. "Z" was constructed of perishables, on labor intensive mounds which escaped proper interpretation until the last decade or so.

The book is fascinating and I recommend it highly for those who are interested in Archaeology. Just "fast forward through the boring parts." And if you haven't, you should also read 1491.

Posted by Curmudgeon at March 27, 2010 3:30 PM