Note: The recent release of the film version of The Lost City of Z suggests that reposting this 2013 Fieldnotes review of the book is timely. Although the book has been around for a while, if you really care about possible spoilers, and you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to avoid this review at this time. You may want to just catch the movie instead or add this excellent book to your summer reading list (David Grann’s new book is Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI).
The Lost City of Z by David Grann (Vintage Departures/Vintage Books, 2009) is the story of the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who spent much of the early 20th century exploring and mapping the Amazon Basin. The City of Z is the name Fawcett used to refer to a mysterious, undiscovered ancient city he believed to exist in the Amazon basin. He endeavored to find the City of Z just as Machu Picchu and the cities of the Maya had been found by earlier generations of explorers. In the later years of his career, he made its discovery his only truly satisfying objective.
Fawcett in a sense was born late: he was a Victorian-vintage explorer in a post-Victorian age when singular adventurers were being replaced by exploration teams, expensive technology, publicity hounds, and professionals such as academics in the emerging fields of anthropology and archaeology. This kind of competition pushed Fawcett to extremes of daring and exposure to danger. He is thought of by some as a model for the Indiana Jones archetypal character of modern popular culture. He was strong and determined, and in middle-age he finally disappeared forever in the Amazon forest while looking for the City of Z. In the book the reader learns this quite early, and this big mystery is what much of the story is about.
The book covers the sensation Fawcett’s disappearance caused, the numerous expeditions that went looking for him (leading to more lost explorers), and the nature of facts about native cultures that may have given rise to the theory of a mysterious, lost, indigenous civilization located in the Amazon rain forest. This theory is now more resonant with fact but nuanced by actual cultural history than it was in Fawcett’s day.
With regard to the basis in fact for such a theory, The Lost City of Z harmonizes well with information about ancient South America in Charles C. Mann’s 1491, and brings to attention the Amazonian research of modern-day archaeologists such as Michael Heckenberger and someone who was a dear friend of many Northeastern U. S. archaeologists (including me), the late Jim Petersen. In his account of this research, Grann visits Heckenberger in native Amazonia and brings us closer it seems to where Fawcett went and what he was looking for. Fawcett or his remains were never found, and expeditions (some ill-fated) continue periodically to search for evidence of him. For maximum effect, read The Lost City of Z when you come home from a hot day in the woods.