[Image: Angkor Wat, Cambodia, a city reclaimed by the roots of trees; photographed by Kenro Izu].

I just finished reading a long and totally fascinating article by David Grann called “The Lost City of Z,” from an old issue of The New Yorker.

In it, Grann explores whether or not a city called “Z” might exist somewhere in the Brazilian rain forest – “a region nearly the size of the continental United States” – while tracking the life of a British explorer, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who “disappeared in the forest, along with his son and another companion” in 1925.

“Fawcett had been acclaimed as one of the last great amateur archeologists and cartographers,” Grann writes, “men who ventured into uncharted territories with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose.” Colonel Fawcett believed that, “in the southern basin of the Amazon, between the Tapajós and the Xingu tributaries,” lay Z, a ruined city lost to the jungles of time.

“To bolster his case that the ruins of Z would be found in the region,” Grann tells us, Fawcett “cited carvings that he had seen on rocks in the area, and documents that he had uncovered from Portuguese conquistadores in Brazilian archives. He quoted a Brazilan scholar, who declared, ‘My studies have convinced me that… there may yet be found in our forests, as yet penetrated in few places, ruins of ancient cities.'”

Because of Fawcett’s disappearance, however, at least 100 other explorers have lost themselves in the Amazon, looking for his remains (or, more likely, looking for Z). There was, of course, one crucial problem: Fawcett, funded by the Royal Geographical Society, kept his expeditionary path completely secret, even releasing false latitudinal coordinates for fear that someone else might steal the final prize: discovering, mapping, and documenting Z. Fawcett was exploring at “the peak of the British Empire,” we read, “a time when the English were constantly confronting and colonizing new, exotic civilizations; when imperial explorers such as David Livingstone were trying to map the so-called ‘dark continent’ of Africa; and when the Allan Quartermain novels by Fawcett’s friend H. Rider Haggard, which chronicle the intrepid adventurer’s discovery of ancient civilizations in Africa, were wildly popular.” The last thing he needed, in other words, was another explorer hot on his trail.

To make a (very) long story short, David Grann – the article’s author – visits Colonel Fawcett’s granddaughter in Cardiff, Wales, whereupon Grann discovers unpublished letters from Fawcett that reveal the expedition’s true route through the jungle. Thus Grann sets off for Brazil.

More and more information about Fawcett pops up. “One day, during a visit to a colonial archive in Rio de Janeiro,” Grann reports, “Fawcett discovered a document, partly eaten by worms, that was titled ‘Historical account of a large, hidden, and very ancient city, without inhabitants, discovered in the year 1753.'” Within the document, Grann tells us, Fawcett learned about a Portuguese “soldier of fortune,” who, along with his expeditionary team, “ascended a mountain path” to find “a spellbinding vista: below them were the ruins of an ancient city. The men climbed down, and discovered stone arches, a statue, wide roads, and a temple with hieroglyphics.” Reading the account, Fawcett “became even more entranced with the idea of a lost civilization” – and, presumably, so did Grann.

Now in Brazil, Grann – carefully tracking Fawcett’s final self-enforestation – is taken by a guide to the ruins of an enormous ranch built deep in what used to be jungle; what he sees there shocks him: “The farm had been consumed by jungle in just a few decades, and I wondered how actual ancient ruins could possibly survive in such a hostile environment. For the first time, I had some sense of how it might be possible for the remnants of a civilization simply to disappear.”

Several pages ensue in which Grann hears contradictory tales of a kidnapped white man paraded through the territories of various tribes back in the 1930s; albino children; “very bad Indians”; and “a colossal man,” named Afukaká, “his arms as thick as legs, his legs as big as a chest.”

But then my eyes started popping out of my head, because here Grann meets Michael Heckenberger, a “highly regarded professor at the University of Florida,” who was doing field work in the upper Xingu basin.

[Image: NASA, satellite views of Brazil’s Xingu National Park].

Prof. Heckenberger “had battled everything from malaria to snakes to virulent bacteria that made his skin peel off and forced him to boil his garments twice a day.” He looked “a little like a surfer.” Familiar with Fawcett’s story, the archaeologist then turns to Grann and says: “I want to show you something.” He grabs a machete and they walk together, more than a mile into the forest, “cutting away tendrils from trees, which shot upward, fighting for the glow of the sun.”

Then Heckenberger stops. He gestures at the ground: it’s sloping. Why is it sloping?

It used to be a moat.

“What do you mean, a moat?” Grann asks.

“A moat,” Heckenberger answers. “A defensive ditch.” It’s nearly a mile in diameter and more than 900 years old.

Heckenberger then shows Grann some excavation pits, where foundations of “palisade walls” are found, half-buried in black soil.

Turns out the group of them are standing in “the remains of a massive man-made landscape. There was not just one moat but three, arranged in concentric circles. There was a giant circular plaza where the vegetation had a different character than that of the rest of the forest, because it had once been swept clean. And there had been a sprawling neighborhood of dwellings, as evidenced by even denser black soil, which had been enriched by decomposed garbage and human waste.”

There were also the remains, Heckenberger explains, of “Roads. Causeways. Canals.”

So is it the city of Z? Or is Z still out there, waiting?

17 thoughts on “Z”

  1. Thank you for your summary. I second the recommendation – I can remember the night I read that article in my weekly New Yorker dose. It is a fascinating story, and I certainly finished it with the tingling feeling that Z has been found… that it has been right under everyone’s noses all along. Grann masterfully weaves the pieces together into a difinative opus. We should figure out how to get that article online so it can be read by a wider audience…

  2. Imo it’s worth pointing out that the very height of the English Empire may well have been around Livingstone’s time (mid 19th C), but by 1925 the English economy was so severely devastated, and independence movements had begun in their colonies.
    The Rider-Haggard connection is very interesting, of course, and one wonders whether the explorers were not propelled more by “narrative” than empirical motives. Worth reading is Patrick Brantlinger’s introduction to Rider-Haggard’s She: a history of adventure.

  3. Geist, do you know The Imperial Archive by Thomas Richards? It’s unbelievable! I’ve been meaning to quote from it on BLDGBLOG for about a year now, so maybe the opportunity has finally come. It’s unbelievable, and strongly recommended from this end. Academic, but it’s got Rider Haggard, Wells, Indiana Jones, British mapping expeditions into Tibet, the space of the museum, even Count Dracula. Published by Verso. Here’s a link.

    And Ethan, that article could always be scanned and uploaded as a PDF, but it’d be unmanageably huge and my copy is fairly extensively underlined. Meanwhile, last week’s issue (I think) has an article about Werner Herzog that’s totally worth reading, I highly recommend it.

  4. Oh nice, I remember this scene from the second Tomb Raider Movie. Watch it! Only for this showplace, of course, because otherwise it is just a pretty average action flick.

  5. Geoff, many thanks for the tip-off on Imperial Archives, I’ve placed a hold on it at our library. I can’t recommend Brantlinger enough, since he has more than a “naive” Victorianist set of reflections on the period.

  6. Oh Nooo, you may slap me!
    The scene was from the first Tomb Raider Movie, and not the second one.
    Sorry for misinformation…

  7. And be sure to check out google image search with “tomb raider temple”. Will get you lots of people photographed in front of that magnificent tree.

  8. Who’s got a Google Earth link to Heckenberger’s research location? A series of mile-diameter concentric moats and a change in foliage types should be pretty visible.

    -Jason Cobill

  9. Leberwurst, no worries. I won’t slap you. And Jason, I’d love to find this site on Google Earth; there are some photos of the excavation on Heckenberger’s own website – one of the links up there, in the post, goes there, and you can see the big circle, etc. If you do find it on Google Earth let me know! I’ll add a link.

    And geist, enjoy the book – the library is definitely a safer bet, in case you disagree with my opinion. But let me know what you think.

  10. Great article, thanks. I hope to track down the New Yorker version some time.

    I’ve read about the work of Heckenberger before and his collegue James Peterson (who unfortunately was recently murdered while in Brazil by robbers). You may be interested in this article about the connections between Amazonian civilisation Terra Preta Do Indio, a highly fertile soil, the deposits of which are thought to be one of the few remnants of a vast network of agricultural villages and towns that once dotted the Amazonian basin. I also did a post about this almost exactly a year ago which examined an early eye-witness account of this civilisation by the Conquistador, Francisco de Orellana who accidentally discovered the Amazon river and sailed its full length in 1541-42.

  11. hehe, one year later….
    “Nogoku” 12°21’10.00″S 53°13’31.56″O
    “Hialugihïtï” 12°22’32.92″S 53°11’35.97″O
    “Akagahïtï” 12°25’10.23″S 53° 9’47.11″O
    “Secu” 12°26’54.12″S 53° 9’4.41″O
    “Sehu” 12°28’27.77″S 53° 8’21.65″O
    “Kuhikugu” 12°33’31.19″S 53° 6’35.62″O

  12. this is first time for answer to blogg. My Dad owned 4,500 square miles of ground in Brazil, most of it 125 miles east of Serra do Roncador, Serra do Roncador the north south mountain range deviding the Araguia River from the Xingu rivier drainage basins. Some of Dad’s land was on the western downsloping edge of that north south running mountain range, an area where Colonial Faucett was first thought to have disagppeared. an area at the time occupied by the xavante indians, a tribe of indians that killed all explorers who tried to enter their land, a tribe who is suspected of killing Colonial Faucett.This was and still is a dangerous place to go in search of Faucett. The Motto Grosso. tropical savanna land with grassland and few scrub trees, jungle only in river flood plains, runs west from Roncador across the north side headwaters of the Rio dos Mortes(River of Death) named for the fact the xavantes killed all whom they cought entering their land. Dad’s partner, Arpad Szuecs, was in charge of: surveying the capitol, Brazillia, was in charge of building that city’s international airport, was in charge of building BR14 to connect Brazillia to Rio and later to Belem, Was put in charge of the Construction of the Trans Amazonian Highway, Art had many mines scattered over Brazil two of which included the Caraniba and one other emeral mine he discovered. In 1958, My uncle, Ben Selig, and Art went up the Rio dos Mortes (river of death). a river flowing from sw to ne and forming the southern border of the Motto Grosso. Water north of the Dos Mortes flows north into the Xingus headwaters, the Xingu flowing north across many falls and rappids before finally raching the Amazon. It was in the headwaters area of the Xingu that it was first thouht that Colonial Percy Faucett the area where percy Faucett disappeared. By the late 60s, Art had set up 52 gold mines mining alluvial gold in the xingu headwaters, 52 gold mines in the heart of the Xavante Indiana territory, 52 gold mines in the Motto Grosso, or Faucett land as it becme known, The gree hell. The mines were found on horsback, the minors cleared landing strips, the minors were dropped off and recieved supplies fron airplanes. There were no road within 200 miles. As the planes flew off,he minors were left to fend for themselves against the Xavantes. There were no roads for hundred of miles. The xavantes began relentlessly attacking the mining camps eventually banning together and attackin in mass, attackers numbering up to 75. Minors and indians starrted showing up in local hospitals with arrow and bullet wounds. The minors even started attacing each other. The militery government put an end to all this and kicked the mines out of the area confiscating all the mining equiqment (trough like gold separaters). In 1969, the militery suspended the consstitution, imprisoned the parliament, nationalized the radio and TVs, suspended the court system, shut down and censored the news papers and started ruling by decree law. They passed a decree law stating that foreigners could not own land in Brazill. A person who had bought land from Dad came to Indianapolis and shot and killed him. The militery put thousands in prison including Art. He, along with several thousand others, was tortured and forced to sign confessions against others the militery wished to imprison or kill. At one pointl, the militery took art into the woods and beat him up leaving him for dead. Art came to, crawled out of the woods and survived This era of militery rule has been refered to as Brazil’s “dark ages”. with no opposition, the militery moved the Xavantes to the west end of the Motto Grosso, took their land and started renting it to multinational companies for dollars on the acer. The land was stripped of trees, soy bean farms sprang up across the motto grosso. The motto grosso is now the largest soy bean producer in the world. Serra do Roncador is now in a natonal park but has become famous all over the world as a UFO tourist sight. Many sightings of UFOs have been claimed at Serra do Roncador, UFO tourism is big business in the near by town. Cults and mistics visit the area freazuently. Faucett believed stories that the survivors of the lost city of Atlantis came to Roncador and set up a civilization in a cave (garded by the Bat people Indians). Mistiques believe that the secret entrance will open up at some future time and flying saucers will appear and give wisdowm to the believers. Stories are told that the xavantes have made ccntact with the aliens twice and that the alians would come back a third time to give them wisdom. Please go on line and look up “the Great Web of Colonial Percy Faucett”

    This area has incredoble stories to be told. I am writing a book about it. Can we talk?

  13. Hello Spike.

    I think I've got some great storys about that as well. What's your contact? Cheers!


  14. Commenter Spike Selig returned to the blog to add this today:

    "New book out The Lost City of Z. Brad Pitt bought the rights to the book for a movie to be out this spring before the Oscars. My book will be entitled In the land by the River of Death, (The River of Death , called Rio dos Mortes got its name from the Xavante Indians who killed all who tried to enter its northern headwaters, those headwaters flowing from a ridge that divides the Mortes from the Xingu headwaters. I have found out since last post that the state of Tocantins, in 1985, declared the title to Dad's land invalid, sent the military in moved all off the land. Some land owners resisted and were shot and killed. The TV show Survivor Tocantins was held on Dad' 4,500 square miles of ground last spring. The Kalapao Indians in the Xingu headwaters are fighting the governments attempt to dam up the Zingu headwaters and create the largest man made lake in the world; The 840 pound emerald that made the front page of Wall Street Journal came from the Caraniba Emerald Mine, a mine discovered by by Dad and Uncles business pardner, Arpad Szuecs. The Kalapalo and Xavantes have been moved to reservations and their land leased to multinational Ag companies. The jungle etc is gone. The new dam would flood the city this blog thinks might be the Lost City of Z, 40 percent of Brazil's agricultural output is now coming from the Xingu headwaters. The Kalapalo discovered the main gold field, kicked out the minors (2,000) rented the gold mine to a mining company and became purportedly the highest per capital income society in the world. I found last week the government of Brazil took away their rights to the mine and now they are back to being vary poor. Bldg Blog should look at the new cities being built in the Xingu. They are fantastic!"

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