Since the time of the conquistadors, the legend of an ancient, lost civilisation deep in the Amazon forest has beguiled hundreds of explorers and led many to their deaths. Some called their dream El Dorado. Others, most notably Colonel Percy Fawcett, the gloriously moustached British explorer (and real-life model for Indiana Jones) named it the City of Z. But no one has ever returned from the Amazon with conclusive proof that such a place existed.
Three scientists have now come close to doing just that. The journal Antiquity has published a report showing more than 200 massive earthworks in the upper Amazon basin near Brazil’s border with Bolivia. From the sky it looks as if a series of geometric figures has been carved into the earth, but the archeologists and historians who published the report believe these shapes are the remains of roads, bridges, moats, avenues and squares that formed the basis for a sophisticated civilisation spanning 155 miles, which could have supported a population of 60,000. The remains date from AD200 to 1283.
It is an astonishing find — one that builds on recent archeological work in Brazil and northern Bolivia and the availability of Google Earth images of deforested sections of the Amazon. Since the 1980s anthropologists have begun to uncover evidence of advanced civilisations who lived in the Amazon basin: this latest development trumps them all.
David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z, believes the importance of this discovery cannot be overstated. “It shatters the prevailing notions of what the Amazon looked like before the arrival of Christopher Columbus,” he says.
“For centuries, scientists assumed the jungle was simply a death trap, a ‘counterfeit paradise’ where only small, primitive, nomadic tribes existed. These discoveries show the Amazon was, in fact, home to a large civilisation that pre-dated the Incas and built an extraordinarily sophisticated society with monumental earthworks.”
The dream of finding lost civilisations in South America has persisted for centuries, largely because of a couple of earth-shattering early successes. As John Hemming, a former director of the Royal Geographical Society, recounts in his 1978 book, The Search For El Dorado, it was the conquistadors who started the craze. In 1519 Hernan Cortes and his soldiers discovered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, in Mexico. In the early 1530s, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incan empire, in what is now Peru. The idea of a “golden city” somewhere deeper in the unexplored wilds was lodged in the European imagination and never released its hold.
Grann notes that in 1753 a Portuguese bandeirante — a soldier of fortune — emerged from the Amazon jungle and described how, “after a long and troublesome peregrination, incited by the insatiable greed of gold”, he had seen the ruins of an ancient city from a mountain top. The man walked into the city, discovering “stone arches, a statue, wide roads and a temple with hieroglyphics”. The bandeirante wrote: “The ruins well showed the size and grandeur which must have been there and how populous and opulent it had been in the age in which it flourished.”
Shortly before the outbreak of the first world war, Fawcett, who had been sent on previous exploratory missions to South America by the Royal Geographical Society, read the bandeirante’s report. He was gripped. But, as he was preparing maps for an expedition to find what he called the City of Z, war intervened. After the armistice in 1918, he tried to raise funds for an expedition to Z and was dismissed as a crackpot.
Fawcett — whose family motto was “Difficulties be damned” — was undeterred. In 1920 he led a shambolic mission to find the lost city which ended when he had to shoot his horse (at a site known thereafter as Dead Horse Camp). Fawcett’s expeditions often had this amateurish feel. He was known to leave for the jungle carrying only a 60lb backpack and a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Explorer. When his small party was ambushed by natives, Fawcett is said to have ordered his men to play musical instruments and sing Soldiers of the Queen while arrows landed around them.
The explorer’s eccentricity masked an increasingly fervent conviction in the existence of a lost city. He maintained, in his entreaties to the Royal Geographical Society for funds, that there were “the most remarkable relics of an ancient civilisation” in the Amazon. After his return from his abortive mission in 1920, he inveighed once more against his doubters. “It will of course come out,” he wrote, “that a modern Columbus was turned down in England.”
In 1925 Fawcett, near-destitute at the time, set out on his second and last expedition to find the City of Z. He wrote to his wife: “You need have no fear of any failure.” But he was never seen again. In 1927 he was declared missing by the Royal Geographical Society. Two subsequent missions attempted to find him, but with no success.
Nearly a century after Fawcett’s disappearance, his instincts appear to have been proved correct. “Although he expected the City of Z to be built of stone, and although by the end of his life he had a more fantastical notion of what it would look like, these discoveries show that he was, in many ways, extraordinarily prescient,” says Grann.
“Indeed, during his years of investigation he had reported very similar findings: large earth mounds filled with ancient and brittle pottery and a network of interconnecting causeways and roadways. He was convinced there were ruins that predated the Incas and that the Amazon had been home to massive settlements, with sophisticated societies and monumental works.”
Others are not convinced. Hemming says that while the paper in Antiquity is “significant work by serious people … none of this has anything remotely to do with El Dorado or that racist, incompetent nutter Percy Fawcett. It’s as though someone tried to link a discovery at Stonehenge with, say, Edward Lear’s travels in the Balkans”.
Both men can agree that the recent discovery is a great advance in our knowledge of the region. The breakthrough has been eight years in the making. In 2002 Martti Parssinen, a Finnish historian and archeologist and one of the report’s co-authors, was called by a fellow expert, Alceu Ranzi, who had noticed geometrical shapes dug into the earth while flying over the Amazon and hoped that Parssinen would investigate these shapes with him.
“He understood they weren’t natural structures,” remembers Parssinen. “He realised they must have been made by indigenous people.”
According to Parssinen, Ranzi had already tried to enlist the help of scientists in the United States, but had been rebuffed. “They just wouldn’t believe him,” remembers Parssinen. “But I realised, because of other work I had done in the area, that this could be something very important. It was extremely exciting to receive that phone call.”
It was even more exciting, says Parssinen, to fly over the areas that Ranzi had noticed. “When I saw the shapes then, it was an amazing feeling,” he says. “All the old theories said that this area of the Amazon could only ever have supported hunters and collectors. No one believed that a large civilisation could have existed there. We realised that this discovery could change history.”
The authors published one report in 2003 and then waited for three years for permission to start excavating the area. The use of Google Earth satellite images in pinpointing the exact sites has made their job easier than previous archeological work in the region. But their find is, by any measure, impressive.
The implications of the discovery are wide-ranging. “This really is the beginning of a reassessment of the history. We are only beginning to understand Amazonia,” says Parssinen.
Grann believes this discovery will lead not only to a reassessment of the potential of pre-Christopher Columbus Amazon peoples, but also to an increasing archeological interest in the region. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “The authors of the latest study estimate that scientists have found, in this particular area, only 10% of the geometric earthworks and ruins that are actually there. It will take decades for scientists to uncover the full extent of this and other ancient Amazonian civilisations.”
It has similarly taken decades for Fawcett’s reputation to be revived. For years his only true adherents were his family, those who saw him as the last of the great explorers and occultists who believed that Fawcett had not so much disappeared as discovered a gateway to a new dimension. Indeed, there are still those who worship Fawcett and believe that the City of Z was actually a door to an alternative universe — one website advertises expeditions to “the same portal or doorway to a kingdom that was entered by Colonel Fawcett in 1925”.
The worlds of archeology and science may take longer to acknowledge the eccentric explorer. But, whatever Fawcett’s foibles, he does appear to have been broadly right. Moreover, his memory will be prolonged by a film adaptation of The Lost City of Z in which he will be played by Brad Pitt. Talk about a comeback.