In search of a lost city... and a lost explorer
New film The Lost City of Z is pure Hollywood – a classic epic of beautiful cinematography, captivating storylines and handsome protagonists. It tells the story of Colonel Percy Fawcett who, along with his 22-year-old son Jack, set off into the dense rainforest of the Amazon in spring 1925 and (***spoiler alert!***) was never to be seen or heard from again. In 1954 his younger son Brian compiled the journal notes that Fawcett had made on previous expeditions into a compelling book entitled Exploration Fawcett. More recently, New Yorker journalist David Grann became captivated by Fawcett and the mystery surrounding his disappearance. Grann’s own exploration and research culminated in his book The Lost City of Z, from which the film is adapted.
Grann is not the first to have succumbed to Fawcett fever. In the years following his disappearance, as many as a hundred would-be heroes ventured into the jungle to look for him. Among them was Peter Fleming, brother of Ian, who with his friend Roger Pettiward tried and failed to reach the location of Fawcett’s disappearance in 1932. Upon their return Peter Fleming wrote Brazilian Adventure (1933) an irreverent and highly amusing account of their quest, while Roger Pettiward donated the small collection of objects collected on their travels from the Karajá and Tapirapé indigenous communities to the British Museum.
To this day, elusive tales and mythologies about Fawcett’s demise abound on the internet. Some even claim that he is still alive (despite the fact that he would be 150 years old this year!) or that he never intended to return, but had set up an occultist commune in the Amazon.
The British Museum holds a small collection of objects that Fawcett acquired throughout his expeditions to South America between 1906 and 1925, which has been largely overlooked, despite the world’s obsession with all things Fawcett. In many ways, these objects reveal as much about Fawcett’s journey as his writings. These artefacts were witness to Fawcett’s personal development as he turned from a man completely ignorant of South America, its landscape and its peoples to a man obsessed with the Amazon, its inhabitants and the treasures it might yet give up.
Fawcett and his party set off in canoes upriver from the mouth of the River Heath in summer 1910. On the seventh day they ’rounded a bend in the river where on a sandbank stood a large Indian encampment’ (Exploration Fawcett p. 144). Under arrow and gunfire Fawcett and his team loudly played the accordion and sang until the arrows stopped, in a scene dramatically depicted in the film. Perhaps Fawcett and his team were hoping to distract with laughter the potentially hostile intentions of those whose territory these uninvited intruders had strayed onto. Hostilities over, they scrambled ashore ‘into the midst of a group of forty or fifty Guarayo braves. […] Some of them had shot-guns stolen from the rubber pickers, but most were armed only with the great black bows, six feet or more in length, and arrows equally long. A few had arms and faces painted in square patterns with the juice of the Urucu berry, and wore shirts of beaten bark with a design across the chest in purple dye. Some wore long dark gowns which give them a feminine appearance; others were completely naked‘. (p. 147)
‘Six Indians passed the night on the sandbar with us, the only ones of the tribe to be found next morning. The others had apparently gone off into the forest, for all the canoes remained, and the Cacique had left as a present for us a number of tooth necklaces.‘ (p. 148). The necklace pictured above is one of the tooth necklaces given to Fawcett that day by the chief of Guarayo, today known as the Ese Ejja.
The British Museum’s Fawcett collection also includes this tooth necklace and pearl-shell shell ear ornament, but we are unsure of the specific details surrounding their collection. It could be that they too were among the chief’s gifts.
In 1914, Fawcett set off up the River Guaporé until he reached the Mequens River. From there he headed up to the Parecis Plains, which he found to be so beautiful that ‘I could well understand why, scattered through the forests, there are hermits of many nationalities, preferring a life alone in the wild to a penurious and uncertain existence in civilisation. Rather than pity them for losing the amenities we are accustomed to consider so necessary, we should envy them for having the wisdom of knowing how superfluous such things really are. Perhaps they are the ones most likely to find the true meaning of life.’ (p. 197).
Pushing on into the forest, there were fewer and fewer signs that the area had been exploited for rubber. Several weeks of walking brought them into contact with an indigenous village, whose inhabitants Fawcett called the Maxubi. Upon arriving at the village, Fawcett describes peering from the woods to ensure that there was no danger and in doing so, observing a child ‘a nut in one hand and a little stone axe in the other. He squatted down on his haunches before a flat stone, laid the nut on it, and then started to hammer on the shell with the side of the axe’.
At the end of their stay with the Maxubi ‘Loaded with string bags of peanuts, stone axes, and bows and arrows – the weapons were real works of art – we left the Maxubis and turned south-west towards Bolivia.’ (p. 204). There is no doubt that this axe was one of these. Perhaps it was even the one shown in this photograph taken by Fawcett:
Fawcett spent enough time with the Maxubi to gain some understanding of the language and to produce a vocabulary list of around a hundred words. Fawcett’s account is the only known mention of the Maxubi, but based on this vocabulary, it is now believed that the Maxubi were the indigenous community known today as the Arikapú.
What these objects help to tell is a story of a man confronted by such cultural contrasts and environmental shocks that he was forced to challenge his own sense of purpose and goal in life. This is a reflection of the time, when the post-Victorian age of the gentlemen explorer was coming to an end and the domain of science and scientific lines of enquiry with discipline specific research expeditions became the norm. The last of a generation of amateurs, in many ways he struggled with the questions he was forced to confront, questions that now generations of botanists, anthropologists, archaeologists continue to research and advance.
In turn, the indigenous communities Fawcett met exemplify the cultural resilience of the Amazon. Recent research has proven that this is a human landscape in which indigenous populations have lived for millennia, enduring huge social and environmental upheaval and continuing to struggle against injustice and exploitation. This is a narrative which this surprisingly enlightened film does try to portray. It may be a Hollywood blockbuster, but hopefully this film will attract a new audience who want to learn more about the wonders of the Amazon and its indigenous peoples, and, to quote Fawcett himself, find ‘the true meaning of life’.
The Lost City of Z, which premiered at the British Museum in February 2017, is in cinemas now. You can browse the objects collected by Fawcett that are now in the British Museum on the collection online.