In the summer of 1996, rains flooded the Amazon, rendering it virtually impenetrable. Bridges were swept away, and, amid vast stretches of mud, small holes appeared where cobras and armadillos had buried themselves. Then the sun came out and scorched the region. Rivers sank by thirty feet; bogs became meadows; islands turned into hills. Finally, after months of waiting, a team of Brazilian adventurers and scientists headed into the jungle, determined to solve what has been described as “the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.” The group was searching for signs of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British explorer who, in 1925, had disappeared in the forest, along with his son and another companion.
The expedition expected to find little more than bones—yet even discovering those would have been a revelation. When he vanished, Fawcett and his party had been trying to uncover a lost civilization hidden in the Amazon, which Fawcett had named, simply, the City of Z. In the next seven decades, scores of explorers had tried and failed to retrace Fawcett’s path. Some nearly died of starvation, while others retreated in the face of tribes that attacked with poisoned arrows. Then there were those adventurers who had gone to find Fawcett and, instead, disappeared along with him, swallowed by the same forests in the Mato Grosso region which travellers had long ago christened the “green hell.”
The latest attempt was led by James Lynch, a Brazilian financier who had trekked through the most unforgiving terrains of South America. A man in his early forties, with blue eyes and pale skin that burned in the sun, he had competed in many gruelling adventure contests: once, he had hiked for seventy-two hours without sleep, and traversed a wide canyon by shimmying across a rope. For all their physical challenges, Lynch’s voyages were also intellectual endeavors, and he spent months in the library, researching and planning them. On one trip, he located the long-disputed source of the Amazon, and pinpointed where, in 1937, a pioneering German aviator had crashed in the Andes. He had never, however, encountered a case like that of Colonel Fawcett.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, Fawcett had been acclaimed as one of the last of the great amateur archeologists and cartographers—men who ventured into uncharted territories with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose. Fawcett survived in the jungle for years at a time, without contact with the outside world, often subsisting for days on a handful of nuts; he was ambushed by hostile tribesmen, many of whom had never seen a white man before; he emerged with maps of regions from which no expedition had returned.
Yet it was his “quest,” as Fawcett called it, to find Z that most captivated Lynch. For centuries after the discovery of the New World, many Europeans believed that a fantastical kingdom of untold wealth was concealed in the ethereal landscape of the Amazon. In 1541, Friar Gaspar Carvajal, a member of the first European expedition to descend from the Andes into the Amazon, reported glimpses of white Indians and women warriors who resembled the mythical Greek Amazons. One early map of South America was adorned with minotaurs and headless beings with eyes in their chests, and well into the twentieth century the Amazon remained, as Fawcett put it, “the last great blank space in the world.”
Lynch’s research made him feel certain that Fawcett, unlike so many of his predecessors, was not a soldier of fortune or a crackpot. Fawcett was a recipient of the Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed on an explorer by the Royal Geographical Society; a skilled mapmaker; and a decorated hero of the First World War. He knew the Amazon as well as anyone. His younger son, Brian, said of him, “True, he dreamed; but his dreams were built upon reason, and he was not the man to shirk the effort to turn theory into fact.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lynch learned, had reportedly drawn on Fawcett’s explorations of the Amazon for his 1912 novel “The Lost World,” in which explorers in South America “disappear into the unknown” and find, on a remote plateau, a land where dinosaurs still roam. By the time Fawcett had begun his final expedition, with his twenty-one-year-old son, Jack, and Jack’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell, newspapers around the globe regularly chronicled his adventures. The Los Angeles Times declared of the 1925 voyage, “It is perhaps the most hazardous and certainly the most spectacular adventure of the kind ever undertaken by a scientist with the backing of conservative scientific bodies.”
In 1927, Fawcett was officially declared missing, prompting a wave of expeditions in search of him; but, unlike other famed lost explorers, such as Amelia Earhart, he had kept his planned route a secret, making it almost impossible for anyone to retrace his steps. In part, he feared that other explorers might discover Z first; he also believed that any attempt to rescue him would result only in more deaths. As Fawcett confided to his younger son upon his departure, “If with all my experience we can’t make it, there’s not much hope for others.”
Lynch was undeterred by Fawcett’s warning. “I have to go,” he told his wife. He secured a partner, Rene Delmotte, whom he had met during an adventure competition. For months, the two men studied satellite images of Brazil, honing their trajectory. Lynch obtained the best equipment: turbocharged jeeps with puncture-resistant tires; twenty-five-foot aluminum boats with outboard motors; Global Positioning Systems; walkie-talkies; and shortwave radios. He chose the members of his group with equal care. He recruited a mechanical engineer who could repair all the equipment, and he enlisted Dr. Daniel Muñoz, a forensic anthropologist, who, in 1985, had helped to identify the remains of Josef Mengele, the Nazi fugitive, and who could help confirm the origins of any object that might be from Fawcett’s party: a belt buckle, a bone fragment, a bullet.
Although Fawcett had often warned that large parties inevitably would “come to grief” in the Amazon, Lynch’s team gradually grew to seventeen men, including his sixteen-year-old son, James, Jr. For days, the party drove through the Amazon basin, a region nearly the size of the continental United States, traversing unpaved roads scarred with ruts and brambles. After stopping several times to camp, the expedition followed the road to a clearing along the Xingu River, one of the Amazon’s major tributaries. It was not far from where Fawcett had reportedly last been seen.
A net of vines and branches covered the trails extending from the clearing, and Lynch decided that the expedition would have to proceed by boat. He instructed several team members to turn back with some of the heaviest gear. Once he found a place where a plane could land, he would radio in the coördinates, so that the equipment could be delivered by air.
The Xingu’s churning currents quickly carried Lynch and the remaining team members, including his son, downriver, past submerged palm trees and purple orchids. Near the end of the day, the expedition reached a settlement of huts. It was a village of Kuikuros, one of the few tribes that still lived in the Amazon much as they had before the arrival of Europeans. A powerfully built chief, whose forehead and chest were covered with red paint, greeted Lynch and granted him permission to camp by the village and to land a propeller plane in a nearby clearing.
The next day, Lynch and his son went with some Kuikuros to a lagoon, where they bathed alongside turtles. Lynch could hear the sound of a plane landing not far away. Moments later, a Kuikuro came running down the path, hollering in his native language, which Lynch couldn’t understand. The Kuikuros rushed out of the water. “What is it?” Lynch asked in Portuguese.
“Trouble,” a Kuikuro replied.
Everyone ran to the village, including Lynch and his son. When they arrived, another member of their expedition approached them. “What’s happening?” Lynch asked.
“They’re surrounding our camp.”
“Who?” Lynch cried. But he could already see dozens of Indian men, presumably from neighboring tribes, encircling them. They, too, had heard the sound of the arriving plane. Many wore black and red streaks of paint across their naked bodies. They carried bows with six-foot arrows, antique rifles, spears, and clubs.
As the expedition was being surrounded, five team members ran toward the plane. The pilot was still in the cockpit, and the five men jumped in the cabin and told him to take off, though the plane was designed for only four passengers. As the pilot started the propeller, several Indians hurried toward the plane, aiming their bows and arrows. They grabbed onto the wings, trying to keep the plane grounded. The pilot, concerned that the plane was dangerously heavy, started to throw supplies out the doors. The plane began easing down the runway; just before the wheels lifted off, the last of the Indians let go.
Lynch watched the plane disappear, red dust from its wake swirling around him. The Indians herded the remaining team members into small boats. “Where are you taking us?” Lynch asked.
“You are our prisoners for life,” one man responded in Portuguese.
Lynch’s son looked ashen. As they floated upriver, Lynch surveyed the surroundings—the clear river filled with colorful fish, the increasingly dense thicket of vegetation. It was, he thought, the most beautiful place he had ever seen.
Last February, I decided to see if I could retrace Fawcett’s route and unravel a mystery that had only deepened with each ill-fated attempt to solve it. It was not easy to find a guide willing to make the journey, and it was even harder to find someone who had ties to the indigenous communities in Brazil, which function almost as autonomous countries, with their own laws and governing councils.
In Brazil, the history of the interaction between brancos and indios—whites and Indians—often reads like an extended epitaph. Tribes were wiped out by disease and massacres; languages and songs were obliterated. As late as 1920, an English missionary reported that many Indians had told him, “It is better to fall into the power of our spirits than into the hands of the Christians.” On one occasion, a tribe buried its children alive to spare them the shame of subjugation.
The interior of Brazil was so forbidding, however, that some tribes managed to insulate themselves, for a time, from the age of airplanes and telephones. The Brazilian government didn’t officially approach many Amazon tribes until the nineteen-forties, and there are still some forty tribes that have had no recorded contact with outsiders. In recent decades, the Brazilian government has stopped trying to “modernize” indigenous peoples, and has worked to protect them. As a result, many Amazon tribes, particularly those in the Mato Grosso (“Thick Forest”) region, where Fawcett disappeared, have flourished. Their populations, after being decimated, are growing again; their languages and customs have endured.
The guide whom I eventually persuaded to accompany me was Paolo Pinage, a fifty-two-year-old former professional samba dancer. We met in Cuiabá, the capital of the Mato Grosso region, along the southern edge of the Amazon basin. Though Pinage was not of Indian descent, he had worked for the government agency set up to protect the rights of Indians. Its motto is “Die if you must, but never kill.” During our initial phone conversation, I had asked Pinage if we could penetrate the same region that Fawcett had, including part of what is now Xingu National Park, Brazil’s first Indian reservation, which was created in 1961. (The park, along with an adjoining reservation, is the size of Belgium and is one of the largest swaths of jungle under Indian control on the planet.) Pinage said, “I can take you there, but it’s not easy.” Entering Indian territories, he explained, required elaborate negotiations with tribal leaders. He asked me to send him medical records, attesting that I carried no contagious diseases. Then he began approaching various chiefs on my behalf. Many of the tribes in the jungle now had shortwave radios, and, for weeks, our messages were relayed back and forth, as Pinage assured them that I was a reporter and not a garimpero, or “prospector.” Last year, twenty-nine diamond miners trespassed onto a reservation in western Brazil, where members of the Cinta Larga tribe, which in the past had endured massacres by brancos, shot or beat the prospectors to death with wooden clubs.
On my way to Cuiabá, I had stopped briefly in São Paulo to chat with the man I thought would understand better than anyone the obstacles that Pinage and I might encounter: James Lynch. When I found him at his financial consulting firm, I asked him what had happened in the Xingu. “The Indians held us hostage for three days,” he said. “Several threatened to tie us over the river and let piranhas eat us.” As he spoke, James, Jr., who works for the company as well, entered the room. Lynch glanced at his son and said, “I was afraid what might happen to him.”
He advised me that tribes had traditionally expected small tokens from visitors—a sign of good intentions. Today, they often demanded thousands of dollars from outsiders. “If we didn’t give them something, they threatened to kill us one by one,” Lynch said. “The only way we could get out was to give them our boats and offer to buy them a truck.” In the end, Lynch’s team paid a ransom that amounted to thirty thousand dollars. “Just remember: once you go into their territory, you are on your own,” he said. “No one from the government can come in and get you.”
When I arrived in Cuiabá, two days later, none of the tribes had agreed to my visit. Still, Pinage seemed optimistic when he greeted me at the airport. He was carrying several large plastic containers, instead of a suitcase or a backpack, and had a cigarette dangling from his lip. He wore a camouflage vest with myriad pockets, filled with supplies: a Swiss Army knife; a Japanese anti-itch medicine; a flashlight; more cigarettes. He resembled someone returning from an expedition, not embarking on one. His vest was ragged, his face was bone thin and covered with a gray-tinged beard, and his bald head had been seared by the sun. Although his English pronunciation was shaky, he spoke as fast as he smoked. “Come, come, we go now,” he said.
We took a taxi into Cuiabá, which was founded during a gold rush in the early seventeen-hundreds. In 1920, Fawcett described it as an “impoverished and backward” place that had degenerated into “little better than a ghost town.” Today, the city, which has undulating paved roads and a few modest skyscrapers, serves primarily as a staging ground for the latest pioneers—farmers and ranchers—hoping to find riches in the surrounding countryside.
We checked into a hotel named El Dorado (“A funny coincidence, isn’t it?” Pinage said) and began making preparations. Our first challenge was to divine, as closely as possible, Fawcett’s secret route. Pinage asked me what I knew, and I told him that Brian Fawcett, who was nineteen when his father disappeared, had tightly guarded Fawcett’s private papers; in 1953, he published some of them in a book, “Exploration Fawcett,” which contained one of the few clues to his father’s final course. The book quotes Fawcett saying, “Our route will be from Dead Horse Camp, 11° 43’ south and 54° 35’west, where my horse died in 1921.” Many subsequent explorers had started off from these coördinates. Fawcett’s family, however, recently acknowledged what others had learned to their despair: Fawcett had provided false coördinates, in order to throw off would-be seekers of the City of Z.
Before coming to Brazil, I explained to Pinage, I had visited the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, in London, and sifted through stacks of letters that Fawcett had sent to the institution through the years. The letters, old and brittle, released yellowish flakes when I opened them. Fawcett had scribbled in a hasty, feverish manner, the words run together like code. After a few days in the archives, I noticed, in the corner of a frayed packet of papers, a single word: “confidential.” The document was dated April 13, 1924, and, unlike most of the other letters, it was typed, though Fawcett’s small, slanting signature was visible at the bottom. It was entitled “Case for an expedition in the Amazon basin.”
In earlier letters, Fawcett had raised his usual objections to providing specifics about his final trip. “These things leak out,” he wrote. Recalling how the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott had been beaten to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen by only weeks, Fawcett added, “There can be nothing so bitter to the pioneer as to find the crown of his work anticipated.” Fawcett, however, was desperate for funding, and in the document he seemed to relent to a demand by the society that he be more forthcoming. Fawcett contended that in the southern basin of the Amazon, between the Tapajós and the Xingu tributaries, lay what he called “the most remarkable relics of ancient civilization.” A few adventurers had traversed the major tributaries of the Amazon, including Theodore Roosevelt, but Fawcett claimed that no explorer had dared to enter the forests between them, for fear of starvation, disease, and hostile natives. To bolster his case that the ruins of Z would be found in the region, he 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 Brazilian 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.”
In the same materials were several brown parchments on which Fawcett had sketched maps of the region, based on previous expeditions. And there was one more document—seemingly, a detailed account of his intended route to the City of Z.
After copying these materials, I told Pinage, I made one last stop, in Cardiff, at the house of Fawcett’s granddaughter, Rolette de Montet-Guerin. All of Fawcett’s immediate family is dead, and Montet-Guerin, who is the daughter of the youngest of Fawcett’s three children, Joan, acts as the guardian of the family estate. A petite, energetic woman in her fifties, with short black hair and glasses, she took me into a back room and opened a trunk. Inside were Fawcett’s diaries and logbooks. Montet-Guerin allowed me to examine each one for details that might help in my search. In the log from 1921, I spotted coördinates for Dead Horse Camp that were conspicuously different from those which had appeared in “Exploration Fawcett.” On another page, I noticed jottings about a place that members of the Botocudo tribe had described to Fawcett as “enormously rich in gold—so much so as to blaze like fire.” Fawcett wrote, “It is just conceivable this may be Z.”
I went through the books, carefully making notations. I thought that I now had enough information to retrace his route. Montet-Guerin said that she wanted to show me one more thing. It was a photograph of Fawcett’s gold signet ring, which was engraved with the family motto, “Nec Aspera Terrent”—essentially, “Difficulties Be Damned.” In 1979, an Englishman named Brian Ridout, who was making a wildlife film in Brazil, heard rumors that the ring had turned up at a store in Cuiabá. By the time Ridout tracked down the shop, the proprietor had died. His wife, however, searched through her possessions and emerged with Colonel Fawcett’s ring. Montet-Guerin, who had since put the ring in safekeeping, said, “It’s the last concrete item we have from the expedition.”
Montet-Guerin had been desperate to learn more, she said, and had once showed the ring to a psychic. I asked her if she had learned anything. She looked down at the picture, then up at me. “It had been bathed in blood,” she said.
In the hotel room in Cuiabá, as Pinage leaned over my shoulder, I spread the copies of Fawcett’s papers on a table. Fawcett had been an accomplished artist—his pen-and-ink drawings were exhibited at the Royal Academy—and many of his original maps were meticulous, recalling pointillist paintings. He had printed “unexplored” in bold letters atop one image, which depicted the forests between the Xingu River and two other major tributaries of the Amazon. On another map, he added several notations: “small tribes . . . believed to be friendly”; “very bad Indian tribes—names unknown”; “Indians probably dangerous.”
Pinage and I agreed that the documents confirmed that Fawcett and his team, after leaving Cuiabá, had proceeded north, to the territory of the Bakairí Indians. From there, they had gone to Dead Horse Camp, and then, presumably, deep into what is today Xingu National Park. In the route that Fawcett had supplied in confidence to the Royal Geographical Society, he wrote that his party would turn due east around the eleventh parallel south of the equator, and cross the Xingu River. He noted that it was preferable to maintain an eastward trajectory, toward Brazil’s coastal regions, since it “would preserve a higher level of enthusiasm than one proceeding farther & farther into the wilds.”
Pinage, who had become as curious about Fawcett as I had, excitedly drew a black pen across a clean map, ticking off each of our intended destinations. Finally, he took his cigarette out of his mouth and said, “On to Z, no?”
Percy Harrison Fawcett was always searching for something beyond his Victorian world. The son of a British aristocrat who had squandered two family fortunes, he recalled his childhood as “devoid of parental affection.” In 1886, at the age of nineteen, he received his commission in the Royal Artillery, and was stationed in the British colony of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). He often took long walks through the forests, entranced by the strange local customs. Though he married Nina Paterson, the daughter of a colonial judge, he remained, as he put it, a “lone wolf,” and continued to wander the island, investigating archeological ruins and even hunting for buried treasure. It was the peak of the British Empire, 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 Quatermain novels by Fawcett’s friend H. Rider Haggard, which chronicle the intrepid adventurer’s discovery of ancient civilizations in Africa, were wildly popular.
In 1901, Fawcett, hoping to become an explorer himself, enrolled at the Royal Geographical Society to study surveying and mapmaking. The British government often tried to recruit mapmakers as spies, their vocation being an ideal cover, and, that year, Fawcett went to Morocco, where, while surveying, he also served as a secret agent.
Five years later, the president of the Royal Geographical Society approached him for a different kind of mission. According to “Exploration Fawcett,” the president showed Fawcett an atlas of South America and exclaimed, “Look at this area! It’s full of blank spaces.” He explained that the boundaries between Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil were ill-defined, and that the three countries had asked a disinterested party to survey the area. “What it really amounts to is exploration,” the president said. “It may be difficult and even dangerous.” Fawcett didn’t hesitate. “Here was the chance I had been waiting for,” he later wrote, adding, “Destiny intended me to go!”
Leaving behind his wife and three-year-old son, Jack, he headed off with little more than a sixty-pound pack, a handful of recruits, and a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Explorer.” (“Something hidden. Go and find it. . . . Go!”) As he trekked with a small group for hundreds of miles, across mountains, swamps, and jungles, he detected signs—arrowheads buried in trees, smoke from fires—that they were being watched by Indians. The indigenous people in the area, having been enslaved or massacred by rubber tappers in the past, were known to kill trespassers, and a few were believed to practice cannibalism. Fawcett, convinced that the only way to survive was to establish friendly contact, ordered his men never to open fire. Once, when his expedition was ambushed, Fawcett had his men stand and play musical instruments, singing “Soldiers of the Queen” and “Suwannee River” as arrows rained upon them. At other times, Fawcett would hold his hands in the air and march directly toward the Indians, in order to demonstrate his peaceful intentions. His tactics succeeded, and, with maps in hand, he returned triumphantly to England.
He soon grew restless. “Deep down inside me a tiny voice was calling,” he wrote. “At first scarcely audible, it persisted until I could no longer ignore it. It was the voice of the wild places, and I knew that it was now part of me for ever.” He added, “Inexplicably—amazingly—I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me, and I wanted to see it again.”
In 1908, Fawcett went on an even more dangerous expedition: tracing the source of the Rio Verde, in Brazil. During the trip, his team ran out of food. One of the men lay down and begged Fawcett to leave him, but Fawcett insisted, “If we’ve got to die, we’ll die walking.” Though the team eventually made it out, on other trips more than half of Fawcett’s men died from sickness. The Royal Geographical Society noted in its journal that Fawcett was prepared to “fare harder than most people would consider either possible or proper.”
As Fawcett completed his maps of the Amazon, he became fascinated by the tribes populating the region. Like many Victorians, he held views of indigenous Americans that were often blinded by racism. “There are three kinds of Indians,” he wrote. “The first are docile and miserable people. . . . The second, dangerous, repulsive cannibals very rarely seen; the third a robust and fair people who must have a civilized origin.” He shared the widely held notion that any advanced civilization in South America, if it had ever existed, must have had a European origin—in Phoenicia, say, or even Atlantis. John Hemming, a distinguished historian of Brazilian Indians, has called Fawcett a “Nietzschean explorer” who spouted “eugenic gibberish.”
Yet some anthropologists have also found in Fawcett’s writings a sensibility that was more enlightened than that of many of his contemporaries. He was an outspoken opponent of the destruction of Indian culture through colonization. “My experience is that few of these savages are naturally ‘bad,’ unless contact with ‘savages’ from the outside world has made them so,” Fawcett wrote. He studied many Amazonian dialects, and immersed himself in the rich legends and artistic traditions of the local tribes. He was amazed by shards of delicate ancient pottery that he had seen along the mouth of the Amazon, and by mysterious raised mounds of earth that were scattered through the rain forest. And he read early histories of South America, which revealed that the first Spaniards who visited the Amazon had described “numerous and very large settlements” and “many roads and fine highways inland.” All this suggested to Fawcett that there had once been a large, complex civilization in the Amazon which had been decimated over the centuries. Moreover, he theorized, remnants of that civilization might have survived in areas that had remained isolated from Westerners.
One day, during a visit to a colonial archive in Rio de Janeiro, 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.” A Portuguese bandeirante, or “soldier of fortune,” described how, “after a long and troublesome peregrination, incited by the insatiable greed of gold,” he and his men had ascended a mountain path and seen 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. “The ruins well showed the size and grandeur which must have been there, and how populous and opulent it had been in the age when it flourished,” the bandeirante wrote.
Fawcett was certain that he had found proof that the interior contained an ancient civilization, which he christened the City of Z. He was mapping out a route to find it when the First World War erupted. Though he was approaching fifty, he volunteered for the front, in Flanders, and led a brigade in the Artillery. The savagery of the fighting repelled him, and he became even more entranced by the idea of a lost civilization. After the war, he tried to raise funds for an expedition to find Z, but he met resistance from the new professionals of archeology, who were supplanting the role of explorers, and who considered Fawcett an anachronism. Moreover, many of these academic experts believed that the Amazon—with its oppressive heat and nutrient-poor soil, which resisted modern attempts at farming—could simply not sustain large settled populations. As the archeologist Betty Meggers later put it, the Amazon was a “counterfeit paradise.” The colonial records that Fawcett had cited were seen as akin to the old stories of towering Amazons: tall tales invented to impress royal patrons. “To get the elderly gentlemen of the archaeologists and museum experts in London to credit a fraction of what I knew to be true was a task altogether beyond my powers,” he wrote.
In 1920, hoping to find the City of Z on his own, Fawcett embarked on the expedition that ended at Dead Horse Camp, where, delirious with fever, he shot his ailing pack animal and retreated in defeat. He was determined to return, but he could not get anyone in England to back him. In a letter to the Royal Geographical Society, he wrote bitterly, “It is of course bound to come out eventually that a modern Columbus was turned down in England.”
Four years later, nearly destitute, he looked to the United States, where he began to tap into enthusiasm for what he referred to as his “romantic quest.” He received backing from various scientific bodies, including the American Geographical Society and the Museum of the American Indian. He also made agreements with news organizations in India, South Africa, Australia, Britain, and the United States, promising to file dispatches in exchange for funding. Even the Royal Geographical Society lent some support.
According to Fawcett’s letters, his final expedition departed from Cuiabá on April 20, 1925, assisted by two Brazilian laborers, eight mules, two horses, and a pair of dogs. As the team moved quickly northward across the cerrado, or dry forest, Fawcett forged a path with a specially designed, eighteen-inch machete, and often walked far ahead of his group, inspecting rock formations for possible inscriptions, while Jack, his son, and Raleigh, Jack’s friend, struggled to keep up with him.
Fawcett was fifty-seven years old, nearly three times as old as Jack and Raleigh, and his hair was gray and thinning, yet he was strikingly fit. He was over six feet tall, and his long, lean legs were unusually strong. His blue eyes burned like a preacher’s. He wore baggy, lightweight, tear-resistant pants, riding boots, and a broad-rimmed Stetson hat; in photographs taken soon after the trip began, he eerily matches the descriptions of Lord John Roxton, a protagonist of “The Lost World.” At one point, Conan Doyle writes of Roxton, “Something there was of Napoleon III, something of Don Quixote, and yet again something which was the essence of the English country gentleman.”
The first days of the expedition were relatively easy—the terrain consisting mostly of short, twisting trees and savanna-like grass, where a few ranchers and prospectors had established settlements. Yet, as Fawcett told his wife in a letter, it was “an excellent initiation” for the inexperienced Jack and Raleigh. (Fawcett once wrote proudly of his son, “He is big, very powerful physically, and absolutely virgin in mind and body.”) In a black-and-white photograph taken before the 1925 trip, Jack, with his luminescent skin, oiled hair, and crisp mustache, resembles a movie star—which is what he planned to become after the mission. Raleigh, who was the son of a British naval surgeon, was equally tall and robust, but with a more playful nature.
On the first day, the three explorers and their two Brazilian helpers travelled seven miles from Cuiabá; the next day, another ten. Even in the shade of the buriti palms, it was hot—so hot, as Fawcett wrote in a particularly fervid dispatch, that in the Cuiabá River “fish were literally cooked alive.” After they marched from sunup to sundown, they set up camp, wrapping themselves in nets to prevent mosquito-borne infections, drinking cups of tea, and eating biscuits. Fawcett would try to compose letters to his wife or dispatches to the newspapers, which, editors’ notes explained, were “relayed to civilization by Indian runners over a long and perilous route.” An article introducing the installments, which were published with such headlines as “three men face cannibals in relic quest,” said of the explorers, “If they enter the grim region . . . and come out again, they will achieve something which no other man has done.”
One day, as the explorers approached the Manso River, some forty miles north of Cuiabá, the two younger men became separated from Fawcett. As Jack later wrote in a letter to his mother, “Daddy had gone ahead at such a pace that we lost sight of him altogether.” The boys spent the night alone, listening to the screeching forest; the next morning, Fawcett appeared on his horse, as if returning from a leisurely jaunt.
The area was infested with ticks, and Raleigh was bitten by one on his foot, which swelled so much that he had to ride with his shoe off. To help him recuperate, Fawcett stopped for five days at a cattle-breeding ranch on the edge of the frontier—a place where Brazilian laws were considered irrelevant. The ranch was owned by Hermenegildo Galvão, one of the most powerful and ruthless farmers in the Mato Grosso. According to Hermes Leal’s biography “Colonel Fawcett: The Real-Life Indiana Jones,” which was published in Portuguese in 1996, Galvão had a posse of hired gunmen who were charged with killing any Indian who threatened his vast feudal empire.
Fawcett’s team stayed in Galvão’s red brick manor for several days, eating and resting. At one point, Galvão later told a reporter, Fawcett removed from his belongings a strange object covered in cloth. He carefully unwrapped it, revealing a ten-inch stone idol with almond-shaped eyes and hieroglyphics carved on its chest. Rider Haggard, Fawcett’s friend, had obtained it from someone in Brazil and given it to Fawcett, who believed that it was a relic of Z.
Then the three Englishmen were on their way again, heading east, toward Bakairí Post, where in 1920 the Brazilian government had set up a garrison—“the last point of civilization,” as the settlers referred to it. Occasionally, the dense forest opened up, revealing the blinding sun and blue-tinged mountains in the distance. The trail became harder, and the men descended steep, mud-slicked gorges and crossed rock-strewn rapids, where they had to check their skin for traces of blood, which might attract piranhas. They also had to remain alert for a pernicious eel-like fish called a candiru, which, as Fawcett once wrote, “seeks to enter the natural orifices of the body, whether human or animal, and once inside cannot be extracted.” Fawcett had seen one specimen that had been removed from a man’s penis. “Many deaths result from this fish, and the agony it can cause is excruciating,” he wrote.
A month after they left Cuiabá, and after what Fawcett described as a “shockingly difficult passage,” they arrived at Bakairí Post, a small settlement of about twenty huts. The Bakairí tribe was one of the first in the region which the government had tried to “acculturate,” and Fawcett was appalled by what he called “the Brazilian methods of civilizing the Indian tribes.” In a letter to one of his sponsors in the United States, he noted, “The Bakairís have been dying out ever since they became civilized. There are only about 150 of them.” He went on, “They have in part been brought here to plant rice, manioc . . . which is sent to Cuiabá, where it fetches, at present, high prices. The Bakairís are not paid, are raggedly clothed, mainly in khaki govt. uniforms, and there is a general squalor and lack of hygiene which is making the whole of them sick.”
Members of other remote tribes occasionally visited Bakairí Post, and Jack and Raleigh soon saw something that astonished them: “about eight wild Indians, absolutely stark naked,” as Jack wrote to his mother. The Indians carried seven-foot-long bows with six-foot arrows. “To Jack’s great delight we have seen the first of the wild Indians here—naked savages from the Xingu,” Fawcett wrote to his wife.
Jack and Raleigh hurried out with the camera and took photographs of the men. In one, Jack stood beside them, to demonstrate “the comparative sizes”; the Indians came up to his shoulders. Later, the three explorers went to the hut where the Indians were staying. Fawcett carried a ukulele and Jack carried a piccolo, and they performed a concert around a fire.
On May 19th, a fresh, cool day, Jack woke up even more excited—it was his twenty-second birthday. “I have never felt so well,” he wrote to his mother. The three explorers made their final preparations. To the north of the post, they could see several imposing mountains, and just beyond them, as Jack wrote with a hint of awe, was “absolutely unexplored country.”
They headed straight for terra incognita. Before them there were no clear paths, and almost no light filtering through the hundred-and-fifty-foot trees. Branches snapped back at them; creepers entangled their legs. The heat was oppressive, and they were encircled by swarms of piums—stinging insects that left splotches of blood on their skin. There were vampire bats and scorpions and anacondas. Even Fawcett, at times, felt his age. As he wrote to his wife, “Years tell, in spite of the spirit of enthusiasm.”
After nine days, Fawcett wrote, they hacked their way to Dead Horse Camp, where they could still see the “white bones” from his old pack animal and where they were attacked by “the wickedest fly on earth, almost invisible, biting like a mosquito, and very active.” They covered themselves in nets, but the bugs slipped through them.
Fawcett sent his Brazilian helpers back to Cuiabá, along with many of the animals. The jungle would soon be so thick that the explorers could proceed only by carrying equipment on their backs. Raleigh’s foot remained swollen and ulcerous—the skin was now peeling off—and Fawcett urged him to return with the guides. Raleigh, unwilling to leave his best friend, said that he was fine, and Fawcett relented.
Fawcett folded up various letters and a dispatch and gave them to the Brazilian guides. He said that he would try to get out other communiqués in the coming year or so, but added that it was unlikely. As he noted in one of his final articles, “By the time this dispatch is printed, we shall have long since disappeared into the unknown.”
>The explorers said their farewells to the Brazilians, then headed deeper into the jungle. In his last words to his wife, Fawcett wrote, “You need have no fear of any failure.”
“Can you get the G.P.S. to work?” Pinage asked.
I was sitting in the back seat of a four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi truck, fiddling with a Global Positioning System, in an attempt to obtain readings of our coördinates. We were heading north—that much I knew—with a driver whom we had hired when we rented the pickup. Pinage had told me that we would need a powerful truck and a professional driver if we were to have any chance of completing our journey, especially in the rainy season. “This is the worst time of year,” he said. “The roads are—how do you say in English?—shit.”
When I first explained my mission to our driver, he asked me when the British colonel had disappeared.
“Nineteen twenty-five,” I said.
“And you want to find him in the jungle?”
“Are you one of his descendants?”
He seemed to think about this for a long moment, then said, “Very well,” and began cheerfully to load our gear, which included hammocks, rope, mosquito netting, water-purifying tablets, a satellite phone, antibiotics, and malarial pills. On our way out of Cuiabá, we also picked up a friend of Pinage’s, a descendant of a Bakairí chief named Taukane Bakairí. (In Brazil, the last names of Indians are typically the same as that of their tribe.) Taukane, who was in his mid-forties, and had a handsome, round face, wore Levi’s and a baseball cap. Though he now lived mostly in Cuiabá, he continued to represent his tribe’s political interests. “I am what you might call an ambassador,” he told me. And, in exchange for a “gift” of two tires for a communal tractor, he had agreed to take us to his village, the last place Fawcett had incontrovertibly been seen. (“If it were up to me, I would take you for free,” Taukane said. “But all Indians must now be capitalists. We have no choice.”)
Upon leaving the city, we entered the central plains of Brazil, which mark the transition from dry forest to rain forest. After a while, a plateau came into view; Martian red in color, it spanned more than two thousand square miles, an endless tabletop that reached into the clouds. We stopped at its base, and Pinage said, “Come, I show you something.”
We left the truck and climbed a steep, rocky slope. The ground was moist from a recent rainstorm, and we used our hands and knees to ascend.
“Where are we going?” I asked Pinage, who had another cigarette clamped between his teeth.
“You see,” he said.
Lightning streaked the sky and a thin mist descended, making the ground more slippery. Rocks gave way under our feet, clapping as they hit the ground, fifty yards below.
“Almost there,” Pinage said.
He helped to pull me up a ledge, and as I got to my feet, covered in mud, he pointed at another ridge, a few yards away, and said, “Now you see!”
Jutting into the sky was a cracked stone column. I blinked in the rain—in fact, there was not just one but several columns in a row, as in a Greek ruin. There was also a large archway, both sides of it still intact, and behind it was a dazzlingly large tower. They looked like what the bandeirante had described in 1753.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Who built it?”
“It is—how do you say?—an illusion.”
“That?” I said, pointing to one of the columns.
“It was made by nature, by erosion. But many people who see it think it is a lost city, like Z.”
Ever since the first Europeans arrived in the New World, explorers had been seduced by their own visions of Z. As John Hemming, the historian, recounts in “The Search for El Dorado” (1978), these visions were based on an astounding precedent: In 1519, Hernán Cortés and his band of soldiers found a causeway that led into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán—a city laden with gold, with advanced architecture and engineering. Twelve years later, Francisco Pizarro discovered and conquered the equally wealthy Incan empire, and the search for golden cities became a European obsession. In 1541, a Spanish traveller wrote of el indio dorado, or “the golden Indian,” in reference to tales he’d heard of a chieftain who was so wealthy that he sprinkled his entire body in gold dust. Explorers had hunted fruitlessly for this leader’s kingdom, which became known as El Dorado, and many became convinced that the city was hidden in the last unpenetrated region: the Amazon.
Fawcett himself was embarrassed by the story of El Dorado, which he called an “exaggerated romance.” In a letter to the Royal Geographical Society, he acknowledged that his vision of Z “must invariably suggest the tradition of the Golden City,” but insisted that his quest was a serious one. His theory that the Amazon had once contained a prosperous city was not irrational, he maintained. It was grounded in science.
“We will find out the truth soon enough,” Pinage said, as we returned to the car and headed north, toward the jungle.
We eventually turned onto BR-163, one of the most treacherous roads in South America. Extending more than a thousand miles, from Cuiabá to the Amazon River, it was designated on our map as a major highway. Yet almost all the asphalt from its two lanes had been washed away during the rainy season, leaving behind a combination of ditches and puddle-filled gullies. Our driver sometimes chose to ignore the road altogether and steer along the rocky banks and fields, where herds of cattle occasionally appeared, parting in our midst.
As we passed the Manso River, where Fawcett had got lost and where Raleigh was bitten by the tick, I kept looking out the window, expecting to see the first signs of a fearsome jungle. Instead, the terrain looked like Nebraska—perpetual plains that faded into the horizon. When I asked Taukane where the forest was, he said, simply, “Gone.”
A moment later, he pointed to a truck heading in the opposite direction, carrying sixty-foot logs.
“Only the Indians respect the forest,” Pinage said. “The white people cut it all down.” The Mato Grosso, he went on, was being transformed into domesticated farmland, much of it dedicated to soybeans. Between August, 2003, and August, 2004, ten thousand square miles of the Amazon, an area the size of Massachusetts, were cleared away—and, in the past year, at least another five thousand square miles were lost. The state governor, Blairo Maggi, who is one of the largest soybean producers in the world, told the Times, “I don’t feel the slightest guilt over what we are doing here. We’re talking about an area larger than Europe that has barely been touched, so there is nothing at all to get worried about.”
From BR-163, we veered onto a smaller dirt road, which went east, toward Bakairí Post. We passed close to where Fawcett had stayed with Galvão, and we decided to see if we could find the infamous ranch. In letters, Fawcett had said that the ranch was known as Rio Novo, and that name was marked on several current maps. After nearly four hours of bone-jarring bumps, we came upon a rusty sign at a fork in the road— “Rio Novo”—with an arrow pointing left.
“Look at that,” Pinage said.
We crossed a wobbly, wooden-slatted bridge over a river. The bridge creaked under the weight of the truck, and we looked down fifty feet at the torrent of water.
“How many mules and horses did the coronel have?” Pinage asked, trying to picture Fawcett’s crossing.
“A dozen or so,” I said. “According to his letters, Galvão replaced some of the weakest animals and gave him a dog—Tupi, I think its name was—which supposedly returned to the farm, several months after Fawcett vanished.”
“It wandered back on its own?” Pinage asked.
“That’s what Galvão said. He also said something about some swallows he saw rise from the forest in the east, which he thought had to be some kind of sign from Fawcett.”
For the first time, we entered a swath of dense forest. Though there was no farm in sight, we came across a mud hut with a thatched roof. Inside was an old Indian sitting on a tree stump with a wooden cane in his hand. He was barefoot, and wore dusty slacks without a shirt. Behind him, hanging on the wall, was the skin of a jaguar and a picture of the Virgin Mary. Taukane asked him, in the Bakairí language, if there was a cattle-breeding ranch known as Rio Novo. He spat at the name and waved his cane toward the door. “That way,” he said.
Another Indian, who was younger, appeared and said that he would show us the way. We got back in the car and drove down an overgrown path, the branches clapping against the windshield. When we couldn’t drive any farther, our guide hopped out, and we followed him through the forest, as he slashed at the creepers and vines with a machete. Several times, he paused, studied the tops of the trees, and took a few paces east or west. Finally, he stopped.
We looked around—there was nothing but a cocoon of trees. “Where’s Rio Novo?” Pinage asked.
Our guide lifted his machete over his head and slammed it into the ground. It hit something hard. “Right here,” he said.
We looked down and, to our disbelief, saw a row of cracked bricks.
“This is where the entrance to the manor used to be,” the guide said, adding, “It was very big.”
We began to fan out in the forest, as rain started to fall again, looking for signs of the great Galvão farm.
“Over here!” Pinage cried excitedly. He was a hundred feet away, standing by a crumbling brick wall nestled in vines. 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.
When we returned to the road, the sun had begun to set. We had lost track of the time in our excitement. We hadn’t eaten since five-thirty in the morning and had nothing in the truck except a warm bottle of water and some crackers. As we drove through the night, lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating the emptiness around us. Taukane eventually nodded off, and Pinage and I became engaged in what had become our favorite diversion—trying to imagine what had happened to Fawcett and his party after they left Dead Horse Camp.
“I can see them starving to death,” Pinage, who seemed focussed on his own hunger, said. “What I can’t imagine is this: What made them want to go?”
At the time, many Brazilians had assumed that Fawcett was searching for gold. The Victorian era, however, while still often consumed with exploiting distant lands, had also ushered in the age of scientific exploration—the pursuit not of gold but of knowledge. And though Fawcett no doubt wanted to achieve a certain acclaim, he also seemed to be after something more intangible. As he noted in “Exploration Fawcett,” “Who will ever understand that I want no . . . money for myself—that I am doing it unpaid in the hope that its ultimate benefit to mankind will justify the years spent in the quest?”
We both slept for a time in the car. The next morning, we drove up a small mountainside to reach Bakairí Post. It had taken Fawcett a month to get here from Cuiabá. It took us two days.
Bakairí Post had grown, and more than eight hundred Indians now lived in the area. We went to the largest village, where several dozen one-story houses were organized in rows around a square, dusty plaza. Most of the houses were made of clay and bamboo and had thatched roofs, though some of the newer ones had concrete walls and tin roofs that clinked in the rain. The village, while still unmistakably poor, now had a well, a tractor, satellite dishes, and electricity.
When we arrived, nearly all the men, young and old, were away hunting, in preparation for a ritual to celebrate the corn harvest. But Taukane said that there was someone we had to meet. He took us to a house abutting the plaza, near a row of fragrant mango trees. We entered a small room with a single electric light bulb hanging overhead and several wooden benches along the walls.
Before long, a tiny, stooped woman appeared through a back door. She held a child’s hand for support and moved slowly toward us, as if confronting a strong wind. She wore a floral cotton dress and had long gray hair, which framed a face so wizened that her eyes were almost invisible. She had a wide smile, which revealed a majestic set of white teeth. Taukane explained that the woman was the oldest member of the village and had seen Fawcett and his expedition come through. “She is probably the last living person to have encountered them,” he said.
She sat down on a chair, her bare feet hardly reaching the floor. Using Taukane and Pinage to translate from English into Portuguese and then into Bakairí, I asked her how old she was. “I don’t know my exact age,” she said. “But I was born around 1910.” She continued, “I was just a little girl when the three outsiders came to stay in our village. I remember them because I had never seen people so white and with such long beards. My mother said, ‘Look, the Christians are here!’ “
She said that the three explorers had set up camp inside the village’s new school, which no longer exists. “It was the nicest building,” she said. “We didn’t know who they were, but we knew they must be important because they slept in the school.” In a letter, I recalled, Jack Fawcett had mentioned sleeping in a school. She added, “I remember that they were tall, so tall. And one of them carried a funny pack. He looked like a tapir.”
I asked her what the village was like then. She said that by the time Fawcett and his men had arrived everything was changing. Brazilian military officials, she recalled, “told us we had to wear clothes, and they gave us each a new name.” She added, “My real name was Comaeda Bakairí, but they told me I was now Laurinda. So I became Laurinda.” She recalled the widespread sickness that Fawcett had described in his letters. “Bakairí people would wake up with coughs and go to the river to clean themselves, but it didn’t help,” she said.
After a while, Laurinda got up and stepped outside. Accompanying her, we could see, in the distance, the mountains that Jack had stared at with such wonder. “The three went in that direction,” she said. “Over those peaks. People said there were no white people over those mountains, but that is where they said they were going. We waited for them to come back, but they never did.”
I asked her if she had heard of any cities on the other side of the mountains which the Indians may have built centuries ago. She said she didn’t know of any, but she pointed to the walls of her house and said that her ancestors had spoken of Bakairí houses that had been much bigger and more spectacular. “They were made of palm leaves from the buriti trees and were twice as high and so beautiful,” she said.
Some of the hunters returned, carrying the carcasses of deer and anteaters and boar. In the plaza, a government official was setting up a large outdoor movie screen. I was told that a documentary would be shown teaching the Bakairís the meaning of the corn-harvest ritual that they were about to celebrate, which was part of their creation myth. Whereas the government had once tried to strip the Bakairís of their traditions, it was now attempting to preserve them. The old woman watched the proceedings from her doorstep. “The new generation still performs some of the old ceremonies, but they are not as rich or as beautiful,” she said. “They do not care about the crafts or the dances. I try to tell them the old stories, but they are not interested. They do not understand that this is who we are.”
Before we said goodbye, she remembered something else about Fawcett. For years, she said, other people came from far away to ask about the missing explorers. She stared at me, her narrow eyes widening. “What is it that these white people did?” she asked. “Why is it so important for their tribe to find them?”
On January 25, 1927, after nearly two years without word from Fawcett or his men, the Royal Geographical Society declared, “We hold ourselves in readiness to help any competent, well accredited [search] party.” Though the society warned that if Fawcett “could not penetrate and push through, much less can anyone else,” it was deluged with hundreds of letters from volunteers. One wrote, “I am thirty-six years of age. Practically Malaria-proof. Stand 5’11” in my socks and am as hard as nails.” Another said, “I am prepared to sacrifice all, including my life.”
Many were drawn to the heroic nature of the quest—a chance to see, as one later volunteer put it, “whether there is the making of a man in me, or just clay”—and by the prospect of becoming the next Henry Stanley, who had located Livingstone in East Africa five decades earlier. Many, including Fawcett’s wife, Nina, believed that Indians had taken the party hostage—a relatively common practice. (Several decades later, when Brazilian authorities approached the Txukahamei tribe for the first time, they found half a dozen white captives.)
In February, 1928, the first major rescue effort was launched, by George M. Dyott, a forty-five-year-old former British Naval Air Force commander and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Dyott, who had once met Fawcett, referred to him as “the gallant British explorer.” He claimed that, in order to succeed, he would need “the intuition of a detective” and “the skill of a big-game hunter.” Though he did not quite fit the image of an explorer—he was five feet seven and weighed only a hundred and forty pounds—he had previously ventured through parts of the Amazon, and had once been taken hostage by a tribe in the Andes. “In my own mind, I am convinced that Colonel Fawcett is alive, but he must be in a very serious predicament by now,” Dyott declared upon announcing his search effort. “Some years ago I was caught in the claws of the jungle, and the feeling of desperation that overcame me as I waited for assistance that never materialized was nigh incredible.”
Dyott posted an advertisement in a London newspaper seeking a volunteer who resembled himself: “small, spare, of wiry build,” with “habits of discipline.” He heard from twenty thousand applicants—among them Roger Rimell, the thirty-year-old brother of Raleigh. Roger’s mother, Elsie, told a reporter at the time, “I know of no greater help I can give them than to offer the services of my one remaining son.”
Dyott, however, feared taking someone with so little experience and chose only hardened outdoorsmen, technical experts, and Indian guides. (Several adventurous ladies applied, but Dyott insisted, “I can’t take a woman.”) His party came to include twenty-six members, and required seventy oxen and mules to carry more than three tons of food and gear, including inflatable rafts and movie cameras. One observer later described the party as a “Cecil B. De Mille safari.” Brazilians began to refer to the expedition as the “suicide club.”
In 1927, Colonel Fawcett was declared missing, prompting a wave of search expeditions.
Dyott, who had recently been married, left his bride in Rio de Janeiro. He departed wearing a khaki uniform and a helmet that shielded his long, bearded face. Like Fawcett, Dyott filed dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance, which published his accounts of “savages,” “disease,” “snakes,” “fire ants,” “heat,” “a million mosquitoes,” “man-eating fish,” and “that green monster, the all powerful jungle.” Arriving at Bakairí Post, which he described as “the dregs of civilization mixing with the scum of the wilds,” Dyott made what he considered his first breakthrough: he met an Indian named Bernardino, who said that he had served as Fawcett’s guide down the Kurisevo River, one of the headwaters of the Xingu. In exchange for gifts, Bernardino agreed to lead Dyott as far as he had taken Fawcett’s party, and, shortly after they departed, Dyott spotted Y-shaped marks carved into the trunks of trees—a possible sign of Fawcett’s former presence. “Fawcett’s trail loomed largely before us and, like a pack of hounds on the scent, we were in full cry,” Dyott wrote.
One night, his men set up a strange-looking device that released a sharp, staticky sound. Suddenly, a voice could be heard in the darkness, talking about Eskimos. The team had turned on a wireless radio, picking up an operator from an expedition in the Arctic. Dyott used the radio to transmit his newspaper dispatches, and to relay messages to his wife.
After nearly a week, the party reached the settlement of the Nahukwá, one of many tribes that had sought sanctuary in the jungles around the Xingu. Dyott wrote of the Nahukwá, “These new denizens of the forest were as primitive as Adam and Eve.” Some in the tribe greeted Dyott and his party warmly, but the chief, Aloique, seemed hostile. “He regarded us impassively with his small eyes,” Dyott wrote. “Cunning and cruelty lurked behind their lids.”
Dyott was surrounded by Aloique’s children, and he noticed something tied to a piece of string around the neck of one boy—a small brass plate engraved with the words “W. S. Silver and Company.” It was the name of the British firm that had supplied Fawcett with gear. Later, in Aloique’s dimly lit home, Dyott spied a military-style metal trunk. Without the benefit of translators, he tried to interrogate Aloique, using elaborate sign language. Aloique, also gesturing, seemed to suggest that the trunk was a gift. He then indicated that he had guided three white men to a neighboring territory. Dyott was skeptical and urged Aloique and some of his men to take him along the same route. Aloique warned that a murderous tribe, the Suyás, lived in that direction. Still, Dyott persisted, and, in exchange for knives, Aloique agreed to guide them.
As they marched through the forest, Dyott continued to question Aloique, and, before long, the chief seemed to add a new element to his story. Fawcett and his men, he now intimated, had been killed by the Suyás. “Suyás! Bung-bung-bung!” the chief yelled, falling to the ground as if he were dead. Aloique’s shifting explanations aroused Dyott’s suspicions. As he later wrote, “The finger of guilt seemed to point to Aloique.”
Dyott’s expedition was already short of food and water, and some of the men were so ill that they could barely walk. The radio had also been damaged, causing Dyott’s last communication with the outside world to be abruptly disconnected. (“jungle cry strangled,” the Los Angeles Times had declared. “dyott radio cut off in crisis.”) He therefore decided to press on with only two of his men, in the hope of finding Fawcett’s remains. The night before the small contingent left, however, one of the men in Dyott’s expedition party, an Indian, reported that he had overheard Aloique plotting with tribesmen to murder Dyott and steal his equipment. By then, Dyott had no doubt that he had found Fawcett’s killer. That evening, Dyott told Aloique that he now intended to take his entire party with him. The next morning, Aloique and his men had vanished.
Soon afterward, dozens of Indians from the Xingu region emerged from the forest, carrying bows and arrows, and demanding gifts. Dyott, terrified, told the Indians that the next morning he would give each of them an axe and knives. Then he gathered his men, and that night they fled down the river in canoes. One of the technicians was able to get the wireless radio to work long enough to relay a message that said, “Am sorry to report that the Fawcett expedition perished at the hands of hostile Indians.” The message went on, “Our position is critical. . . . We can’t even afford time to send full details by wireless. Must descend Xingu without delay or we ourselves will be caught.” The expedition then dumped the radio, along with other heavy gear, to hasten its exit. Newspapers debated the team’s odds: “dyott’s chance to escape even,” one headline ran. When Dyott and his men finally emerged from the jungle, months later—sick, skinny, bearded, mosquito-pocked—they were greeted as heroes. Dyott later published a book, “Man Hunting in the Jungle,” and starred in a 1933 Hollywood movie, “Savage Gold,” based on his adventure.
But by then Dyott’s story had begun to dissolve. As Brian Fawcett pointed out, it is hard to believe that his father, who was so wary of anyone knowing his path, would have left Y marks on trees. The gear that Dyott found in Aloique’s house may well have been a gift from Fawcett, as Aloique insisted. Indeed, Dyott’s case rested on his assessment of Aloique’s “treacherous” disposition—a judgment based largely on interactions conducted in sign language and on Dyott’s purported expertise in “Indian psychology.” Years later, when missionaries and other explorers entered the region, they described Aloique and the Nahukwá as generally peaceful and friendly. Dyott had ignored the likelihood that Aloique’s evasiveness, including his decision to flee, stemmed from his own fears of a white stranger who was leading an armed brigade. Finally, there was Bernardino. “Dyott . . . must have swallowed hook, line and sinker what he was told,” Brian Fawcett wrote. “I say this because there was no Bernardino with my father’s party in 1925.” According to Fawcett’s last letters, he had brought with him from Bakairí Post only two Brazilian helpers: Gardenia and Simão. Not long after Dyott returned to England, Nina Fawcett released a statement declaring, “There is consequently still no proof that the three explorers are dead.”
In 1932, a hunter wearing riding boots and a sports jacket arrived at the British Embassy in São Paulo, insisting that he had important information concerning Fawcett. The hunter spoke with the British consul-general, Arthur Abbott, who had known Fawcett personally. In a sworn statement, the man said, “My name is Stefan Rattin. I am a Swiss subject. I came to South America twenty-one years ago.” He explained that on October 16, 1931, he and two companions had been hunting near the Tapajós River, in the northwest corner of the Mato Grosso, when he encountered a tribe holding an elderly white man with long yellowish hair. Later, after many of the tribesmen had got drunk, Rattin said, the white man, who was clad in animal skins, quietly approached him.
“Are you a friend?” he asked.
“Yes,” Rattin replied.
“I am an English colonel,” he said, and he implored Rattin to go to the British consulate and tell “Major Paget” that he was being held captive.
Abbott knew that a former British Ambassador to Brazil, Sir Ralph Paget, had been a confidant of Fawcett’s. This fact, Abbott noted in a letter to the Royal Geographical Society, “was only known to me and a few personal friends.” Paget himself, when he was reached in England, was skeptical. The white man had been discovered far from where Fawcett had last been seen. More important, why would Rattin have been allowed to leave the tribe while Fawcett was forced to remain a prisoner? Abbott, however, was convinced of the Swiss man’s sincerity, especially since Rattin vowed to rescue Fawcett without seeking a reward. Rattin soon set out with two men, one of them a Brazilian reporter, who filed articles for the United Press syndicate. After walking through the jungle for weeks, the three men arrived at the Arinos River, where they built canoes out of bark. In a dispatch dated May 24, 1932, as the expedition was about to enter hostile Indian territory, the reporter wrote, “Rattin is anxious to get away. He calls, ‘All aboard!’ Here we go.” The men were never heard from again.
In 1933, a fifty-three-year-old Englishman named Albert de Winton arrived in Cuiabá, vowing to find Fawcett dead or alive. Winton had recently had minor roles in several Hollywood films, including “The King of the Wild.” According to the Washington Post, he had “given up on the imitation thrills of the movies for the real ones of the jungle.” Wearing a crisp safari uniform, a gun strapped to his waist, and smoking a pipe, he headed into the jungle; he emerged nine months later with his clothes in tatters, his face emaciated. On February 4, 1934, a photograph of him appeared in newspapers with the caption “Albert Winton, Los Angeles actor, is not made up for a role in a film drama. This is what nine months in a South American wilderness did for him.” Within days, he had returned to the Xingu region. Months elapsed without any word from him. Then, in September, an Indian runner came out of the forest with a crumpled note. It said that Winton had been taken prisoner by a tribe and pleaded, “Please send help.” He, too, was never seen again. Only years later did Brazilian officials learn from Indians in the region that a member of the Kamayura tribe had smashed Winton’s head in with a club, then taken his rifle.
Dozens of explorers continued to try to find Fawcett or the City of Z. (Peter Fleming, the brother of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, went on one failed expedition.) By 1934, the Brazilian government had issued a decree banning Fawcett search parties unless they received special permission. Because so many seekers went without fanfare, there are no reliable statistics on the numbers who disappeared. One recent estimate, however, put the total as high as a hundred. According to “Lost Cities and Ancient Mysteries of South America,” by David H. Childress, among them was a thirty-two-year-old schoolteacher from New Zealand, who, before he vanished, released a carrier pigeon with a note saying, “I die happily, knowing that my belief in Fawcett and his lost City of Gold was not in vain.” Meanwhile, missionaries began to explore the Xingu, and returned with tales of a white child. In 1937, the American missionary Martha L. Moennich, who vowed to convert what she called “the most primitive and unenlightened of all South American Indians,” reported that the child was living among the Kuikuro tribe and that the chief had told her that he was the son of Jack Fawcett, who had fathered him with an Indian woman before his expedition headed east. In 1943, a Brazilian tabloid dispatched a reporter to find the grandson. The reporter returned with a seventeen-year-old boy with milky-white skin named Dulipé, who was paraded around Brazil and hailed in the newspaper as the “White God of the Xingu.” But when Nina Fawcett examined photographs of the boy she was taken aback. “That child looks to me like an albino,” she said. Tests later confirmed her assessment.
Nina, meanwhile, maintained an almost blind conviction that her husband and son would reappear. As late as 1950, she told a reporter that it would not surprise her if they walked through the door at any moment—her husband now eighty-two, her son forty-seven. But in April, 1951, Orlando Villas Boas, a government official revered for his defense of the Amazonian tribes, announced that the Kalapalo Indians had confessed to him that they had murdered the three explorers. What’s more, Villas Boas claimed that he had proof: the bones of Colonel Fawcett.
“The chief of the Kalapalos will meet with us,” Pinage told me, relaying a message that had been radioed in from the jungle. The negotiations, he said, would take place not far from Bakairí Post, in Canarana, a small frontier town on the southern border of Xingu National Park. When we arrived that evening, the city was in the midst of a dengue-fever epidemic, and many of the phone lines were down. It was also Canarana’s twenty-fifth anniversary, and the city was celebrating with fireworks, which sounded like sporadic, melancholy gunshots. In the early nineteen-eighties, the Brazilian government, as part of its continuing colonization of Indian territories, had sent in planes filled with cowboys—many of German descent—to settle the remote area. Though the town was desolate, the main roads were bafflingly wide, as if they were superhighways. Only when I saw a photograph of a guest parking his airplane in front of a local hotel did I understand the reason: for years, the city had been so inaccessible that the streets doubled as runways. Even today, I was told, it was possible for a plane to land in the middle of the road, and in the main square sat a passenger airplane, the town’s only apparent monument.
The Kalapalo chief, Vajuvi, showed up at our hotel accompanied by two men. He had a tanned, deeply lined face, and appeared to be in his late forties. Like his two companions, he was about five feet six, with muscular arms. His hair was trimmed in a traditional bowl cut high above the ears. In the Xingu region, tribesmen often dispensed with clothes, but, for this visit to the city, Vajuvi wore a cotton V-neck shirt and sun-bleached jeans that hung loosely around his hips.
After we introduced ourselves and I explained why I wanted to visit the Xingu, Vajuvi asked, “Are you a member of the Colonel’s family?”
By now, I was accustomed to the question, though this time it seemed more loaded: the Kalapalos had been accused of killing Fawcett, an act that could require his family to avenge his death. When I explained that I was a reporter, Vajuvi seemed accommodating. “I will tell you the truth about the bones,” he said. He then added that the village wanted the sum of five thousand dollars.
I explained that I didn’t have that kind of money and tried to extoll the virtues of cultural exchange. One of the Kalapalos stepped toward me and said, “The spirits told me that you were coming and that you are rich.” Another Kalapalo added, “I’ve seen pictures of your cities. You have too many cars. You should give us a car.”
One of the Indians left the hotel and returned moments later with three more Kalapalos. Every few minutes, another Kalapalo appeared; the room was soon crowded with more than a dozen men, some old, some young, all of them surrounding Pinage and me. “Where are they coming from?” I asked Pinage.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Vajuvi let the other men argue and haggle. As the negotiations continued, many of the Kalapalos grew hostile. They pressed against me and called me a liar. Finally, Vajuvi stood and said, “You talk to your chief in the United States, and then we’ll talk again in a few hours.”
He walked out of the room, the members of his tribe following him.
“Do not worry,” Pinage said. “They are pushing and we are pushing back. This is the way it happens.”
Dispirited, I went up to my room. Two hours later, Pinage called on the hotel phone. “Please come downstairs,” he said. “I think I reach an agreement for us.”
Vajuvi and the other Kalapalos were standing at the entryway of the hotel. Pinage told me that Vajuvi had agreed to take us into Xingu National Park if we paid for transportation and for several hundred dollars’ worth of supplies. I shook the chief’s hand, and, before I knew it, his men were patting me on the shoulders, asking about my family, as if we were meeting for the first time. “Now we talk and eat,” Vajuvi said. “All is good.”
The next day, we prepared to leave. To reach one of the largest headwaters of the Xingu, the Kuluene River, we needed an even more powerful truck, and so, after lunch, we said farewell to our driver, who seemed relieved to be going home. “I hope you find this Y you are looking for,” he said.
After he departed, we rented a flatbed truck with tractor-size wheels. As word spread that a truck was heading into the Xingu, Indians emerged from all quarters, carrying children and bundles of goods, hurrying to climb on board. Every time the truck seemed full, another person squeezed on, and as the afternoon rains poured down we began our journey.
According to the map, the Kuluene was only sixty miles away. But the road was worse than any that Pinage and I had travelled: pools of water reached as high as the floorboards, and at times the truck, with all its weight, tipped perilously to one side. We drove no faster than fifteen miles an hour, sometimes coming to a halt, reversing, then pressing forward again. The forests had been denuded here as well. Some areas had been burned recently, and I could see the remnants of trees scattered for miles, their blackened limbs reaching into the open sky.
Finally, as we neared the river, the forest began to reveal itself. Trees gradually closed around us, their branches forming a net that covered the windshield. After five hours, we reached a wire fence: the boundary of Xingu National Park. Vajuvi said that it was only half a mile to the river, and then we would travel by boat to the Kalapalo village. Yet the truck soon got stuck in the mud, forcing us to remove our equipment temporarily to lighten the weight, and by the time we reached the river it was pitch black under the canopy of trees. Vajuvi said that we would have to wait to cross. “It’s too dangerous,” he said. “The river is filled with logs and branches. We must not disrespect it.”
Mosquitoes pricked my skin, and macaws and cicadas chanted. Above our heads, some creatures howled. “Do not worry,” Pinage said. “They are only monkeys.”
We walked a bit farther and arrived at a shack; Vajuvi pushed the door, which creaked as it opened. He led us inside and fumbled around until he lit a candle, which revealed a small room with a corrugated-tin roof and a mud floor. There was a wooden pole in the middle of the room, and Vajuvi helped Pinage and me string our hammocks. Though my clothes were still damp with sweat and mud from the journey, I lay down, trying to shield my face from the mosquitoes. After a while, the candle went out, and I swung gently in the darkness, listening to the murmurings of cicadas and the cawcawing of monkeys.
I fell into a light sleep, but woke suddenly when I felt something by my ear. I opened my eyes with a start: five naked boys, carrying bows and arrows, were staring at me. When they saw me move, they laughed and ran off.
I sat up. Pinage and Vajuvi were standing around a wood fire, boiling water.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Five-thirty,” Pinage said. He handed me some crackers and a tin cup filled with coffee. “It’s still a long way,” he said. “You must eat something.”
After a quick breakfast, we walked outside; in the light of day, I could see that we were at a small encampment overlooking the Kuluene River. On the shore were two flat-bottom aluminum boats, into which we loaded our gear. Both boats were about twelve feet long and had outboard motors—an invention that had been introduced into the Xingu only in recent years.
Pinage and I climbed into one boat with a Kalapalo guide, while Vajuvi and his family travelled in another. The boats sped upriver, side by side. Farther north were rapids and waterfalls, but here the water was a calm, olive-green expanse. Trees lined the banks, their boughs bent like old men, their leaves skimming the surface of the water. After several hours, we docked our boats along the shore. Vajuvi told us to gather our gear, and we followed him up a short path. He paused and waved his hand proudly in front of him. “Kalapalo,” he said.
We stood at the edge of a circular plaza that was more than a hundred yards in circumference and dotted with houses much like those described by the old woman at Bakairí Post. Resembling the overturned hulls of ships, they appeared to be woven, rather than constructed, out of thatch and wood. Their exteriors were covered with thatch, except for a door in the back and the front—both low enough, I was told, to keep out evil spirits.
Several dozen people were walking across the plaza. Many of them were unclothed, and some had adorned their bodies with exquisite ornamentations: monkey-tooth necklaces; swirls of black pigment from the genipap fruit; swaths of red pigment from the uruku berry. Women between the ages of thirteen and fifty tended to wear loose cotton dresses, the upper half dangling around their waists. The men who weren’t naked typically wore spandex bathing suits, as if they were Olympic swimmers. Physical fitness was clearly a prized trait. Some of the babies, I noticed, had strips of cloth pulled tightly around their calves and biceps, like tourniquets, to accentuate their muscles. “For us, it is a sign of beauty,” Vajuvi said. The tribe continued to commit infanticide against those who seemed unnatural or bewitched, although the practice had become less common.
Vajuvi led me into his house, a cavernous space filled with smoke from a wood-burning fire. He introduced me to two handsome women. Both had jet-black hair, with bangs in the front, that fanned down over their bare backs. The older one had a tattoo of three vertical stripes on her upper arms; the other had a necklace with glittering white shells. “My wives,” Vajuvi said.
Before long, other people stepped out of the shadows: children and grandchildren, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. Vajuvi said that nearly twenty people lived in the house. It seemed less like a home than like a self-contained village. In the center of the room, near a pole supporting the roof, from which corn had been hung to dry, one of Vajuvi’s daughters knelt in front of a large wooden loom, weaving a hammock. Next to her was a boy wearing a blue-beaded belt, holding fish in an elaborately detailed, brightly painted ceramic pot. Beside him, an elderly hunter sat on a large hardwood bench carved in the shape of a jaguar, sharpening a five-foot-long arrow. Fawcett wrote of the southern basin of the Amazon, “The whole of this region is saturated with Indian traditions of a most interesting kind,” which “cannot be founded upon nothing” and which suggest the prior presence of “a once-great civilization.”
The village, which had about a hundred and fifty residents, was highly stratified. These people were not wandering hunter-gatherers. Chiefs were anointed by bloodlines, as with European kings. There were strict taboos on diet which forbid them to eat most red meats, including tapir, deer, and boar. At puberty, boys and girls were held in extended seclusion, during which a designated elder taught them the rituals and the responsibilities of adulthood. (The son in line to become chief was sequestered for up to four years.) George Dyott, during his journey in the Xingu with Aloique, passed through the Kalapalo village and was so impressed by the scene that he wrote, “There is reason to believe that Fawcett’s stories of a forgotten civilization are based on fact.”
I asked Vajuvi whether he knew if the people of this region, who were known as Xinguanos, had once descended from a larger civilization, or if there were any significant ruins in the surrounding jungle. He shook his head. According to legend, however, the spirit Fitsi-fitsi built giant moats in the area. (“Everywhere he went that seemed like a nice place to stay, Fitsi-fitsi would make long, deep ditches and leave part of his people there, and he himself would continue travelling.”)
While Vajuvi, Pinage, and I were talking, a man named Vanite Kalapalo entered the house and sat down beside us. He seemed despondent. It was his job, he said, to guard one of the posts to the reservation. The other day, another Indian had come to him and said, “Listen, Vanite. You must come with me down the river. The white people are building something in Afasukugu.” The word “Afasukugu” meant “the place of the big cats”; at this site, the Xinguanos believe, the first humans were created. Vanite picked up a stick and drew a map on the mud floor. “Here is Afasukugu,” he said. “It is by a waterfall.”
“It is outside the park,” Vajuvi, the chief, added. “But it is sacred.”
Vanite continued with his story. “So I said, ‘I will go with you to Afasukugu, but you are crazy. Nobody would build anything at the place of the jaguars.’ But when I get there the waterfall is destroyed. They blew it up with thirty kilos of dynamite. The place was so beautiful, and now it is gone. And I ask a man working there, ‘What are you doing?’ He says, ‘We are building a hydroelectric dam.’ “
“It is in the middle of the Kuluene River,” Vajuvi said. “All the water from there flows right into our park and into our territory.”
Vanite, who was becoming agitated, didn’t seem to hear the chief. He said, “A man from the Mato Grosso government comes to the Xingu and tells us, ‘Do not worry. This dam will not hurt you.’ And he offers each us of money. One of the chiefs from another tribe took the money, and the tribes are now fighting with each other. For me, the money means nothing. The river has been here for thousands of years. We don’t live forever, but the river does. The god Taugi created the river. It gives us our food, our medicines. You see, we don’t have a well. We drink water right from the river. How will we live without it?”
Vajuvi said, “If they succeed, the river will disappear and, with it, all our people.”
Our search for Fawcett and the City of Z suddenly felt trivial—another tribe appeared to be on the verge of extinction. But, later that night, after we bathed in the river, Vajuvi said that there was something he had to tell Pinage and me about the Englishmen. The next day, he promised, he would take us by boat to where the bones had been discovered. Before going to bed, he added, “There are many things about the Englishmen that only Kalapalo people know.”
The next morning, as we got ready to depart, one of the girls in our house removed a piece of cloth from a large object in the corner of the room, near an array of masks. Underneath was a television set, which was powered by the village’s sole generator.
The girl, who was naked, turned a knob, sat down on the mud floor, and began watching a cartoon featuring a raucous Woody Woodpecker-like bird. Within minutes, at least twenty other children and several adults from the village had gathered around the set.
As Vajuvi came to retrieve us, I asked him how long he had owned a television. “Only a few years,” he said. “At first, all everyone did is stare at it in a trance. But now I control the generator, and it is on only a few hours a week.”
Several of the men watching the television got their bows and arrows and went out to hunt. Meanwhile, Pinage and I followed Vajuvi and one of his sons, who was five years old, down to the river. “I thought we would catch our lunch, the way Kalapalo do,” Vajuvi said.
We climbed into one of the motorboats and headed upriver. A mist that covered the forest slowly dissipated as the sun rose. The river, dark and muddy, occasionally narrowed into a chute so tight that tree branches hung over our heads like bridges. Eventually, we entered an inlet covered by a tangle of floating leaves. “The green lagoon,” Vajuvi said.
He cut the engine, and the boat slid quietly through the water. Terns with yellow beaks fluttered amid the rosewood and cedar trees, and swallows zigzagged above the lagoon, shimmering white specks on the blanket of green. A pair of macaws cackled and screamed, and, on the shore, deer stood as still as the water. A small caiman scurried up the banks.
“You must always be careful in the jungle,” Vajuvi said. “I listen to my dreams. If I have a dream of danger, then I stay in the village. Many accidents happen to white people because they don’t believe their dreams.”
The Xinguanos were famous for fishing with bows and arrows, their bodies perched silently on the front of canoes—a pose that early-twentieth-century explorers had caught on camera. Vajuvi and his son, however, took out some fishing lines and baited the hooks. Then they spun the lines over their heads like lassos and sent the hooks sailing into the center of the lagoon.
As Vajuvi pulled in his line, he pointed to the shore and said, “Up that way is where the bones were dug up. But they were not Fawcett’s bones—they were my grandfather’s.”
“Your grandfather’s?” I asked.
“Yes. Mugika—that was his name. He was dead when Orlando Villas Boas began to ask about Fawcett. Orlando wanted to protect us from all the white people coming in, and he told the Kalapalo people, ‘If you find a tall skeleton, I will give each of you a rifle.’ My grandfather was one of the tallest men in the village. So several people in the village decide to dig up his bones and bury them out here by the lagoon and say they are Fawcett’s.”
As he spoke, his son’s line went taut. He helped the boy pull it in, and a silvery-white fish burst out of the water, flapping wildly on the hook. I leaned in to inspect it, but Vajuvi jerked me out of the way and began to club it with a stick.
“Piranha,” he said.
I looked down at the dead fish, with its low-hung jaw, lying on the aluminum floor of the boat. Vajuvi opened its mouth with a knife, revealing a set of sharp interlocking teeth—teeth that the Indians sometimes used to scrape their flesh in purification rituals. After he removed the hook, he continued, “My father, Tadjui, was away at the time, and he was furious when he found out what the people did. But the bones had already been taken away.”
Other evidence seemed to corroborate his story. As Brian Fawcett had noted at the time, many of the Kalapalos told contradictory versions of how the Colonel had actually been killed. The Kalapalo insisted that Fawcett had been murdered because he had not brought any gifts and had slapped a young Kalapalo boy, yet Fawcett was known for his gentle behavior in the jungle. More significant, I later found a document from the Royal Anthropological Institute, in London, which had examined the bones. It stated:
The upper jaw provides the clearest possible evidence that these human remains were not those of Colonel Fawcett, whose spare upper denture is fortunately available for comparison. . . . Colonel Fawcett is stated to have been six feet, one and a half inches tall. The height of the man whose remains have been brought to England is estimated at about five feet, seven inches.
“I would like to get the bones back and bury them where they belong,” Vajuvi said.
After catching half a dozen piranhas, we glided to shore. Vajuvi gathered several sticks and built a fire. Without skinning the piranhas, he laid them on the wood, grilling one side, then the other. He put the blackened fish on a bed of leaves and tore several pieces off the bone. He wrapped the fish in beiju, a kind of pancake bread made from manioc flour, handing each of us a sandwich. As we ate, he said, “I will tell you what my parents told me really happened to the Englishmen. It is true that they were here. There were three of them, and no one knew who they were or why they had come. They had no animals and carried packs on their backs. One, who was the chief, was old, and the two others were young. They were hungry and tired from marching for so long, and the people in the village gave them fish and beiju. In return for their help, the Englishmen offered them fish hooks, which no one had seen before. And knives. Finally, the old man said, ‘We must be going now.’ The people asked them, ‘Where are you going?’ And they said, ‘That way. To the east.’ We said, ‘Nobody goes that way. That’s where the hostile Indians are. They will kill you.’ But the old man insisted. And so they went.” Vajuvi pointed eastward and shook his head. “In those days, nobody went that way,” he said. For several days, he continued, the Kalapalos could see smoke above the trees—Fawcett’s campfire—but on the fifth day it disappeared. Vajuvi said that a group of Kalapalos, fearing that something bad had happened to them, tried to find their camp. But there was no trace of the Englishmen.
Later, I learned that what his parents had shared with him was an oral history, which had been passed down for generations with remarkable precision. In 1931, Vincenzo Petrullo, an anthropologist who worked for the Pennsylvania University Museum, in Philadelphia, and who was one of the first whites to enter the Xingu, reported hearing a similar account. (Amid all the sensationalist tales, few had paid much attention to it.) Some fifty years later, Ellen Basso, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, recorded a more detailed version from a Kalapalo named Kambe, who was a boy when Fawcett and his party arrived in the village. She translated his account directly from the Kalapalo language, maintaining the epic rhythms of the tribe’s oral histories:
One of them remained by himself.
While he sang, he played a musical instrument.
His musical instrument worked like this, like this. . . .
He sang and sang.
He put his arm around me this way.
While he was playing we watched the Christians.
While he was playing.
Father and the others.
Then, “ I’ll have to be going,” he said.
Kambe also recounted how they could see their fire:
“There’s the Christians’ fire,” we said to one another.
That was going on as the sun set.
The next day as the sun set, again their fire rose up.
The following day again, just a little smoke, spread out in the sky.
On this day, mbouk, their fire had gone out. . . .
It looked as if the Englishmen’s fire was no longer alive, as if it had been put out.
“What a shame! Why did he keep insisting they go away?”
When Vajuvi finished his version of the oral history, he said, “People always say the Kalapalos killed the Englishmen. But we did not. We tried to save them.”
One day in 1955, four years after the bones were dug up, Brian Fawcett conducted his own search for Z. He rented a propeller plane and dropped thousands of leaflets over the jungle. The leaflets asked, “Are you Jack Fawcett? If your answer is yes, then make this sign holding arms above your head. . . . Can you control the Indians if we land? . . . Is P. H. Fawcett still alive?”
When Brian received no positive responses, he continued to canvass the wilderness from above for signs of Z. He crisscrossed the Amazon, peering through binoculars, and, as the days wore on, he began to fear what he had never allowed himself to consider—that there had never been a Z. As he later wrote, “The whole romantic structure of fallacious beliefs, already rocking dangerously, collapsed about me, leaving me dazed.”
Before long, the search for Fawcett began to attract a new kind of explorer: spiritualists and occultists. Hundreds of people came to believe that Fawcett, who had developed a lifelong interest in mysticism during his days in Ceylon, had discovered that Z was, in fact, a portal to an alternate reality. They cited many of Fawcett’s cryptic and largely impenetrable writings for magazines such as Occult Review, which he published shortly before he departed on his last adventure. In one essay, he spoke of his search for “the treasure of the invisible World.”
Fawcett’s disappearance, and the failure of later explorers to find his remains, fuelled the notion that the Colonel, in his quest, had somehow transcended the laws of physics. In the nineteen-sixties, several religious cults began worshipping Fawcett as a kind of god. According to Leal’s biography of Fawcett, one such group was founded, in 1968, by a man named Udo Luckner, who wore a long white gown and a hat resembling an archbishop’s mitre. Luckner claimed that Fawcett had uncovered a gateway to a new dimension inside a cave in the Roncador Mountains, in the northeast corner of the Mato Grosso. Recently, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society announced plans for an expedition to find “the same portal or the doorway to a Kingdom that was entered by Colonel Fawcett in 1925.” The trek, which will include psychic guides, is billed as an “Expedition of No Return in the Ethereal Place of the Unbelief.”
In many ways, these seekers represent the end point of exploration. Just as the search for gold gave way to a search for scientific knowledge, now the search for scientific knowledge has given way to the search for transcendence. Fawcett himself anticipated this turn. Not long before he vanished, he wrote to his wife, “But for the Occult side—everything else is peripheral (!), I scarcely see how anyone could do these expeditions.” At one point, Pinage and I met a mystic near the Roncador Mountains, who told us, “You will never find Z as long as you look for it in this world.”
Still, I pressed on with my attempt to find Z in the Xingu, even though Brian Fawcett had warned others about “throwing away their lives for a mirage.” According to Fawcett’s blueprints, Z would have been situated farther north than the Kalapalo settlement. Vajuvi, Pinage, and I decided to follow the Kuluene River in the direction of the Kuikuro village—the settlement where, in 1996, James Lynch had been taken hostage.
We loaded our equipment in the aluminum canoe and set out. It had rained most of the night before, and the river spilled into the surrounding forest. After three hours, the boat approached an embankment where a young Indian boy was fishing. Vajuvi steered the boat toward him and turned off the engine as the bow slid onto the shore.
“Are we here?” I asked Vajuvi.
“The village is inland,” he said. “You’ll have to walk from here.”
Pinage and I unloaded our bags and our boxes of food, and said goodbye to Vajuvi. We watched as his boat disappeared behind a bend in the river. There was too much baggage for us to carry, and Pinage asked the boy if he could borrow his bicycle, which was propped against a tree. The boy agreed, and Pinage told me to wait while he went to find help. As he rode away, I sat under a buriti tree and watched the boy casting his line and pulling it in.
An hour passed without anyone from the village appearing. I stood and stared down the path—there was only a trail of mud surrounded by wild grass and bushes. It was past noon when four boys showed up on bicycles. They strapped the cargo on the back of their bicycles, but they had no room for a large cardboard box, which weighed about forty pounds, or for my computer bag, and so I carried them myself. In a mixture of Portuguese, Kuikuro, and pantomime, the boys explained that they would meet me in the village, waved goodbye, and vanished down the path on their rickety bikes.
With the box resting on one shoulder and the bag in my hand, I followed on foot, alone. The path wound through a partially submerged mangrove forest. I wondered whether I should remove my shoes, but I had no place to carry them, so I left them on, my ankles sinking in the mud. The vestiges of the path soon disappeared underwater. I was unsure which way to go, and I veered to the right, where I thought I saw some trampled grass. I walked for an hour—still, there was no sight of anyone. The box on my shoulder had grown heavier, as had the bag for my laptop, which, among the mangroves, seemed like an absurdity of modern travel. I thought about leaving them behind, but there was no dry spot to be found.
Occasionally, I slipped in the mud, falling in the water. I yelled out Pinage’s name, but there was no response. Exhausted, I found a grassy knoll that was only a few inches below the waterline, and sat down. My pants filled with water as I listened to the frogs. The sun burned my face and hands, and I wiped muddy water on myself in a vain attempt to cool down.
After half an hour, I stood again and tried to find the correct path. I walked and walked; in one spot, the water rose to my waist, and I lifted the bags above my head. Each time I thought that I had reached the end of the mangrove forest, a new swath opened up before me—large patches of tall, damp reeds clouded with mosquitoes, which ate into me.
I was slapping a mosquito on my neck when I heard a noise in the distance. I stopped but didn’t see anything. As I took another step, the noise grew louder. I called out again for Pinage.
I could hear the sound again—a strange cackle, almost like laughter. A dark object darted in the tall grass, then another one, and another. “Who’s there?” I asked, in Portuguese.
I walked faster, but the water deepened and widened until it resembled a lake. I was looking dumbfounded at the shore, some two hundred yards ahead, when I noticed, tucked in a bush, an aluminum canoe. Though there was no paddle, I rested the box and my bag in it and climbed in, short of breath. Then I heard the noise again and bolted upright. Out of the tall reeds burst dozens of naked children. They seized the edges of the canoe and began to swim me across the lake, screaming with laughter the entire way. When we reached the shore again, I stumbled out of the canoe, and the children followed me up a path. We had reached the Kuikuro village.
Pinage was sitting in the shade of the nearest hut. “I’m sorry I didn’t go back for you,” he said. “I didn’t think I could make it.” His vest was draped around his neck, and he was sipping water from a bowl. He handed the bowl to me, and, though the water hadn’t been boiled, I drank it greedily, letting it spill around my neck.
“Now you have some kind of real picture in your mind of what it was like for Fawcett,” he said. “Now we go home, no?”
Before I could reply, a Kuikuro man came and told us to follow him. Recalling Lynch’s experience, I paused for a moment, then walked with him across the dusty central plaza, which was some two hundred and fifty yards in diameter—the largest one, I was told, in the Xingu. Two fires had recently swept through the huts along the plaza’s perimeter, the flames leaping from one thatched roof to the next, leaving much of the settlement in ashes. He paused outside one of the surviving homes and told us to enter. Near the door, I could see two magnificent clay sculptures—one of a frog, the other of a jaguar. I was admiring them when an enormous man stepped out of the shadows. He was built like Tamakafi, a mythical Xinguano fighter, who, according to legend, had a colossal body, his arms as thick as thighs, his legs as big as a chest. The man wore only a thin bathing suit, and he had a bowl haircut that somehow made his stern face seem even more imposing.
“I am Afukaká,” he said, in a surprisingly soft, measured voice. It was clear that he was the chief. He offered Pinage and me lunch—a bowl of fish and rice—which his two wives, who were sisters, served us. He seemed interested in the outside world and asked me many questions about New York, about the skyscrapers and restaurants.
As we spoke, a sweet serenading sound filtered into the hut. I turned to the door as a group of women dancers and men with bamboo flutes entered. The men, who were naked, had covered their bodies with elaborate images of fish and tortoises and anacondas, the shapes weaving along their arms and legs, the orange and yellow and red colors gleaming with sweat. Around the eyes of most of them were black circles of paint, which resembled masks at a costume party. Their heads were topped with large, colorful feathers.
Afukaká and Pinage and I stood as the group crowded into the hut. The men stepped forward twice, then back, then forward again, all the time blowing their flutes, some of which were ten feet long—beautiful pieces of bamboo that released humming tones, like wind catching an open bottle top. Several young girls with long black hair danced alongside the men, their arms slung over the shoulders of the person in front of them, forming a chain; they, too, were naked, except for strings of snail shells around their necks and a bark-cloth triangle, or uluri, that covered their pubic area. Some of the pubescent girls had recently been held in seclusion, so that their bodies were paler than those of the men. Their necklaces rattled as they stamped their feet, adding to the insistent rhythm of the music. The group circled us for several minutes, then ducked under the doorway and disappeared into the plaza, the sound of the flutes fading as the musicians and the dancers entered the next hut.
I asked Afukaká about the ritual, and he said that it was a festival for fish spirits. “It is a way to commune with the spirits,” he said. “We have hundreds of ceremonies—all beautiful.”
After a while, I mentioned Fawcett. Afukaká echoed what the Kalapalo chief had told me. “The fierce Indians must have killed them,” he said. Indeed, it seemed likely that at least one of the more warlike tribes in the region—most likely the Suyás, as Aloique had suggested—had slaughtered the party; it was improbable that all three Englishmen would have starved to death, given Fawcett’s talent for surviving in the jungle for long periods. But that was as far as the evidence led me. For example, I could not account for how Fawcett’s ring had wound up in a shop outside Cuiabá. Perhaps Fawcett had traded it for goods in Cuiabá, or perhaps he had given it to someone at Bakairí Post. “Only the forest knows all,” Pinage said.
An archeologist named Michael Heckenberger was doing field work in the Kuikuro village. Earlier, we had spoken on the phone and arranged a meeting. A highly regarded professor at the University of Florida, he had spent more than a decade doing research in the Amazon. During that time, he 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. Because of the prevailing notion that the Amazon was a counterfeit paradise—and because no stone city had ever been found—most established archeologists had long ago abandoned the remote Xingu. “They assumed it was an archeological black hole,” Heckenberger told me. “Fawcett was probably the last person who came in here looking for lost cities.”
Heckenberger, who, with baggy shorts and shaggy blond hair, looks a little like a surfer, knew the story of Fawcett well and had tried to conduct his own inquiry into his fate. “I’m fascinated by him and what he did in that time period,” Heckenberger said. “He was one of these larger-than-life figures. Anyone who would jump in a canoe or march in here at a time when you know some of the Indians are going to try to—” He stopped in midsentence, as if contemplating the consequences.
He said that Fawcett was easy to dismiss as “a crank”; he lacked the tools and the discipline of a modern archeologist, and he never questioned the shibboleth that any lost city in the Amazon had to have European origins. “But if you look back you’ll find that a lot of people believed that then,” Heckenberger said. Fawcett, he went on, may have been an amateur, but, in some ways, he was able to see things more clearly than many professional scholars.
“I want to show you something,” Heckenberger said at one point.
Grabbing a two-foot-long machete, he led Pinage, Afukaká, and me into the forest, cutting away tendrils from trees, which shot upward, fighting for the glow of the sun. After walking for a mile or so, we reached an area where the forest thinned. Heckenberger pointed to the ground with his machete. “See how the land dips?” he asked.
Indeed, the ground seemed to slope downward for a long stretch, then tilt upward again, as if someone had carved out an enormous ditch.
“It’s a moat,” Heckenberger said.
“What do you mean, a moat?”
“A moat. A defensive ditch.” He added, “From nearly nine hundred years ago.”
Pinage and I tried to follow the moat’s contours, which curved in a nearly perfect circle through the woods. Heckenberger said that the moat had originally been between a dozen and sixteen feet deep, and about fifty feet wide. It was nearly a mile in diameter. I thought of “the long, deep ditches” that the spirit Fitsi-fitsi was said to have built around settlements. “The Kuikuros knew they existed, but they didn’t realize that their own ancestors had built them,” Heckenberger said.
Afukaká, who had helped with the excavation, said, “We thought they were made by the spirits.”
Heckenberger walked over to a rectangular hole in the ground, where he had excavated part of the moat. Pinage and I peered over the edge with the chief. The exposed earth, in contrast to other parts of the forest, was dark, almost black. Using radiocarbon dating, Heckenberger had dated the trench to about 1200 A.D. He pointed the tip of his machete to the bottom of the hole, where there seemed to be a ditch within the ditch. “That’s where they put the palisade wall,” he said.
“A wall?” I asked.
Heckenberger smiled and went on, “All around the moat, you can see these funnel shapes, equally spread apart. There are only two explanations. Either they had traps at the bottom or they had something sticking into them, like tree trunks.”
He said that the concept of traps made little sense, since the people the moat was supposed to be protecting would have been in peril themselves. What’s more, he said, when he examined the moats with Afukaká, the chief told him a legend about a Kuikuro who had escaped from another village by leaping over “a great palisade wall and ditch.”
Still, none of it seemed to make sense. Why would anyone build a moat and a stockade wall in the middle of the wilderness? “There’s nothing here,” I said.
Heckenberger didn’t respond; instead, he bent down and rooted through the dirt, picking up a piece of hardened clay with grooves along the edges. He held it up to the light. “Broken pottery,” he said. “It’s everywhere.”
As I looked at other shards on the ground, I thought of how Fawcett had once asserted in a letter that on certain high grounds in the Amazon “very little scratching will produce an abundance” of ancient pottery.
Heckenberger said that we were standing in the middle of a vast ancient settlement.
“Poor Fawcett—he was so close,” Pinage said.
It was understandable why Fawcett wouldn’t have been able to see it, Heckenberger went on. “There isn’t a lot of stone in the jungle, and most of the settlement was built with organic materials—wood and palms and earth mounds—which decompose,” he said. “But once you begin to map out the area and excavate it you are blown away by what you see.”
He began walking once more through the forest, pointing out what was, increasingly clearly, 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.
As we walked around, I noticed an embankment that extended into the forest in a straight line. Heckenberger said that it was a road curb.
“They had roads, too?” I asked.
“Roads. Causeways. Canals.” Heckenberger said that some roads had been nearly a hundred and fifty feet wide. “We even found a place where the road ends at one side of a river in a kind of ascending ramp and then continues on the other side with a descending ramp. Which can mean only one thing: there had to have been some kind of wooden bridge connecting them, over an area that was a half mile long.”
They were the very same kind of dreamlike causeways and settlements that the Spanish conquistadores had spoken of when they visited the Amazon, in which Fawcett had so fervently believed and which twentieth-century scientists had dismissed as myths. I asked Heckenberger where the roads led, and he said that they extended to other, equally complex sites. “I just took you to the closest one,” he said.
Altogether, he had uncovered twenty pre-Columbian settlements in the Xingu. The settlements were about two to three miles apart and were connected by roads. More astounding, the plazas were laid out along cardinal points, from east to west, and the roads were positioned at the same geometric angles. (Fawcett said that Indians had told him legends that described “many streets set at right angles to one another.”)
Borrowing my notebook, Heckenberger began to sketch a huge circle, then another and another. These were the plazas and the villages, he said. He then drew rings around them, which he said were the moats. Finally, he added several parallel lines that jutted out from each of the settlements in precise angles—the roads, bridges, and causeways. Each form seemed to fit into an elaborate whole, like an abstract painting viewed from a distance. “Once my team and I started to map everything out, we discovered that nothing was done by accident,” Heckenberger said. “All these settlements were laid out with a complicated plan, with a sense of engineering and mathematics that rivalled anything that was happening in much of Europe at the time.”
Heckenberger said that each cluster of settlements contained anywhere from two thousand to five thousand people, which means that the larger community was the size of many medieval European cities. “These people had a cultural aesthetic of monumentality,” he said. “They liked to have beautiful roads and plazas and bridges. Their monuments were not pyramids, which is why they were so hard to find; they were horizontal features. But they’re no less extraordinary.”
Heckenberger’s discoveries have been documented in numerous scholarly journals; in 2003, he published a paper in Science titled “Amazonia 1492: Pristine Forest or Cultural Parkland?” He also recently published a book detailing his discoveries, called “The Ecology of Power.” His work has been hailed as proof that the rain forest once contained civilizations nearly as rich and complex as those of the Inca and the Maya and Europeans. And Heckenberger has helped to upend the view of the Amazon as a counterfeit paradise that could never sustain what Fawcett had envisioned: a prosperous, glorious civilization.
Others have fuelled this revolution in archeology. Anna Roosevelt, a great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who is an archeologist at the University of Illinois, has discovered, along the floodplains of the Amazon, buried settlements that may be eleven thousand years old. Scientists have also begun to find enormous man-made earth mounds scattered across the region. Geologists have uncovered so much black earth from ancient settlements that they now believe the Amazon may have sustained millions of people. One prominent scholar, Donald Lathap, even argues that the Amazon may have been the wellspring of high civilization throughout the Americas—that an advanced culture had spread outward, rather than vice versa.
Heckenberger, who is somewhat more cautious, said, “We can’t get ahead of ourselves.” But, he added, “Anthropologists made the mistake of coming into the Amazon in the twentieth century and seeing only small tribes and saying, ‘Well, that’s all there is.’ The problem is that, by then, many Indian populations had already been wiped out by what was essentially a holocaust from European contact. That’s why the first Europeans in the Amazon described such massive settlements that, later, no one could ever find.”
As we walked back into the Kuikuro village, Heckenberger stopped at the edge of the plaza and told me to examine it closely. He said that the civilization that had built the giant settlements had been nearly annihilated. Yet a small number of descendants had survived, and we were no doubt among them. For a thousand years, he said, the Xinguanos had maintained artistic and cultural traditions from this highly advanced, highly structured civilization. He said, for instance, that the present-day Kuikuro village was still organized along east and west cardinal points and its paths were aligned at right angles, though its residents no longer knew why this was the preferred pattern. Heckenberger added that he had taken a piece of pottery from the ruins and shown it to a local maker of ceramics. It was so similar to present-day pottery, with its painted exterior and reddish clay, that the potter insisted that it had been made recently.
As Pinage and I headed toward the chief’s house, Heckenberger picked up a contemporary ceramic pot and ran his hand along the edge, where there were grooves. “They’re from boiling the toxins out of manioc,” he said. He had detected the same feature in the ancient pots. “That means that a thousand years ago people in this civilization had the same staple of diet,” he said. He began to go through the house, finding parallels between the ancient civilization and its remnants today: the clay statues, the thatched walls and roofs, the cotton hammocks. “To tell you the honest-to-God truth, I don’t think there is anywhere in the world where there isn’t written history where the continuity is so clear as right here,” Heckenberger said.
Some of the musicians and dancers were circling through the plaza, and Heckenberger said that everywhere you looked in the Kuikuro village “you can see the past in the present.” I began to picture the flutists and dancers in one of the old plazas. I pictured them living in mound-shaped two-story houses, the houses not scattered but in endless rows, where women wove hammocks and baked with manioc flour, and where teen-age boys and girls were held in seclusion as they learned the rites of their ancestors. I pictured the dancers and singers crossing moats and passing through tall palisade fences, moving from one village to the next, along wide boulevards and bridges and causeways.
The musicians were coming closer to us, and Heckenberger said something about the flutes, but I could no longer hear his voice over the sounds. For a moment, I could see this vanished world as if it were right in front of me. Z.