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Friday, October 22, 2010

The Lost City of Z

My imagination is inspired by tales of explorers who go where no one has gone before, and few areas on Earth have been more inhospitable than the Amazon. Europeans searched, in vain, for El Dorado, the so-called city of gold, and even today there are indigenous tribes who have had no contact with civilization. One of the foremost explorers of the area was Percy Fawcett, who theorized that a great civilization existed deep within the jungle. He called this city Z.

Fawcett, along with his son, went searching for Z in 1925 and never returned. His fate is still a mystery, and has been to obsession of many over the years. An estimated 100 people have themselves gotten killed or disappeared looking for him. The latest person to fall under his spell is New Yorker writer David Grann, who has penned a nifty book on the subject, The Lost City of Z. It is a history of the exploration of the area, a biography of Fawcett, and participatory journalism, as Grann outfits himself and heads into the rain forest, hoping he can find out what happened to Fawcett.

Fawcett was a larger than life figure and, as many of the explorers of the day were, an amateur. An ex-army officer, he went on trips sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society, but didn't have any special training in archaelogy or anthropology (there were very few who were in the late nineteenth century). But he was a brave, steely fellow, and conducted many trips through the region in the early twenty century. He seemed to have an aura around him, avoiding severe disease, and managed to avoid conflict with Indians. Mostly he did this by doing the utmost to convince them that he was friendly. He instructed his compatriots never to shoot at them.

These expeditions were fraught with peril. There were the Indians, of course, who had a variety of nefarious ways to kill people, such as arrows laced with toxins taken from frogs. But consider this passage, about the incessant attack from pests: "The sauba ants that could reduce the men's clothes and rucksacks to threads in a single night. The ticks that attacked like leeches (another scourge) and the red hairy chiggers that consumed human tissue. The cyanide-squirting millipedes. The parasitic worms that caused blindness. The berne flies that drove their ovipositors through clothing and deposited larval eggs under the skin. The almost invisible biting flies called piums that left the explorers' bodies covered in lesions. Then there were the 'kissing bugs,' which bite their victims on the lips, transferring a protozoan called Trypanosoma cruzi; twenty years later, the person, thinking he had escaped the journey unharmed, would begin to die of heart or brain swelling. Nothing, though, was more hazardous than the mosquitoes. They transmitted everything from malaria to 'bone-crusher' fever to elephantiasis to yellow fever."

Then there were piranhas, or the more insidious carindu, a toothpick-sized fish that "strikes human orifices--a vagina or an anus. It is, perhaps, most notorious for lodging in a man's penis, where it latches on irrevocably with its spines. Unless removed, it means death, and in the remote Amazon victims are reported to have been castrated in order to save them." Shudder.

Grann, armed with this information, still is game, despite his lack of camping experience. He laces his story with that of Fawcett's, and it makes for compelling reading. Grann has some distinct advantages, starting with a satellite phone and motorized transport, but his description of slogging through a mangrove swamp, thinking he's lost, raises some gooseflesh.

The theory about the existence of Z has created a lot of controversy. Most thought Fawcett was crazy, that a civilization couldn't grow in such a hostile land. "Colleagues had once doubted his theory of Z largely for biological reasons: the Indians were physically incapable of constructing a complex civilization. Now many of the new breed of scientists doubted him for environmental reasons: the physical landscape of the Amazon was too inhospitable for primitive tribes to construct any sort of society. Biological determinism had increasingly given way to environmental determinism. And the Amazon--the great 'counterfeit paradise'--was the most vivid proof of the Malthusian limits that the environment placed on civilization."

Grann, though he doesn't discover Fawcett like Stanley found Livingstone, makes some startling finds that lead to a startling and moving conclusion. For anyone who is taken by true-life adventure stories, I heartily recommend The Lost City of Z.

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