Tuesday, January 19, 2010


For more on this fascinating story -- be sure and read The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Geometric shapes dug into the earth were first noticed by a Finnish archeologist flying over the Amazon. The shapes are made up of a series of trenches topped by banks and connected by a network of straight roads. The geometric shapes are thought to be the remains of roads, bridges. moats and squares: the basis for a civilization spanning 155 miles.

Since the time of the conquistadors, the legend of an ancient, lost civilisation deep in the Amazon forest has beguiled hundreds of explorers and led many to their deaths. Some called their dream El Dorado. Others, most notably Colonel Percy Fawcett, the gloriously moustached British explorer (and real-life model for Indiana Jones) named it the City of Z. But no one has ever returned from the Amazon with conclusive proof that such a place existed.

Three scientists have now come close to doing just that. The journal Antiquity has published a report showing more than 200 massive earthworks in the upper Amazon basin near Brazil’s border with Bolivia. From the sky it looks as if a series of geometric figures has been carved into the earth, but the archeologists and historians who published the report believe these shapes are the remains of roads, bridges, moats, avenues and squares that formed the basis for a sophisticated civilization spanning 155 miles, which could have supported a population of 60,000. The remains date from AD 200 to 1283.

It is an astonishing find — one that builds on recent archeological work in Brazil and northern Bolivia and the availability of Google Earth images of deforested sections of the Amazon. Since the 1980s anthropologists have begun to uncover evidence of advanced civilizations who lived in the Amazon basin: this latest development trumps them all.

David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z, believes the importance of this discovery cannot be overstated. “It shatters the prevailing notions of what the Amazon looked like before the arrival of Christopher Columbus,” he says.

The dream of finding lost civilizations in South America has persisted for centuries, largely because of a couple of earth-shattering early successes. As John Hemming, a former director of the Royal Geographical Society, recounts in his 1978 book, The Search For El Dorado, it was the conquistadors who started the craze. In 1519 Hernan Cortes and his soldiers discovered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, in Mexico. In the early 1530s, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incan empire, in what is now Peru. The idea of a “golden city” somewhere deeper in the unexplored wilds was lodged in the European imagination and never released its hold.

In 1925 Percy Fawcett, near-destitute at the time, set out on his second and last expedition to find the City of Z. He wrote to his wife: “You need have no fear of any failure.” But he was never seen again. In 1927 he was declared missing by the Royal Geographical Society. Two subsequent missions attempted to find him, but with no success.

Nearly a century after Fawcett’s disappearance, his instincts appear to have been proved correct. “Although he expected the City of Z to be built of stone, and although by the end of his life he had a more fantastical notion of what it would look like, these discoveries show that he was, in many ways, extraordinarily prescient,” says Grann.

Others are not convinced. Hemming says that while the paper in Antiquity is “significant work by serious people ... none of this has anything remotely to do with El Dorado or that racist, incompetent nutter Percy Fawcett. It’s as though someone tried to link a discovery at Stonehenge with, say, Edward Lear’s travels in the Balkans”.

The authors published one report in 2003 and then waited for three years for permission to start excavating the area. The use of Google Earth satellite images in pinpointing the exact sites has made their job easier than previous archeological work in the region. But their find is, by any measure, impressive.

Grann believes this discovery will lead not only to a reassessment of the potential of pre-Christopher Columbus Amazon peoples, but also to an increasing archeological interest in the region. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “The authors of the latest study estimate that scientists have found, in this particular area, only 10% of the geometric earthworks and ruins that are actually there. It will take decades for scientists to uncover the full extent of this and other ancient Amazonian civilisations.”

The worlds of archeology and science may take longer to acknowledge the eccentric explorer. But, whatever Fawcett’s foibles, he does appear to have been broadly right. Moreover, his memory will be prolonged by a film adaptation of The Lost City of Z in which he will be played by Brad Pitt. Talk about a comeback.


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