South America is home to countless legends of lost cities and hidden treasures: they have captivated imaginations for centuries and inspired huge searches and lifelong quests to try and discover them. 20th-century British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett was one such lifelong devotee, searching in vain for the sophisticated jungle civilisation he termed the ‘Lost City of Z’.
Rumours of cities like Z were often based on truth: ancient South American civilisations often had copious quantities of gold and were built in inhospitable climates using pioneering techniques. Their sophistication and elegance, combined with the romance and adventure of their disappearance into the jungle, captured the imagination of many an explorer.
Fawcett was far from the first, and certainly not the last, to be entranced by the promise of lost civilisations. His quest took him into the jungles of South America in search of ancient ruins, and on one such expedition in 1925, he disappeared, never to be seen again.
Here are 10 facts about Percy Fawcett and his quest for the forgotten city of Z.
1. Fawcett got a taste for adventure early on in life
Fawcett attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and was commissioned as a lieutenant of the Royal Artillery in 1886, aged just 19. He served in Hong Kong, Malta and Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), and later worked for the secret service in North Africa and for the War Office in Ireland.
He counted the adventure writers H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle amongst his friends, and Fawcett’s adventures proved inspiring for both writers.
2. Fawcett explored the jungle for nearly 20 years
In 1906, Fawcett travelled to South America for the first time in order to act as an independent cartographer, creating a map of the border area between Brazil and Bolivia at the behest of the Royal Geographic Society.
Between 1906 and 1924, he made a total of 7 expeditions into the Amazonian jungle to complete mapping projects, tracing the source of the Rio Verde and Heath River and charting previously unexplored jungle territories.
3. Fawcett was a decorated war hero
Fawcett’s time in South America was interrupted by the outbreak of World War One in Europe. He returned to Britain to serve in the Royal Artillery, commanding a brigade despite being nearly 50 years old, which was then deemed the upper age limit for military service.
Mentioned in despatches by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig 3 times and awarded the Distinguished Service Order in June 1917, Fawcett was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1918.
4. Fawcett devised the idea of the Lost City of Z
Like many of his contemporaries, Fawcett was of the opinion that the native peoples he met were members of uncivilised societies, or ‘savages’. But, unusually for the time, he did believe that their ancestors had been the builders of sophisticated societies, artistic treasures and complex civilisations.
Early histories of South America written by Spanish conquistadors and explorers detailed the ‘numerous and very large settlements’ of the native peoples. After discovering shards of delicate, ancient pottery on the jungle floor, Fawcett began to formulate the idea that a mysterious lost city, which he named Z, existed deep in the Mato Grosso region of the Amazonian jungle, which would hold answers about pre-Hispanic civilisation.
5. Z’s possible existence was reinforced by an 18th-century document
In 1753, a group of Portuguese bandeirantes (literally ‘flag carriers’, but normally a group of explorers, adventurers and fortune-hunters) supposedly discovered the ruins of an ancient city deep in the province of Bahia.
Their findings were recorded in a document known as Manuscript 512, kept at the National Library of Brazil. The existence of such jungle ruins bolstered Fawcett’s belief in Z, and he decided to make the lost city described in Manuscript 512 a secondary destination after Z.
6. Fawcett struggled to raise funds for his expeditions
Convinced that Z, and potentially a lost civilisation, existed, Fawcett tried to raise funds in Britain after the war for his endeavour. He met with derision from archaeologists and experts.
They believed the Amazon could not sustain the kind of large-scale population Fawcett was talking about, dubbing it a ‘counterfeit paradise’ and dismissing the stories and legends he had heard from locals as tall tales designed to impress European outsiders.
7. Fawcett attempted one failed expedition to find Z in 1920
In 1920, Fawcett embarked on a solo expedition, accompanied by just pack animals, to try and find Z. Years of experience traversing the jungle meant he was confident in his own ability.
However, after being struck down by a debilitating fever and being forced to shoot his animals, he aborted the mission and returned to civilisation. Despite the failure, he had lost no conviction in his belief that Z existed.
8. Fawcett and his companions disappeared in the summer of 1925
The final expedition by Fawcett in his attempt to find the Lost City of Z departed in April 1925. Having found financial backing in London, Fawcett enlisted his oldest son Jack and Jack’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell, as his companions on the expedition.
With years of experience behind him and confident that he had 2 fit, loyal companions with him, Fawcett packed light and seemed optimistic. His last known letter was written on 29 May 1925 at a location called Dead Horse Camp, which stated he was planning to head into unexplored territory. Fawcett and the rest of his party were never seen or heard of again.
9. The mystery of their disappearance was never solved
2 years after their disappearance, the Royal Geographical Society declared the party officially lost, sparking multiple volunteer attempts to find them.
Many assumed that the most obvious explanation was that the Fawcetts and Raleigh had been killed by local indigenous peoples, whilst others thought they had become lost and eventually died of starvation.
No definitive version of events has ever been agreed on: in subsequent years, some of Fawcett’s belongings including his signet ring and compass appeared, but no spokespeople from tribes ever admitted to killing the party, instead blaming hostile native tribes who had never had contact with Europeans for their disappearance.
10. It’s thought the lost city might have been real after all
Later in 1925, after Fawcett had disappeared, Europeans discovered the archaeological complex of Kuhikugu for the first time. The complex, which included around 20 towns and villages spread over 7,700 square miles, was subsumed by the jungle some time in the 16th century.
The memory of the civilisation was preserved through oral traditions: the inhabitants of Kuhikugu used sophisticated engineering, engaged in large-scale agricultural activities and built monuments along the ground to their gods.
Fawcett probably discovered some of the remnants of Kuhikugu civilisation (such as fragments of pottery) without realising it, leading him to think he had found evidence of a lost jungle settlement, the city of Z.