For some people, the allure of a mystery is too enticing to pass up. British explorer Percy Fawcett is one of them. Unable to get past the idea of a lost city in the Amazon jungle. His infatuation would cost him his life.
Fawcett vanished in the Mato Grosso state of west-central Brazil in 1925 looking for a lost city supposedly in the middle of the Amazon rainforest he called “Z.”
Fawcett was a complicated man, and 90 years later, the circumstances surrounding his crew’s disappearance are still unclear.
The English World War 1 veteran and trained surveyor was fascinated with exploring and mapping areas that nobody had ever been. One of the world’s last territorial explorers usually ventured into the unknown with only a machete and a compass. A true badass if there ever were one.
Plenty of books and movies such as Indiana Jones borrow from Fawcett’s legacy and the tales of his expeditions, but let’s dive into the facts below.
1. Early Explorations
Fawcett began exploring uncharted areas in Brazil and Bolivia in 1906. These expeditions gave him worldwide recognition as his ventures included dodging venomous snakes, disease and hostile tribes. Fawcett was known for his ability to befriend different tribes, which allowed him to map these unknown areas safely. His exploits even won him a prestigious medal from the Royal Geographical Society. Fawcett also inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write the 1912 novel “The Lost World.”
Fawcett’s interactions with indigenous people made him believe that it was possible for city-sized groups to thrive in the unforgiving environment of the Brazilian rainforest. Fawcett found references to advanced settlements in the histories of the European Conquistadors. He was particularly enthralled by a Portuguese fortune hunter’s 1753 account of a stone jungle metropolis of great “size and grandeur.” As the years passed, Fawcett became obsessed with seeking out his modern-day El Dorado, which he dubbed “Z.”
2. The Lost City of Z
Once Fawcett mind was set on finding Z, he began to organize expeditions. He led two explorations for Z in the early 1920s, but both were unsuccessful as his groups were halted by weather, fever and exhaustion. Never one to adopt the defeatist mindset, Fawcett began to raise money for his third trip into the jungle to find the lost city. The campaigning process took longer than expected, but after three years, Fawcett had enough money to begin his journey. Many of his friends and colleagues told Fawcett that he was wasting his time searching for something that didn’t exist. Fawcett was convinced otherwise.
In April 1925, Fawcett’s crew — which included his son Jack, Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmell, two Brazilian porters, two horses, eight mules and two dogs — set off into the Amazon. The goal: find the remains of Z at all costs.
Fawcett’s last correspondence was about five weeks into the expedition on May 29, 1925. He had sent the two Brazilian porters back as the journey became too much for them to continue. At this point, it was he, Jack and Raleigh to continue into the forest alone in search of the lost city. Fawcett had left behind strict instructions that should he not return, no rescue missions should be attempted because of the Amazon’s dangerous conditions. However, many attempts were made to find Fawcett’s group—both immediately following his disappearance and in the years that followed—but to no avail.
3. What Happened to Fawcett?
After Fawcett’s last correspondence, the crew fell off the face of the earth. Since no concrete evidence has surfaced as to what happened to the explorers, the minds of many have run with some wild ideas of the group’s demise. The most logical assumption would be that the group was either killed by a hostile jungle tribe, contracted a jungle disease or starved to death.
These theories didn’t sit well with those who knew Fawcett; no way would he succumb to death like that—he had to have gone out with a bang.
The closest thing to a written history is from the Kalapalos tribe, who have an oral tradition of three white men visiting their home area. According to one theory, there was an older man and two younger men, both of whom were injured. That description certainly fits Fawcett’s party. For the following five nights, the tribe observed the smoke from the expedition’s campfire. On the sixth night though, it disappeared.
Another theory claims the Kalapalos tribe that killed the three men because Fawcett’s group committed three actionable insults towards the tribe. The first, Fawcett’s son, Jack urinated in the river near the Kalapalos village, which is where the tribe sourced their drinking water. The second insult occurred when the explorers killed an animal for food and refused to share with any of the tribe members. The third and final insult was when a child from the tribe began to play with some of the items the explorers brought with them. Someone from the group struck the child, and the Kalapalos tribe never hits their children. The theory says that after these three insults, the tribe let the explorers gain some distance down the trail before ambushing and killing all three men.
According to previously hidden private papers, it appears that Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain. It’s even suggested that he was lured by a native she-God or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive. Supposedly, Fawcett planned to set up a commune in the jungle based on a bizarre cult. Fawcett hoped to follow what he privately described to friends and family as ‘the Grand Scheme.’ He wanted to set up a secret community which would be based on a mixture of unusual beliefs involving both the worship of his son Jack and the tenets of the then-fashionable credo of theosophy.
Mystery continues to swirl around Fawcett and how he met his maker in the Amazon rainforest. Maybe Fawcett discovered his lost city, or perhaps the group died shortly after their last correspondence. It’s likely that no one will ever know what happened to the group. Fittingly, the ending is consistent with the obsession that initially started the expeditions: to Fawcett, a lost city that may or may not exist was worth venturing into uncharted, hostile territories — even if it eventually meant he’d be lost to the mystery himself.