Why we keep looking for lost jungle cities.
Dry, desolate landscapes tend to preserve any evidence of human passage—they cling to artifacts like precious memories. A Tyrolean glacier hugged the 5,300-year-old iceman to its breast. The desert helped the ancient Egyptians launch their earthly vessels into eternity. More recently, Antarctica has joined in. The frozen continent recently coughed up a 104-year-old biscuit left by an expedition of Ernest Shackleton’s—in pristine, “perfectly nutritious” state.
The jungle, though, does not take naturally to cultural preservation. The obscuring overgrowth never stops; the landscape digests all. Excavating a 5-year-old site, let alone a 500-year-old one, can be like sifting through a well-advanced compost pile in search of something edible. And yet, we try—especially when inspired by a figure as captivating as Colonel Percy Fawcett.
Fawcett was an intrepid British explorer who disappeared in the Brazilian Amazon in 1925, presumably killed by Indians. He’s the subject of a new biopic, The Lost City of Z, an adaptation of David Grann’s 2009 book of the same name. The Amazon’s greatest cover-up, Fawcett believed, was an utterly forgotten civilization named Z. He aimed, in his quasi-invincible, slightly nutty way, to find it.
Plenty of “Fawcett freaks” have emerged in recent decades, taking the explorer’s mad quest as a starting point for their own, and archivists and other gatekeepers have learned to be wary of them. Grann knew all about the Fawcett bug; he just didn’t expect to catch it. Having recently torn through The Lost City of Z and James Gray’s new film, I’m feeling a bit exposed to the contagion myself.
Fawcett was both a product of his moment—a twilight era for old-school explorers, but a new day of technological possibilities—and a rebel against it. The film paints his iconoclasm in rather broad strokes. Yes, he was more open-minded about indigenous Amazonians than many of his contemporaries, but as Grann points out, his racial attitudes were a tangle of conflicting inputs. He absorbed the “diffusionist” thinking of the era, which glamorized the exotic whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel and not, say, the intricacies of indigenous cosmology. Fawcett divided Amazon Indians into three “kinds,” two of which he did not consider very interesting. Those capable of building Z he placed in the third group. They were of “civilized origin” and (surprise, surprise) fairer skinned than the others.
It’s easy to bash colonial explorers, and it’s undeniable that their high-profile displays of stamina and courage—what the Victorians called “bottom”—served a racist imperialism. Even so, there’s something transfixing about Fawcett, who “ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose,” marvels Grann, and benefited from an uncanny resistance to tropical disease. His fortitude, documented by an admiring press, challenged late-imperial anxieties that British men were getting soft.
It’s also pretty clear he had a nasty side—he was quick to abandon anyone who slowed him down in the jungle—but the filmmakers play up his virtues. He approached hostile tribes with his hands in the air, sometimes singing or playing music, a technique that became the stuff of legend. He made his men commit never to use their firearms against Indians. While his peers at the Royal Geographical Society judged these radical departures to be suicidal, the methods served his purposes well, and he seems in retrospect to have helped establish some healthy norms for the emerging field of anthropology.
Fawcett’s geographic pursuits overlapped with his interest in the spiritualism that gained traction in Britain during his young adulthood. He attended séances and contributed to a journal called The Occult Review. He embraced this Victorian counterculture movement’s search for answers in non-Western sources. His obsession with Z only intensified in middle age, when he served in World War I. The “civilized” world at this point seemed to be eating itself alive. Fawcett had the means and the motivation to construct a convincing lost city in his head, one utterly disconnected from historical or scientific fact. Many who knew him, and submitted to his constant talk of Z, thought he’d done just that.
Except that it wasn’t just in his head. Nearly a century later, with new technologies in play, the dominant theories about early Amazonia have changed. Fawcett, it seems, was onto something after all.
For years, legends abounded of a lost city in a jungle-choked section of eastern Honduras called La Mosquitia. The evidence was scant. Even the name—“the White City”—sounded suspect. Many professional archaeologists considered the notion far-fetched, if not outright offensive. Then, two years ago, it turned out to be totally legit. Experts, it seems, have underestimated the landscape-altering capabilities of pre-Columbian peoples—and the old treasure-hunting legends that had always hinted at them.
You can read all about it in Douglas Preston’s The Lost City of the Monkey God, published earlier this year. (That’s the city’s other longstanding sobriquet, which is somehow even more ridiculous.) The story of the White City, which the Honduran government now calls “City of the Jaguar,” mirrors that of Z in some ways. Firstly, you have an obsessed expedition leader. A filmmaker by trade, Steve Elkins has poured decades of energy and money into his search, navigating endless paperwork and some very dodgy back channels. He doesn’t let a painful leg condition slow him down: he’s got the “lost city virus,” he tells Preston. The venomous snakes and flesh-eating insects are similar to those that Fawcett encountered, and in lieu of hostile tribes, there’s the threat of drug runners.
But Elkins, of course, has the benefit of lidar, a technology that shoots laser beams through the rain-forest canopy, allowing twenty-first-century explorers to do high-resolution terrain mapping from an airplane. Geometric anomalies in the landscape suggest ancient human activity, and a team armed with the GPS coordinates of these ghostly figures can execute a more targeted, efficient ground survey than Fawcett would ever have thought possible. The city in La Mosquitia has been almost completely reclaimed by jungle. To a casual observer, there is not much to see, and the real archaeological work has only just begun. And yet there’s enough information to draw the outlines of the city in its heyday.
The inhabitants built monumentally, but their orientation was more horizontal than vertical. (Those explorers who mistook strange erosion forms for Hellenic-looking ruins were searching for the wrong thing.) Major engineering projects took the form of ditches, plazas, and moats. Whereas the permanence of stone keeps Mayan and Incan architecture intact, Preston writes, the mysterious inhabitants of the White City “constructed their pyramids, temples, and public buildings out of river cobbles, adobe, wattle and daub, and probably tropical hardwoods.” He elaborates:
They had gorgeous woods at their disposal such as mahogany, purple rosewood, aromatic cedar, and sweet gum. We have reasons to believe their weaving and fiber technology were truly spectacular. Imagine a temple made out of highly polished tropical hardwoods, with adobe walls that had been skillfully plastered, painted, incised and decorated, the interiors draped in richly woven and colored textiles. Such temples might well have been just as magnificent as those of the Maya. But once abandoned, they dissolved in the rain and rotted away, leaving behind unimpressive mounds of dirt and rubble that were quickly swallowed by vegetation. In the acidic rainforest soils, no organic remains survive—not even the bones of the dead.
The jungle eats the evidence. It remains the most secretive of landscapes, even if we are finding new ways to get it to spill its guts. Do we know what we’re in for? The chapter of human history that the White City begrudgingly illuminates is a nightmare: the moment, in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when European epidemics laid waste to whole societies.
Though hard to get to, cities like the one in La Mosquitia were not sealed off entirely. Microbes traveled along commercial routes, penetrating the interior in a way that conquistadors and other malicious visitors never could. Indians fleeing the slave trade helped them spread. Smallpox was the most devastating. In the White City, it may have been measles. Taken together, this continent-wide event amounts to the deadliest catastrophe in human history.
Scant as they are, the White City ruins offer evidence of how it all ended. A cache of broken pottery suggests that the remaining inhabitants, desperate to appease their gods, shattered dozens of sacred objects before abandoning their city forever.
But the image that inspired Fawcett to bushwhack through the Amazon is much more alluring: a vision of the city before the fall. Preston, who accompanied two expeditions there, gamely sketches it. He likens the White City at the peak of its powers to “an unkempt English garden, with plots of food crops and medicinal plants mingled with stands of valuable trees such as cacao and fruit, alongside large open areas for public ceremonies, games, and group activities, and shady patches for work and socializing.” Flowerbeds would have abounded, he suggests, to furnish crucial accouterments for religious ceremonies. The botanical knowledge would have been awesome, an extension of the ingenuity Fawcett encountered when he observed indigenous Guarayo using the same plant toxin to stun fish in the water and treat their toothaches.
Preston’s almost utopian rendering of the White City is grounded in expert opinion, but it, too, is a city of the mind, erected on shifting soils. It works a little too well as an antidote to the crowded, denatured cities of our own time—many of the most miserable of which, as it happens, occupy lands once claimed by jungle.
Darrell Hartman is the editor and co-founder of the site Jungles in Paris.