Indiana Jones of Amazon back to life


Indiana Jones of Amazon back to life

Ben Macintyre 

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IN 1925 the British explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett plunged into the Amazon forest in search of a lost civilisation he had named the City of Z. He was never seen again.

Fawcett's disappearance remains an enduring and intriguing mystery. A former spy and veteran of the Somme, he became convinced, based on a combination of serious research, intensive fieldwork, wishful thinking and clairvoyance, that the Amazon had once been the cradle of a mighty civilisation. He was widely dismissed as a crackpot.

Fawcett had a tremendous moustache on his stiff upper-lip, and a self-belief that was almost idolatrous. He was fearless and tough as teak, reciting Romantic poetry as he waded through the fly-infested Mato Grosso.

He was slightly mad. But, astonishingly, he was also right.

Recent archaeological research, using satellite imagery and radar, has uncovered convincing proof of large pre-Columbian settlements in the very places where Fawcett searched and vanished: not merely houses, but moats, roads, bridges, avenues and squares laid out with geometric precision.

The latest discovery, reported in the journal Antiquity, has found more than 200 earthworks in the upper Amazon basin, some built in the 13th century but others dating back two centuries before Christ.

The discoveries not only vindicate Fawcett, one of the great doomed heroes of the age of exploration; they also suggest that the legend of El Dorado was based in reality.

But more than that, the discovery of this lost civilisation, perhaps rivalling the Aztecs and Mayans, overturns attitudes towards the Amazon ingrained for centuries.

From the conquistadors of 1542 to the loggers of today, successive plunderers have raped the Amazon in the belief that it was, in essence, a wilderness without significant history, too inhospitable to support civilisation and home only to a few naked savages with blowpipes.

Outsiders have always projected their fantasies on to the wilds of South America: Nelson Rockefeller thought 6500km of the River Amazon could usefully be chopped into canals; Elizabeth Nietzsche, sister of the philosopher Friedrich, came there to set up a vegetarian, Aryan society at the end of the 19th century. Sixteenth-century theologians concluded that Native Americans were not human at all, but "natural slaves".

Science now reveals that the Amazon was not some primitive blank slate, but home to an advanced civilisation.

The steady erosion of the forest can therefore be seen not only as an act of environmental vandalism, but also as a crime against history, based on a misreading of the past that one eccentric Englishman dared to challenge almost a century ago.

Fawcett spent nearly 20 years collecting evidence to support his belief in an ancient civilisation. As David Grann describes in his excellent book, The Lost City of Z, Fawcett gathered the stories of the early conquistadors describing a great golden kingdom, El Dorado, and noted how the Amazon tribes had adapted their way of life to the harsh conditions.

Above the flood plains in the Bolivian Amazon, he found shards of pottery and what he took to be the remnants of ancient roadways.

Fawcett's field reports inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 book The Lost World. Combining research with a vivid imagination, the doughty colonel knew exactly what he was looking for: "The central place I call Z is in a valley . . . about 10 miles (16km) wide, and the city is on an eminence in the middle of it, approached by a barrelled roadway of stone. The houses are low and windowless and there is a pyramidal temple."

In 1925, with his son Jack and another companion, he buckled his swash and set off to locate the city, once and for all. For a month he used Indian runners to relay reports of his progress, which were published around the world. Then the messages abruptly stopped.

Fawcett's disappearance spawned countless theories: he was killed by natives, devoured by animals or cannibals or, more charmingly, had found "a veritable paradise" in the forest and did not want to come back.

Numerous search parties set off to rescue Fawcett, and more than 100 people are said to have perished trying to find him.

Fawcett's quest, and uncertain fate, entered the realm of Boy's Own legend. His belief in a lost empire was dismissed as quixotic fantasy, a pipe dream. But the legend persisted and still grips our imaginations today: the hidden, parallel civilisation, noble, proud and in tune with elemental nature. This, in essence, is the plot of Avatar, James Cameron's new blockbuster, and every other story of a lost, better place.

The British explorer-archaeologist was the inspiration for Indiana Jones; Brad Pitt is slated to play him in the film of Grann's book. Fawcett is still with us. And now science has come back to rescue him, by revealing his lost world. Partly because of the deforestation of the Amazon, the places Fawcett died trying to find can now be seen by satellite, evidence, as Antiquity reported this week, of "a sophisticated, pre-Columbian, monument-building society".

Fawcett would not have been surprised, for he was as immune to scepticism as he was to maggots, mosquitoes and snakes.

Setting out on his last journey, Colonel Fawcett told his wife: "You need have no fear of any failure." Once again, he was right. But it took another eight decades for success to catch up with him.