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The strange mystery of Colonel Percy Fawcett and the lost city of Z

This May marks 92 years since Colonel Percy Fawcett lost contact with the world. One of Britain’s greatest explorers, Fawcett’s life is defined by a near-lifelong obsession – that an unknown, ancient civilisation lay lost in the Amazon – “the Lost City of Z”.

But in 1925, he vanished, along with eldest son Jack, 22, taking any trace of Z with them.

Today, nearly a century later, what has been called “the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century” continues to captivate and endure, thanks to a new epic feature film. But following recent revelations about the scale of human impact on what was once thought of as virgin rainforest, could we discover the truth about Z, and even what happened to Fawcett himself?

The Manuscript 512

In 1920, Fawcett came across a document in the National Library of Rio De Janeiro called Manuscript 512. It was written by a Portuguese explorer in 1753, who claimed to have found a walled city deep in the Mato Grosso region of the Amazon rainforest, reminiscent of ancient Greece. The manuscript described a lost, silver laden city with multi-storied buildings, soaring stone arches, wide streets leading down towards a lake on which the explorer had seen two white Indians in a canoe. On the sides of a building were carved letters that seemed to resemble Greek or an early European alphabet.

These claims were dismissed by archaeologists who believed the jungles could not hold such large cities, but for Fawcett, it all came together.

In 1921, Fawcett set out on his first expedition to find Z. Not long after departing, he and his team became demoralized by the hardships of the jungle, dangerous animals, and rampant diseases. The expedition was derailed, but Fawcett would depart in search of his fabled city later again that same year, this time from Bahia, Brazil, on a solo journey. He traveled this way for three months before returning in failure once again.

The disappearance of Percy Fawcett

Percy’s final search for Z culminated in his complete disappearance. In April 1925, he attempted one last time to find Z, this time better equipped and better financed by newspapers and societies including the Royal Geographic Society and the Rockefellers. Joining him on the expedition was his good friend Raleigh Rimell, his eldest 22 year old son, Jack, and two Brazilian laborers.

On May 29th, 1925, Fawcett and company reached the edge of unexplored territory, staring into jungles that no foreigner had ever seen. He explained in a letter home they were crossing the Upper Xingu, a southeastern tributary of the Amazon River and had sent one of their Brazilian travel companions back, wishing to continue the journey alone. The team got as far as a place called Dead Horse Camp, where Fawcett sent back dispatches for five months and after the fifth month they stopped. In his final dispatch, Fawcett sent a message to his wife Nina and proclaimed “ We hope to get through this region in a few days…. You need have no fear of any failure .” It was to be the last anyone would ever hear from them again.

The expedition had previously stated that they had planned to be gone for around a year, so when two years passed without any word, people began to worry. Numerous expeditions seeking answers were mounted, many of which suffered the same fate as Fawcett. A journalist named Albert de Winton went out in search of his team and was never seen again. In total, 13 expeditions would be launched in an effort to find answers to Fawcett’s fate, and over 100 people would lose their lives or join the explorer to vanish into the jungle. Thousands of people applied to go on these expeditions, and dozens set out looking for them over the next several decades.

Fawcett killed?

Orlando Villas Boas with two Kalapalo Indians with the supposed bones of Colonel Fawcett. 1952

The official report from one of the rescue missions said that Fawcett had gone up the Kululene River and was killed for insulting an Indian chief which is the story most believe today. However, Fawcett had always talked about maintaining positive relationships with the indigenous people of the area and the way the natives remember him correlates with what Fawcett has written down. Another possibility is that he and his team died as a result of an accident such as disease or drowning. A third possibility is that they were caught off guard and robbed and killed. There had been a revolution in the area not long before and renegade soldiers had been hiding out in the jungle. On a number of occasions, within months of this expedition, travelers had been stopped, robbed and in some cases murdered by the rebels.

In 1952, the Kalapalo Indians of Central Brazil reported that some explorers had passed through their region and were killed for speaking badly to the children of the village. The details of their account suggested that the victims were Percy Fawcett, Jack Fawcett and Raleigh Rimmell. Following the report, Brazilian explorer Orlando Villas Boas, investigated the supposed area where they were killed and retrieved human bones, as well as personal objects including a knife, buttons, and small metal objects.

The bones underwent numerous tests. However, without the DNA of members of Fawcett’s family, who refused to provide samples, no confirmation could be made regarding the identity of the remains. The bones currently reside in the Forensic Medicine Institute of the University of Sao Paulo.

While Fawcett’s lost city of Z has never been found, numerous ancient cities and remains of religious sites have been uncovered in recent years in the jungles of Guatemala, Brazil, Bolivia and Honduras. With the advent of new scanning technology, it is possible that an ancient city that spurred the legends of Z, may one day be found.

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