I just finished reading David Grann’s 2009 bestseller The Lost City of Z (soon to be a movie), which tells the story of Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett’s 1925 disappearance in the Amazon jungle while searching for what he believed was a monumental stone city lost to time. The story of a dashing explorer who vanished without a trace has been a source of fascination for the past nine decades, though to be quite frank, I didn’t find his disappearance all that compelling. I had rather hoped to find more information about Fawcett’s beliefs about the lost city he named Z, but Grann provides only a few hints and details. What he discusses, though, is a fascinating illustration of the consequences of fringe beliefs.
Fawcett’s public proclamations on the lost city of Z were fairly sober. He spoke of the possibility of a monumental city akin to those of Mesoamerica or the Inca, and he described his belief that a Portuguese traveler had run across this place in 1753 and recorded it on a faded document housed in Rio de Janeiro. That account spoke of a large and opulent city of stone, whose entrance gate contained three great arches, atop which an indecipherable alphabet was carved. In the center of the city stood, as I translate, “a black stone column of extraordinary greatness, and atop it the statue of an ordinary man with one hand on his left hip, and the right arm extended, pointing the index finger to the North Pole.” (I am not certain if the Portuguese word ordinário was meant to refer to an ordinary man or, as also used in the 1700s, an ordained bishop.) Another statue depicted a beardless youth “crowned with laurel.” A great temple was a work of such amazing artistry that the writer was left in awe. Beyond the city was a river leading to a field of great tombs, all covering in writing. Much later, Barry Fell would declare the writing (based on hand-drawn copies in the manuscript) Ptolemaic Egyptian, and the city therefore Classical.
Here I fault Grann for misleading his readers somewhat. He edits the manuscript to remove all elements of the fantastic, listing only “stone archways, a statue, roads, and a temple.” He makes the city seem plausible by removing the improbable.
“I do not assume that ‘The City’ is either large or rich,” Fawcett wrote, disingenuously. But privately his beliefs were much different. He told the Royal Geographic Society that he believed that Z might be an outpost of Atlantis, destroyed by a cataclysm 11,000 years ago, the memory which he said could have been accurately preserved in folklore through the “lifetime of only 110 centenarians” or men of normal lifespans repeating the story but 184 times down the generations. Fawcett grew upset that the RGS elders dismissed his ideas. But even these were not the depths of his belief in fringe history.
Unbeknownst to the public following his adventures, and largely hidden from the Royal Geographic Society that sponsored them, Fawcett had devoted himself to Theosophy, following the example of his idolized elder brother Edward, who assisted Helena Blavatsky in researching The Secret Doctrine and later became a science fiction novelist. Percy Fawcett became obsessed with Blavatsky’s vision of the human past, and he considered Z to be an outpost of the extraterrestrial gods who came to earth in deepest prehistory, akin to the “first rock cities” the Lemurians built “out of stone and lava” according to Blavasky. Fawcett began writing for spiritualist journals like the Occult Review, though he rarely presented his full view of Z.
When his first few expeditions to find the city failed, he turned for help to a psychic, Margaret Lumley Brown (a.k.a. “Irene Hay”), and Brown, in a letter, fed into Fawcett’s belief that he had formed a special connection to the lost history of Atlantis and its far-flung colonies:
Your query suggests you’ve been getting communications purporting to be of an Atlantean nature. Such is not impossible as Atlantis is very much ‘in the air’ just now. Such communication might come through sensitives; that is to say waves of released information are being picked up, or a deliberate plan is being developed.
Fawcett had come to believe that Z was a “White Lodge” of the Great White Brotherhood of Theosophy, the trans-dimensional beings or Ascended Masters who came to earth from parallel versions of the Moon and Venus and Mars. Here, Fawcett’s claims seem a bit at odds with Theosophy itself, which in his day described the Great White Lodge as the earthly occult hierarchy of reincarnated masters, housed all over the world, and headed (at least in 1911) by one of the last “Lords of the Flame, the Children of the Fire-mist, the great beings who came down from Venus nearly eighteen million years ago to help and to lead the evolution of humanity” and to secretly control history from behind the scenes, according to Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbetter, writing in The Inner Life (1911). I am not sure where the discrepancy arises, but it’s probably due to Fawcett’s development of his own personal vision of prehistory that combined Biblical, Classical, and Theosophical material.
In his last writings before leaving on his ill-fated expedition—writings his family kept secret for decades—Fawcett spoke of the End Times, of Atlantis, and how Atlantis might have been the fabled Eden. Z, he confessed, might have been “the cradle of all civilizations,” the very spot where the aliens from other worlds touched down to spark the human race. He believed he might attain transcendence by entering the city, according to Grann. Fawcett vanished in search of the city, along with his son Jack and a family friend.
Fawcett’s son Brian read these writings and asked himself in his diary, “Was Daddy’s whole conception of ‘Z,’ a spiritual objective, and the manner of reaching it a religious allegory?”
Grann is not terribly concerned with this aspect of Percy Fawcett’s obsession; his interest lies in Fawcett’s expedition more than its objectives. Nevertheless, the brief glimpses he provides into the Theosophical worldview that overtook the explorer and led him on a quest into madness are fascinating. Grann tries to partially rescue Fawcett from charges of lunacy by noting that there really was a medieval-era civilization in the Amazon, composed of earthworks and platform mounds and causeways, all lost to the jungle when the Conquest’s diseases wiped out Native populations. But it bears no actual resemblance to the fantasy of stone pyramids and Atlantean secrets Fawcett truly sought. It doesn’t match the 1753 description either, which specified that the ruins were of stone and of a city with arched gates.
The truth of the matter is that Fawcett formed the myth of Z out of a Theosophical interpretation of scraps of myth and legend, and then dressed it up in the language of science.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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