Ever since Expedition Unknown departed the Travel Channel for the Discovery Channel mothership, I can’t say I’ve paid much attention to the network, except to note that the parent company has gradually transformed it into a clone of its Destination American channel, peppered with paranormal and monster programs for the sake of appealing to the majority of Americans who believe in fantasies without evidence. Lost Amazon: Project Z debuted last week on Travel to little fanfare, but its first (and apparently only) episode encapsulates many of the tropes that remain so distressing in cable TV’s continued exploitation of indigenous and non-Western history as grist for colonialist and Christianist narratives. Naturally, the first episode is about hunting for Giants in South America.
The show, which appears to be the failed pilot for a TV series that was never produced, though it was billed as a one-off special, presumably takes its name from the fictitious Lost City of Z sought by Percy Fawcett on his final ill-fated adventure into the Amazon a century ago. That lost city was later shown to most likely have been a natural formation in the Brazilian Amazon, but here our adventurers wonder if Bible-style Giants built vast stone wonders in the clouds. Both Lynch and Delmotte are fans of Fawcett and retraced Fawcett’s steps in 1996, leading to their kidnapping by an Amazon tribe. The soap-opera actor was not involved, but he calls Lynch a “buddy.”
The series opens with a composite of Spanish accounts of a “legendary empire” of “light-skinned” and “blue-eyed” giants who ruled the Amazon and the Andes in ancient of days. These would be the all-male giants that Pedro Cieza de Leon, the earliest source for the story, said “began to indulge in vice, including using one another for the heinous sin of sodomy, both grave and horrendous, which they performed and committed publicly and openly, without fear of God and little ashamed of themselves” and were destroyed by God for having gay sex (First Part of the Chronicle of Peru, ch. 52, my trans.). Funny how the show left that out. They also left out that these sexually adventurous Aryan superheroes were supposedly so tall that a regular man only stood as high as their knee-cap, and that the giants murdered Native women by splitting them open while raping them with their giant penises.
I guess that would have made for a very different hour of TV.
Instead, Lynch rhapsodizes over the legends of lost “white people” and speaks of a “hidden history” that someone—presumably Natives?—was trying to suppress. He can’t stop talking about blond hair and white skin, and he says “these were unique people” whose “civilization” just wasn’t “like that,” meaning the culture of native Andean peoples. He falsely claims that the Chachapoya were white, that they used technology that “we can’t understand today” (he means mummification techniques), and that they were likely the last descendants of the lost white race that once ruled the Americas. All of the men call mummification techniques a “technology,” which technically meets the definition, but implies what the men dare not actually claim.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a standard trope on cable TV, but also because PBS did a very similar program where they alleged that the Chachapoya were Carthaginians.
The Spanish accounts, to my knowledge (having read the oldest in the original Spanish), do not call the giants blue-eyed, nor is it entirely clear that the Spanish intended to describe the Chachapoya as white or blond. The claim is based on Pizarro’s note about the Chachapoya territory, that its nobility were mas blancos como españoles—“whiter, like Spaniards” (Relation of the Discoveries etc., p. 430). Cieza de Leon, however, only called the people “fair” (Chronicle of Peru 1.78). As I have explained in the past, racial characteristics were not established at that early date—the concept of the “white” race wasn’t fixed—and the Spanish words used to describe the Chachapoya are ambiguous, referring rather to a comparison of their skin to those of the (swarthy) men of Castile, though the writers and their readers well understood that people in Europe as well as the Americas came in a spectrum of colors. Native Peruvians of the same coloration can still be found today, and represent the genetic diversity of indigenous people, not a lost Caucasian bloodline.
One obvious problem is that the Chachapoya culture originated later than 500 CE, which is far too recent to relate to primeval white giants or anything Egyptian, as the show sometimes suggests. This is why all of the men are insistent on trying to connect the Chachapoya’s impressive walls and round fortresses back to imaginary Giants from deepest antiquity, emphasizing that they are somehow massively different from other Andean cultures, though they make no effort to explore the earlier cultures that preceded the Chachapoya, notably those of the Pre-Ceramic and Initial Periods. Instead, the show tells us that the Chachapoya were sui generis, “the legacy” of the Giants. It is borderline racist when Mokhtari talks about blue-eyed, white-skinned people and suggests that their presence can be determined by looking for ruins that show “skills beyond what we should expect from an Amazon culture.” Jesus Christ. But it gets worse. Mokhtari tells us that Chachapoya mummification implies an “outside influence,” perhaps from Egypt, and that the “strangely advanced” ability to pile stones atop stones in the mountains means that they had help from beyond the brownish cultures below them. The implication is rather clear: Greatness is whiteness.
In the second half of the hour, the men talk to some elders who may be descendants of the Chachapoya, and they hear legends of an ancient pre-Chachapoya civilization. They take these stories quite seriously, though they are transparently descendants of the myths and legends recorded by the Spanish, the kind of vague myth about prehistoric greatness found everywhere. Based on what they pretend to be tips from the locals, they travel into the Amazon and visit an “unexplored” city which they claim to be the first to have looked at and to have probed to find evidence of Giants. The ruins appear to be those of the Chachapoya sites of Cataneo, Molinete, and Las Congonas, as I read in social media postings blasting the show for its exploitation of Peruvian heritage, and the ruins may be visited by arrangement with the local tourist office. In fact, they are advertised on hiking tour websites. Pictures online appear to be identical with the “unexplored” city seen on TV. I can’t confirm myself that the televised site is one of these, but the photographs are as close to identical as I have seen. Our heroes, however, suggest that the ruins are those of a mother-culture that gave rise to the Chachapoya and that they do not appear in any scientific literature. The book Trekking in Peru calls visiting them “a classic tour.”
“Nobody has reported these places, nobody has studied them,” Lynch said, apparently not counting Peruvian locals or Spanish-speaking scholars as people.
The men, who offer no evidence, re-date the ruins to “before” monumental Andean civilizations, and Lynch said that it may be of “different origin” from Native monuments. “This is something I’ve wished for my whole life!” Lynch enthuses as the show nears its end. He actually cries thinking about how wonderful it would be to prove a lost white race existed. Who exactly spends his whole life wishing to find evidence of prehistoric white people in South America? I can’t think of an answer that makes him, or the Travel Channel, look good.
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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