About a decade and a half ago, The Lost City of Z seemed to have been placed front-and-center in most bookstores of the English-speaking world. It was the first book by journalist David Grann, and it handily proved that he knew how to deal with history in a way that could capture the public imagination. (His second, Killers of the Flower Moon, provided the basis for the acclaimed Martin Scorsese film now in theaters.) Subtitled A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, the book tells of British explorer Captain Percy Fawcett, who went missing with his son in that vast jungle back in 1925. They’d been looking for the “lost city” of the title, of whose existence Fawcett had been convinced by what may now strike us as rather scant evidence.
“The idea was based on rumors that had circulated for centuries that there were once large cities, filled with people, deep in the Amazon,” says the narrator of the Vox Atlas video above, fired by the discovery of grand capitals like Tenochtitlan in modern-day Mexico and Cusco in Peru. Experts, for their part, “believed that this rainforest was simply too hostile and too remote to ever have supported cities.”
More recently, scientists started identifying man-made ditches and mounds all over the Amazon, which complicated the picture considerably. Instead of the extravagant metropolis intimated by explorers in the centuries before him, Fawcett only encountered small groups of natives living in simple villages. The consensus came to hold that a host of environmental, geological, and biological factors conspired against the growth of large-scale civilizations in the rainforest.
But “it turns out, Fawcett was looking in the right place, just for the wrong thing.” He never took note of patches of intentionally cultivated fertile soil, ditches where once stood walls leading to a plaza, and “delineated areas for gardens and orchards.” Though none of this quite suggested the fabled El Dorado, “over the past few decades, experts have uncovered evidence of large settlements all over the Amazon,” a single one of which could have had up to 60,000 inhabitants. By the time Fawcett arrived in the early twentieth century, most of those locals had long since died of European-imported diseases, leaving their wood- and-Earth structures to decompose. Given how far transport and construction technologies have come since then, perhaps it’s time to try out a different obsession: not over finding old Amazonian cities, but building new ones.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.