How the “Lost Cities” of the Amazon Were Finally Discovered

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Sis­tine Chapel of the Ancients: Archae­ol­o­gists Dis­cov­er 8 Miles of Art Paint­ed on Rock Walls in the Ama­zon

Tour the Ama­zon with Google Street View; No Pass­port Need­ed

Explor­er David Livingstone’s Diary (Writ­ten in Berry Juice) Now Dig­i­tized with New Imag­ing Tech­nol­o­gy

Hear Ernest Shack­le­ton Speak About His Antarc­tic Expe­di­tion in a Rare 1909 Record­ing

Lis­ten to Pla­to Invent the Myth of Atlantis (360 B.C)

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.


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