Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Lost City of Z: a very short review

Several years ago, I picked up David Grann's The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.

I think I was looking for some summer vacation reading, or a book to take backpacking. As I recall, the book was "too heavy" to take on my backpacking trip: it's 400 pages, and printed on nice quality paper, so it actually weighs a full pound (14.4 ounces according to the publisher). And then it somehow slipped down on the stack and I forgot about it.

But it floated back to the top of the stack the other day, and I finally read it. Just in time, for I see they've now made a movie based on the book.

No surprise there; this is a book which could make quite a good movie, I think.

At times, I had to remind myself that everything in this story is true: a movie star really was abducted by Indians; there were cannibals, ruins, secret maps, and spies; explorers died from starvation, disease, attacks by wild animals, and poisonous arrows; and at stake amid the adventure and death was the very understanding of the Americas before Christopher Columbus came ashore in the New World.

The Lost City of Z is several books at once:

  • It's the story of Percy Fawcett:
    He was the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose. For nearly two decades, stories of his adventures had captivated the public's imagination: how he had survived in the South American wilderness without contact with the outside world; how he was ambushed by hostile tribesmen, many of whom had never before seen a white man; how he battled piranhas, electric eels, jaguars, crocodiles, vampire bats, and anacondas, including one that almost crushed him; and how he emerged with maps of regions from which no previous expedition had returned.
  • It's the story of Grann's own obsession with learning about Fawcett and how it seemed to bring out a different person in the author:
    Let me be clear: I am not an explorer or an adventurer. I don't climb mountains or hunt. I don't even like to camp.


    But when I'm working on a story, things are different. Ever since I was young, I've been drawn to mystery and adventure tales, ones that had what Rider Haggard called "the grip."


    While most of my articles seem unrelated, they typically have one common thread: obsession. They are about ordinary people driven to do extraordinary things -- things that most of us would never dare -- who get some germ of an idea in their heads that metastasizes until it consumes them.

  • And it is the story of the upper Amazon region itself, and of the people who live there:
    The region has generally been regarded as a primeval wilderness, a place in which there are, as Thomas Hobbes described the state of nature, "no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death." The Amazon's merciless conditions have fueled one of the most enduring theories of human development: environmental determinism. According this theory, even if some early humans eked out an existence in the harshest conditions on the planet, they rarely advanced beyond a few primitive tribes. Society, in other words, is a captive of geography.

It's that third story that I found the most interesting.

Fawcett himself, as it turns out, is rather an unpleasant person, and frankly I wasn't terribly interested in learning more about him.

Grann's modern journey of self-exploration and his own trip into the Amazon jungle is interesting enough, and I enjoyed reading about his own adventures.

But what was really enjoyable about the book was what Grann found there.

In the cave and at a nearby riverbank settlement, Roosevelt made another astonishing discovery: seventy-five-hundred-year-old pottery, which predates by more than two thousand years the earliest pottery found in the Andes or Mesoamerica. This means that the Amazon may have been the earliest ceramic-producing region in all the Americas, and that, as Fawcett radically argued, the region was possibly even a wellspring of civilization throughout South America -- that an advanced culture had spread outward, rather than vice versa.

Using aerial photography and satellite imaging, scientists have also begun to find enormous man-made earth mounds often connected by causeways across the Amazon -- in particular in the Bolivian floodplains where Fawcett first found his shards of pottery.


Heckenberger told me that scientists were just beginning the process of understanding this ancient world -- and, like the theory of who first populated the Americas, all the traditional paradigms had to be reevaluated.


"These people had a cultural aesthetic of monumentality," he said. "They liked to have beautiful roads and plazas and bridges. Their monuments were not pyramids, which is why they were so hard to find; they were horizontal features. But they're no less extraordinary."


"Anthropologists," Heckenberger said, "made the mistake of coming into the Amazon in the twentieth century and seeing only small tribes and saying, 'Well, that's all there is.' The Problem is that, by then, many Indian populations had already been wiped out by what was essentially a holocaust from European contact. That's why the first Europeans in the Amazon described such massive settlements that, later, no one could ever find."

The Lost City of Z is a great read; I'm glad it finally floated back up to the top of my pile.

I will probably never make it to the upper Amazon myself, but I'm quite glad that David Grann took me there, and that he took the time to open his own eyes to what really happened, and is happening, there.

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