Watch CBSN Live

Secrets of the Lost City of Z

In this age of GPS and satellite imagery, it's hard to imagine such a thing, but for one famous explorer a few generations ago, the possibility of a "lost city" was all too tantalizingly real. Anthony Mason tells us about that long-ago quest, from A . . . to Z:

Since the dawn of the modern age, the notion of a pre-historic world, hidden deep in the jungle and untouched by the passage of time, has captivated our imaginations.

Before "Jurassic Park," before "King Kong," there was "The Lost World." Written in 1912 by Sherlock Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Lost World" was in turn largely inspired by the real-life adventures of one remarkable man: Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett.

David Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, says in his time Fawcett was a larger-than-life figure: "Oh, he really was. I mean, he was the last of these kind of great territorial explorers who would plunge into the blank spots on the map, carrying a machete, essentially, and an almost divine sense of purpose."

Grann was researching an article on Conan Doyle when he came across a reference to Fawcett.

"I had typed Fawcett's name into one of these newspaper databases, and up came all these kind of crazy headlines: Fawcett disappears into the unknown. A movie star kidnapped trying to save Fawcett.

"I had never heard of this man, and I quickly discovered there was this legendary figure," Grann said. "And this enormous mystery that had kind of been eclipsed by history. And it really intrigued me."

So Grann started digging. Fawcett, he learned, was an honored member of Britain's renowned Royal Geographical Society.

"He would live in the jungle for years at a time without contact with the world," Grann said. He diascovered stories about "how he'd battle anacondas and electric eels, and how he'd emerge with maps of regions that no one had ever came back from."

In April 1925, Fawcett set out with just two others - his 21-year-old son Jack, and Jack's best friend, Raleigh Rimmel - on what was to be his crowning adventure . . . finding the remains of a lost world he believed existed deep in the Amazon jungle of South America.

Fawcett called his mythical city, simply, "Z."

"Why did he call it 'Z,' by the way?" asked Mason.

"You know, he never explained why in all his writings," said Grann. "But I think that was the point. He was a man of flair and drama. And he liked the alluring quality of this.

"And I think, also, he thought 'Z' was very suggestive. It's the last letter in the alphabet. Here was the final destination on Earth."

And the area he was setting out to explore? Vast.

"I mean, the Amazon, just to give you some sense, is about the size of the continental United States," Grann said. "He mapped thousands of square miles."

After 30 years as an explorer, Fawcett's survival skills were unrivaled. But this time, he went in . . . and never came out.

"How far do we know he got?" asked Mason.

"Well, we know he got as far as a place called Dead Horse Camp, where he would send these dispatches back for five months," said Grann. "And then after the fifth month, the dispatches ceased. And they were never heard from again."

. . . setting off one of the greatest manhunts of the 20th century.

George Dyott was the first, taking a film crew with him into the Amazon in 1928 and radioing back regular progress reports.

But he never found Fawcett.

In 1933, a B-movie star named Albert de Winton, known for roles in jungle adventures like "King of the Wild," also went looking for Fawcett.

"He went down to the jungle and he kind of dressed up, almost like you'd imagine somebody in some bad B, Hollywood movie about the jungle," said Grann. "And after many months an Indian runner emerged from the jungle carrying a note that was crumpled and dirty. And it was from de Winton and it said, 'I'm being held captive by a tribe. Please rescue me. Please save me.' He was never seen again. He had vanished, like so many people - not just like Fawcett, but so many people who searched for Fawcett disappeared."

In 1953 CBS News aired a documentary in which Fawcett's youngest son, Brian, spoke about his father:

"There have been any amount of reports and stories about the fate of my father's party. And some of them are quite fantastic," he said.

"And so far as your concerned, Mr. Fawcett, the disappearance of your father remains as great a mystery as ever?" asked correspondent Howard Smith?

"Yes, it is. I don't think there's the slightest chance that he would be still alive."

Yet, still people went looking.

In 1996 Brazilian financier James Lynch launched a multi-million dollar expedition to finally solve the mystery. But he and his party were kidnapped by tribesmen.

"These Indians had bows and arrows and bordunas, they're called in Brazil. They're sort of like big baseball bats that they hit you over the head with," said Grann. "And they said, 'You're coming with us.'"

They were released only after surrendering $30,000 worth of gear.

Now, finally, after 85 years, the mystery that has tantalized so many may finally have been solved by perhaps Fawcett's least likely pursuer.

"Forgive me, but you don't look like an explorer," said Mason.

"No, no, no. I am, as you can tell, the least likely explorer in the history of Man. I don't hunt, I don't camp, and I get lost on my subway to work here in Times Square!" said Grann.

Grann turned his jungle adventure into a best-seller, "The Lost City of Z," in which he recounts Fawcett's final days.

"We stayed with many of the same tribes that Fawcett stayed with," said Grann. "And to my astonishment, they had an oral history about Fawcett and his expedition.

"It describes how Fawcett had insisted on moving eastward, towards the 'River of Death.' And the tribe tried to persuade them not to go in that direction. In that direction were what they referred to as 'the fierce Indians.' And off he marched.

"And they could see the fire for five days, rising above the treetops. And then on the fifth day, it went out as if it was snuffed out. And they had no doubt that they had been killed by the Indians."

No physical trace of Fawcett has ever been found. But Grann's efforts did bring one revelation to light: Fawcett may have been right about the "lost civilization" after all.

"In the last few years, archaeologists are now going into this region using high-tech gadgetry that Fawcett could never imagine - Satellite imagery, ground penetrating radars to pinpoint various artifacts," said Grann. "And they are discovering ancient ruins scattered throughout the Amazon.

"One archaeologist has found, in the very area where Fawcett believed he would find Z, 20 pre-Colombian settlements that had roads built at right angles, bridges, causeways, and that a cluster of these settlements that were interconnected had populations of between 2,500 to 5,000 people, which would have made them the size of many medieval European cities at the time

"Fawcett's theories were far more prescient than we ever knew until very recently," said Grann.

The book has re-kindled "Lost World" fever. Brad Pitt's production company has bought the film rights, with Pitt himself reportedly to star as Col. Fawcett . . . a larger-than-life character whose story has everything: adventure, mystery and, most of all, obsession.

"There was, by the end, a maniacal quality to him," said Grann. "And I think with obsession, there are kind of two qualities about it: there is the fruits of obsession, which can lead to wonderful discoveries - Fawcett made many interesting discoveries - but there could also be a lethal quality to obsession, and in this case, there really was."

For more info:
"The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession In the Amazon" by David Grann (Random House)

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.