Friday, January 28, 2011

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

In the late 1800's and the early 1900's, popular imaginations were excited by the explorations of the many gentlemen explorers who through courage and daring pushed the boundaries of human knowledge.  The exploits of men like Teddy Roosevelt, Roald Amundsen and Sir Richard Francis Burton were exciting to those left behind, and their discoveries moved the boundaries of what was known of the world we inhabit.

Another of these explorers was Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett.  From a military background (although the Colonel title seems self-imposed), Fawcett had early successes in his explorations.  He concentrated on taking small expeditions over land, and trying to befriend rather than confront the natives of the various countries he explored.

Like several other explorers, he became obsessed with the Amazon.  The common viewpoint was that the Amazon was populated by primitive tribes, who had never developed an extensive civilization.  Fawcett came to believe otherwise; he believed there was a rich, ancient civilization with huge cities and extensive laws and population.  Unable to find traces of this city, he mounted one final expedition in 1925.  By then, exploration was starting to change.  No longer was the gentleman explorer the preeminent authorities.  Scholars and scientists were taking over the expeditions, which become large, fully funded enterprises with scientific equipment.  On Fawcett's last trip, he took only himself, his son Jack, and Jack's best friend Rawleigh.  They entered the forest and were not heard from again.

David Grann has written an entertaining account of this period of history, the men who explored and the forces that were changing exploration.  He follows Fawcett's accomplishments and weaknesses, and the massive reaction to his disappearance.  It is estimated that over one hundred additional people have died hoping to find Fawcett or the true explanation of his disappearance.  Always engaging this book is recommended for readers with a sense of adventure who like to read about the ways our world knowledge has been expanded.

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