The Birth of the Legend
It is a place that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, have died trying to find. A place that has been alternately dismissed by both scientists and spiritualist, and described as mythology and archaeology. Yet in the Xingu region of the Amazon perhaps the great mystery of El Dorado has finally passed from legend into reality.
When Spanish Conquistadors first came to the Amazon and began trying to penetrate inland into what has been called a "false paradise", the forbidding and brutal jungle where one can be surrounded by food and starve to death or bitten by any one of hundreds of disease carrying bugs, those that managed to return came back with amazing stories. They spoke of causeways and grand roads through the trees, great cities, thousands upon thousands of Indians, and wealth of gold that can hardly be imagined.
Yet as later explorers hiked into the jungle with a lust to find the illusive El Dorado they could find nothing but unforgiving terrain, sweltering heat, and bands of supposedly primitive Indians. Early scientists declared that the region could never have supported an advanced civilization and began to treat the Amazon as a wasteland, some even equating it with the Sahara.
Map Of Percy Fawcetts Expeditions
Fawcett and the Early Expeditions
Yet like Atlantis or Shang-ri-la the legend of El Dorado refused to back away, it was lodged so firmly in the imagination that many people refused to accept that it was not real, and were willing to risk their lives in pursuit of it. At the end of the nineteenth century and the dawn of the twentieth mankind was embarking on one of the most monumental tasks in all of history, mapping the world. There would no longer be blank spaces on the map or regions marked "unknown". One of the greatest and most daunting places left for explorers was the Amazon.
Percy Fawcett began his career as a map maker and explorer cataloging the disputed border between Bolivia and Brazil. He made a name for himself by being unafraid to venture away from the rivers and move inland. He, like many other explorers of the region such as Brazil's Rondon, adopted a policy of peace with the native Indians and gradually grew to respect them immensely. Through all of his early expeditions Fawcett was starting to put together a theory, he found what he swore were shards of pottery, and swaths through the land that looked to him like roads. He began to suspect that the traditions of the Indians he met were handed down to them from a great lost civilization, which he began to refer to as the Lost City of Z.
Just as Fawcett and a few other Amazon explorers were starting to revive the legend of El Dorado most archeaologists and scientists were attempting to exorcise the myth entirely. Most had concluded that harshness of the Amazon would prevent civlization, that there was too little food, too many dangers, and too turbulent of a rainy season to allow anything more than a hunter/gatherer society to mature.
In 1925 Fawcett, along with his son Jack and Jack's best friend Raliegh, disappeared into the jungle after declaring that they knew where the Lost City of Z was and that they would return in a year or two after completing a fist survey. Years went by and there was no word from the party and their disappearance was added to the mystery of El Dorado, and the mystique of the rain forest.
Dozens of rescue parties went in search of Fawcett, and many believed that they had found the Lost City and were living out their days in a hidden paradise, but as the years went by people began to dread that the explorers were dead. Claims that they were killed by "savages", starvation, or predators, paled next to the accusation that they died pursuing a "mad man's" dream. The Fawcett family lived to see Percy Fawcett's work derided as a foolish fantasy and El Dorado, so briefly reignited, faded once more to be firmly placed in mythology.
The fantasy made itself unattainable, even Fawcett had allowed his own prejudices and goals to conflate with the evidence that he had uncovered. Europeans could not help but imagine that it was a city made of stone, a city like those found in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. There was also a desire for paradise, for granduer beyond even our wildest dreams, and Z began to merge with the myths of Atlantis.
The Legend Grows
El Dorado became a lost pinnacle of humanity, with wonders that even modern science was supposed to pale against. Like Atlantis, the lost city began to grow in the imagination. No longer simply a city of gold in the midst of the rain forest, El Dorado became a home of science fiction. Mechanical and social marvels were credited to the place, from cars, to planes, to geothermal energy. Others went further and began to describe it as a doorway to another dimension or a gateway to the stars. Religions were founded with the lost city at the center, some even holding Percy Fawcett up as a messiah or prophet figure. The fantastic was so intertwined with the legend that the two seemed inseparable.
One of the hardest truths of the fantasy of El Dorado was the racism that has always been mixed with the legend. The civilization at the heart of the story was often described as "White Indian" and the people that lived as hunter/gatherers that the explorers encountered were dismissed outright as not even capable of such a feat. Even those that held on to a belief in El Dorado as science declared the matter closed chose to ascribe the inhabitants of the place as a different people altogether from the tribes of the Amazon. Some chose to believe in a "master race", others in a lost tribe of Israel, others in transdimensional beings, and others still in aliens.
Yet when archealologists once again began to study and look at the tribes of the Amazon, and study their oral history, some began to once again believe in El Dorado. They stripped away years of exaggeration and mythologizing.
First in his 2005 article "The Lost City of Z" and later in his full book of the same title David Grann reported that archaeologist Michael Hickenberger was unearthing a site in the Amazon Xingu region that might be the mysterious lost city. The city was surrounded by not merely a single moat but several in concentric circles and had palisades much as several nearby tribes described in their folklore. What was more, he found evidence of wooden structures and roads that cut through the jungle. There was black Indian earth which showed evidence of people making the infertile soil of the Amazon rich for planting.
Perhaps most intriguing were the direct parallels between the site, referred to as Kuhikugu, and tribes of the area. Pottery methods were still nearly identical and the tribes followed a diet that prohibited several sources of food (striking considering the long held belief that such prohibitions would mean death in the harsh rain forest). Even the villages were still laid out in similar patterns to the sites of the ancient cities.
Kuhikugu encompasses more than 20 settlements, each supporting as many as 5,000 people with a remarkable sense of engineering. Though made of wood instead of stone the society flourished from approximately 200 A.D. until around 1600 according to carbon dating data obtained from the moats and pottery. They built bridges across some of the great rivers of the Amazon, and though they refrained from pyramid structures like the Mayan or Inca, they appear to have preferred to build horizontal monuments.
These people overlapped with the coming of the Europeans to the New World, and in only a few short years were so devastated by disease that they virtually died out. The earliest conquistadors saw glimpses of their civilization, but by the time they were able to penetrate the rain forest again the people were all but gone and the jungle was quickly reclaiming the land.
In conjunction with this amazing find is the discovery of pottery in a cave which predates even the earliest Clovis find, causing archaeologists to have to readdress the question of early man migration patterns. Some are going so far as to begin to suggest that rather than being a harsh climate where man could barely survive that perhaps the Amazon was in fact a "womb of nations" that people radiated out from such as the Eurasian Steppe or Scandinavia.
It is perhaps fanciful to call Kuhikugu El Dorado, but after a hundred years of modern archaeology claiming that it wasn't there and then finding it in a time when people claimed that the edges of the map were complete, I'm a bit prone to fanciful phrases.
*A large amount of research for this article was drawn from David Grann's book The Lost City of Z, and the Scientific American article Lost Cities: Pre-Columbian Life in the Amazon which I heartily encourage anyone interested to check out.
Amazon Exploration Quiz
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- Which American President discovered a thousand mile long tributary of the Amazon River?
- Andrew Jackson
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Zachary Taylor
- William Jennings Brian
- Who was the first to navigate the Amazon River?
- Fransico Orellana
- Gonzalo Pizarro
- Hernando Cortez
- Juan Rodriguez Freyle
- The Rondon Comission was established to do what in the Amazon?
- Build roads
- Fight the native tribes
- Run telegraph cables
- Tax rubber farmers
- Brazil was once a colony of which country?
- United States
- Great Britain
- Who was the first Amazon Explorer to use a plane as part of his expedition?
- Percy Fawcett
- T.E. Lawrence
- John Burton
- Edward Rice
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Fransico Orellana
- Run telegraph cables
- Edward Rice
Ron on July 25, 2011:
You wouldn't happen to know of the location of this site would you? If so, could you please email me your response at email@example.com Thanks!
outdoorsguy from Tenn on June 22, 2010:
I agree LOL. Im so sick of the Aliens did it crowd. like our ancient ancestors were drooling idiots who could only make sharp pointy sticks and couldn't even start a fire with out lighting.
what's really cool, is the discovery across the amazon of man made elevated platforms that once supported villages, and farm land. and your right the Dark Earth or terra Preta is an incredible find. I seem to remember reading in a journal that the black earth is a creation of the amazonian culture and is hard to duplicate today.
but what it did do was allow them to live and farm in a region that was till the discovery considered uninhabitable.
Your right our ancient ancestors repeatedly show brilliance in the things they did. and in some cases we cant even do the same things with our technology. at least not yet.
SeanMcEwen (author) on June 22, 2010:
Outdoorsguy, certainly, I did not mean to imply that the entire myth was grown out of racism. I only brought it up as a side bar, a part of the legend that makes it difficult in modern times for us to appreciate the whole story. Fawcett, and many other explorers from the late Victorian and early modern eras, were often struggling with these assumptions. However, I am glad that you bring up the point as I was not intending the article to feel like a strict indictment, only as an additional piece to a puzzle. To me the interesting piece is that we (in the mankind since of the word) so easily assumed that because a place was a hostile environment that our ancestors could not have lived there. Racism to me pales next to the underestimating of our ancestors (i.e. the theories that it was aliens or some magical beings). Thanks for the feedback!
outdoorsguy from Tenn on June 22, 2010:
the whole white inhabitants issue was not a westerners racial dream. it was the native legends of the place that assigned white men to living there.
in fact across south America up to Mexico there have been tales of a white race of natives who traveled around in the past founding civilizations. this is in fact what Allowed teh spaniards to get such a grip on the Aztec early on. Cortez was thought to be Quetzacotal reborn.
so lets not start throwing out Racism as the cuase of legends with out some research.
its the same argument used in the US every time a Caucasiod skeleton is found that predates Columbus. Cant be... gotta be white mans racism.
even though several tribes, cherokee comes to mind as one. had legends of encountering a white skinned race as they moved into the areas that were later to be considered their homelands.
its really hard to research and dig for the truth when you have to worry about people screaming racism every time they dont like what's found or suggested.
the whole point to Archeology to find the facts about our past and hopefully learn from them.
not to say there there haven't been some racially motivated theorys thrown out in the past. Like the belief that no major Culture every existed in africa below the Sahara. and yet we are finding that they certianly did.
Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on June 22, 2010:
Fascinating account of a much misunderstood part of the world. It just goes to show the idiocy of racism. We should never look down on any race because they can always surprise us.