Lt. Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett (18 August 1867 – in or after 1925) was a British artillery officer, archaeologist and South American explorer. Along with his eldest son, Fawcett disappeared under unknown circumstances in 1925 during an expedition to find “Z” – his name for an ancient lost city, which he and others believed to be El Dorado, in the uncharted jungles of Brazil.
Percy Fawcett was born on 18 August 1867 in Torquay, Devon, England, to Edward Boyd Fawcett and Myra Elizabeth (née MacDougall). He received his education at Newton Abbot Proprietary College alongside Bertram Fletcher Robinson, a future friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Percy Fawcett’s Indian-born father was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). His elder brother Edward Douglas Fawcett (1866–1960) was a mountain climber, Eastern occultist and author of philosophical books and popular adventure novels.
In 1886, Percy received a commission in the Royal Artillery and he served in Trincomalee, Ceylon, where he also met his wife. He married Nina Agnes Paterson in January 1901. They had two sons, Jack (born 1903) and Brian (1906-1984). He joined the RGS himself in 1901 in order to study surveying and mapmaking. Later, he worked for the British Secret Service in North Africa while pursuing the surveyor’s craft. He became friends with authors H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle; the latter used Fawcett’s Amazonian field reports as an inspiration for his novel, The Lost World.
Fawcett’s first expedition to South America was in 1906 when at the age of 39 he travelled to Brazil to map a jungle area at the border of Brazil and Bolivia at the behest of the RGS. The Society had been commissioned to map the area as a third party unbiased by local national interests. He arrived in La Paz, Bolivia in June. Whilst on the expedition in 1907, Fawcett claimed to have seen and shot a 62 foot long giant anaconda, for which he was widely ridiculed by the scientific community. He reported other mysterious animals unknown to zoology, such as a small cat-like dog about the size of a foxhound, which he claimed to have seen twice, or the giant Apazauca spider which was said to have poisoned a number of locals.
Fawcett made seven expeditions between 1906 and 1924. He mostly got along with the locals through gifts, patience and courteous behaviour. In 1908, he traced the source of the Rio Verde (Brazil) and in 1910 made a trip to Heath River (on the border between Peru and Bolivia) to find its source. Following a 1913 expedition, he supposedly claimed to have seen dogs with double noses. These may have been Double-nosed Andean tiger hounds. Based on documentary research, Fawcett had formulated his ideas about a “Lost City of Z” in Brazil by the time of the outbreak of World War I. At that time he returned to Britain for active service, volunteered for the front in Flanders, and led an artillery brigade despite the fact that he was approaching fifty years of age. After the war he returned to Brazil to study local wildlife and archaeology.
In 1925, with funding from a London-based group of financiers called the Glove, Fawcett returned to Brazil with his elder son Jack, and Jack’s friend, for an exploratory expedition. He had studied ancient legends and historical records and was convinced a lost city existed somewhere in the Mato Grosso region, a city Fawcett named “Z.” Fawcett left behind instructions stating that if the expedition did not return, no rescue expedition should be sent lest the rescuers suffer his fate.
Fawcett was a man with years of experience travelling with all the handpicked necessities, things such as canned foods, powdered milk, guns, flares, a sextant, and a chronometer. Also handpicked were his travel companions, both chosen for their health, ability and loyalty to each other—his eldest son Jack Fawcett and Jack’s long-time friend Raleigh Rimmell. Fawcett chose only two companions in order to travel lighter and with less notice from native tribes, as some were hostile towards explorers; many tribes at the time still had not come into contact with white men.
On 20 April 1925 his final expedition departed from Cuiabá. In addition to his two principal companions, Fawcett was accompanied by two Brazilian labourers, two horses, eight mules, and a pair of dogs. The last communication from the expedition was on 29 May 1925, when Fawcett wrote a letter to his wife that he was ready to go into unexplored territory with only Jack and Rimmell, which was delivered by a native runner. They were reported to be crossing the Upper Xingu, a southeastern tributary of the Amazon River. A final letter, written from Dead Horse Camp, gave their location and was generally optimistic.
Many assumed that local Indians had killed them, as several tribes were nearby at the time: the Kalapalos, the last tribe to have seen them, or the Arumás, Suyás, or Xavantes tribes whose territory they were entering. Both of the younger men were lame and ill when last seen, and there is no proof they were murdered. It is plausible that they died of natural causes in the Brazilian jungle.
In 1927, a name-plate of Fawcett was found with an Indian tribe. In June 1933, a theodolite compass belonging to Fawcett was found near the Baciary Indians of Mato Grosso by Colonel Aniceto Botelho. However, the name-plate was from Fawcett’s expedition five years earlier and had most likely been given as a gift to the chief of that Indian tribe. The compass was proven to have been left behind before he entered the jungle on his final journey.
Posthumous controversy and speculations
Rumours and unverified reports
During the following decades, various groups mounted several rescue expeditions, without results. They heard only various rumours that could not be verified. In addition to reports that Fawcett had been killed by Indians or wild animals, there was a tale that Fawcett had lost his memory and lived out his life as the chief of a tribe of cannibals.
An estimated 100 would-be-rescuers have died in more than 13 expeditions sent to uncover Fawcett’s fate. One of the earliest was led by American explorer George Miller Dyott in 1927; he claimed to have found evidence of Fawcett’s death at the hands of the Aloique Indians, but the strength of his story soon began to unravel. A 1951 expedition unearthed human bones that were later found to be unconnected to Fawcett or his companions.
Danish explorer Arne Falk-Rønne journeyed to the Mato Grosso in the 1960s. In a 1991 book, he wrote that he learned Fawcett’s fate from Orlando Villas-Bôas, who had heard it from one of Fawcett’s murderers. Apparently, Fawcett and his companions had a mishap on the river and lost most of the gifts they’d brought along for the Indian tribes. Continuing without gifts was a serious breach of protocol; since the expedition members were all more or less seriously ill at the time, the Kalapalo tribe they encountered decided to kill them. The bodies of Jack Fawcett and Raleigh Rimmell were thrown into the river; Colonel Fawcett, considered an old man and therefore distinguished, received a proper burial. Falk-Rønne visited the Kalapalo tribe and reported that one of the tribesmen confirmed Villas-Bôas’s story about how and why Fawcett had been killed.
In 1951, Orlando Villas-Bôas supposedly received the actual remaining skeletal bones of Fawcett and had them scientifically analysed. The analysis allegedly confirmed the bones to be Fawcett’s. But his son Brian Fawcett (1906–1984) refused to accept them. Villas-Bôas claimed that Brian was too interested in making money from books about his father’s disappearance. Later scientific analysis confirmed that the bones were not Fawcett’s. As of 1965, the bones reportedly rested in a box in the flat of one of the Villas-Bôas brothers in São Paulo.
In 1998, English explorer Benedict Allen set out to talk to the Kalapalo Indians, said by Villas-Bôas to have confessed to having killed the three Fawcett expedition members. An elder of the Kalapalo, Vajuvi, claimed during a filmed BBC interview with Allen that the bones found by Villas-Bôas some 45 years before were not really Fawcett’s. Vajuvi also denied that his tribe had had any part in the Fawcetts’ disappearance. No conclusive evidence supports either statement.
In 2003, a Russian documentary film, “Проклятье золота инков / Экспедиция Перси Фоссета в Амазонку” (The Curse of the Incas’ Gold / Expedition of Percy Fawcett to the Amazon), was released as a part of the TV series “Тайны века” (Mysteries of the Century). Among other things, the film focuses on the recent expedition of Oleg Aliyev to the presumed approximate place of Fawcett’s last whereabouts and Aliyev’s findings, impressions and presumptions about Fawcett’s fate.
Commune in the jungle
On 21 March 2004, the British newspaper The Observer reported that television director Misha Williams, who had studied Fawcett’s private papers, believed that Fawcett had not intended to return to Britain but rather meant to found a commune in the jungle based on theosophical principles and the worship of his son Jack. Williams set out his research in some detail in the preface to his play AmaZonia, first performed in April 2004.
Grann’s Lost City of Z
In 2005, The New Yorker staff writer David Grann visited the Kalapalo tribe and discovered that it had passed down an oral history about Fawcett, among the first white men the tribe had ever seen. The oral account said that Fawcett and his party had stayed at their village and then left, heading eastward. The Kalapalos warned Fawcett and his companions not to go that way—that they would be killed by the “fierce Indians” who occupied that territory—but that Fawcett insisted on going. The Kalapalos observed smoke from the expedition’s campfire each evening for five days before it disappeared. The Kalapalos said they were sure the fierce Indians had killed them. The article also reports that a monumental civilisation called Kuhikugu may have actually existed near where Fawcett was looking, as discovered recently by archaeologist Michael Heckenberger and others.[ Grann’s findings are further detailed in his book The Lost City of Z (2009).