Welcome to Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology, mythology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories.
Come friends, the misty portal stands ready to take us to the dark recesses of the Amazon Jungle as we follow the trail of a true legend and the secrets he has to share.
Even if you’ve never heard the name of Percy Fawcett the odds are that you know parts of his history from books and movies based on his adventures. Born on 18 August 1867 in Torquay (Devon County), England, Percy Fawcett embodied all the facets one expects of a 19th century Englishman wrapped into a single package.
Percy’s father was a member of the Royal Geological Society. As such his son was afforded the best education. After college, Percy accepted a commission in the Royal Artillery, serving in Ceylon. In 1901, he left the artillery and joined the RGS with the intent of pursuing a career as a surveyor. In that era, this was an adventurous and often dangerous profession, perfect for Percy.
While acting as a surveyor in North Africa, the British secret service recruited Percy and he acted in a dual capacity for the next five years. During this time he solidified a friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a mutual friend of his college buddies. Sir Doyle would later feature some of the places Percy visited in the book The Lost World.
In 1906, Percy was offered a chance to map the border between Brazil and Bolivia. This was a dangerous time in South America. Borders and laws were lax. While having drinks one night Percy intervened in a dispute between a Bolivian army officer and his subordinate. The officer tried to shoot Percy, but he seized his wrist and squeezed until the drunken officer dropped the weapon.
The following year while traveling up river, Percy noticed a large triangular head closing on his boat. Grabbing a rifle, Percy killed what turned out to be an anaconda measuring 62 feet in length and with a 12-inch diameter body. Sound like any movies you’ve seen?
Over the course of 18 years, Percy made seven surveying expeditions into the Amazon. He learned to interrelate with native tribes, spent 20 days without food tracking down the source of a river, swam piranha infested waters, stared down an angry red bull while unarmed (i.e. men who stare at bulls) and inadvertently created the Verde Treasure by burying 60 gold sovereigns ($300) before starting out on a particularly difficult trek. He reclaimed the gold when he returned, but the story joined a dragon’s hoard of lost treasure tales, telling of 60,000 lost sovereigns. People die due to such tales and indeed some have died for this one.
While traveling about the Amazon, Percy collected tidbits of information about a treasure above all others. A lost city from a long dead culture. To an explorer, finding a lost city is the penultimate achievement. Obsessed, Percy named the city “Z” and from this quest his legend was born.
After taking a brief detour to serve in the Royal Artillery during World War I, Percy returned to the Amazon in 1925 with his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmel, bent on finding the Lost City of Z. Percy left behind instructions that due to the dangers of the jungle none should seek them should they not return.
Setting out on 20 April 1925 the three along with a small group of Brazilian bearers made their way deep into the jungles headed for the Mato Grasso region where Percy believed the city of Z lay waiting. A few weeks later, on 29 May, he sent a final optimistic telegraph to his wife from Dead Horse Camp (he had lost one there years before) stating that he, Jack and Raleigh were about to cross the Xingu river (east central Brazil).
The three men crossed the river into the jungle, making brief contact with a peaceful tribe called the Kalapalos who warned them of deadly cannibals to the east where they planned to travel. Ignoring the advice the three men set out. For five days the Kalapolos saw the smoke from their campfires, then nothing. The three were gone in a day and passed forever into legend.
This barely scratches the surface of Percy Fawcett’s life. He spoke often of strange and exotic beasts: giant spiders, a two-nosed dog and a cat-dog, among many others.
It should be mentioned, that throughout his travels, Percy collected philosophies the way others gather butterflies. Eugenics (bio-engineering life to bring about a master race), Nietzscheism (strength of will is power to rule), and Theosophy (remember Lemuria and the creation of the Aryan myth?). Many of Percy’s peers saw him as a dangerous hack.
Whenever someone vanishes without a trace the minds of those left behind begin to seek them, creating stories to fill the unknown final chapter. Regardless of his wishes, many journeyed in search of Percy and his companions. Some believed they had succumbed to disease, others that they had fallen to cannibals. A few investigators believed that the Kalapalos had killed them for a number of potential insults such as striking one of their over-curious children and pissing upstream from where the tribe drew its drinking water.
The legend grew as fortune seekers dredged up bones purported to be those of Fawcett. Later testing proved this false but as is seen so often, once introduced a concept is hard to shed. One bizarre tale speaks of Percy suffering a head injury and living out his days as king of a tribe of cannibals.
The grandest tale of all is that Percy Fawcett had no intention of returning. That he planned to remain in the jungles, establishing his own society based on the teachings of Nietzsche and Theosophy in order to birth a master race of his own design.
The jungle has a way of hiding its secrets and it is unlikely that we will ever know the truth. However, the life and legend of Percy Fawcett holds a wealth of lessons for writers and a treasure trove of story potential. Indiana Jones and Anaconda are based in part on Percy’s adventures. The strong-willed explorer, a spy with a believable cover story, an adventurer archeologist, brawls with drunken officers, creatures of zoological mystery, lost cities, civilized men acting as kings for cannibals or founding a society away from modern civilization; all of these inhabit the life of this single legend waiting to be found and used for the enjoyment of the reader.
Consider well the lives of the legends you encounter, for their adventures, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found, are infused with the power of story.
Any thoughts on the life of Percy Fawcett? Can you think of any books or movies that are based on his or another legendary figures adventures? What do you think became of Fawcett and his companions?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.