Designing from Bones – Dissecting a Legend

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.

Brad Pitt portrays Perry Fawcett in the upcoming movie based on David Grann's book about the explorer

The Man

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.

Sir Doyle based this book on Fawcett's travels

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.

Anaconda anyone? The stuff of legend

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.

The Quest

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.

The Lost City of Z

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.

The 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.

Xingu region tribesman, modern

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 Villas-Boas brothers searched but found the wrong bones

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.

Peaceful Journeys!

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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18 Responses to Designing from Bones – Dissecting a Legend

  1. I’ve always found Percey Fawcett a fascinating individual and his story the stuff that my imagination thrives on! I can imagine that the three of them found the Lost City Z and in it was some kind of technology which they inadvertantly activiated, sending them thousands of years into the … future? Past? To another planet? Oh, the possibilities!

    Supposedly Hiram Bingham III was the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones (Well, there have been a lot of claims, but this is the most common and most likely according “experts”.) and the movie was inspired by the old Charleton Heston flick: Secret of the Incas.

    On another note, I have nominated you for the Kreativ Blogger Award. 😉

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Ah yes, the possibilities are tremendous through his story. What he found would be interesting as well, ruins, an alien base, a civilization living quietly in the depths of the jungle protected by their primitive brothers. Many places to go with this one.

      I did run into Hiram Bingham and several others, all billed as being the inspiration for Indiana Jones, which is why I chose to say “partly” in the post. As writers we know that inspiration is usually drawn from many sources rather than one. “Total credit” is the thing of marketers and I’m happy to leave it to them.

      Ooo, an award! Very cool, I’ll be stopping by, but then you knew I would be 🙂

    • James Byrne says:

      Shea MacLeod, Indiana Jones was certainly based on the movie character Harry Steele, played by Charlton Heston in SECRET OF THE INCAS. Other inspirations for Indy are; Alan Ladd in CHINA, and (believe it or not) Ronald Reagan in HONG KONG.

  2. Percy Fawcett is fascinating! And there are some days I’d like to run away and go live in a jungle. Or get eaten by cannibals.

    For real, sometimes that idea of disappearing sounds positively delicious.

    Great read, Gene!

  3. Amazing. I feel like I’ve lived a sheltered life because although the stories are familiar, I didn’t know the name. I love how bring it around to using the endless possibilities to fuel our own stories!

  4. amyshojai says:

    I didn’t know the name, either. What great fodder for novels–many of ’em!

  5. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    I hadn’t heard of him either, but as I was reading this, he sounded like a real life Indiana Jones. What a fascinating man.

  6. Catie Rhodes says:

    This was so interesting. I’d never heard of Fawcett, the lost city of Z, or the real life 60 foot anaconda. However, I’ve seen Indiana Jones movies and Anaconda. It’s interesting to speculate on what became of someone like Percy Fawcett–same as speculating on what became of Amelia Earhart. I would imagine the jungle ate Fawcett and his companions. By that, I mean they contracted some communicable disease, fell victim of predators (human or animal), or found a pit of quicksand. 😉

    I find fictional works about historical figures fascinating. We’ve been watching Hell on Wheels, which is loosely based on the advent of the American Railroad. I also enjoyed movies like Butch and Sundance and the Young Guns franchise.

    Great post. 😀

  7. Jane Sadek says:

    Thanks for another thought provoking blog. You have no idea how often your information takes me on flights of fancy as I sit in traffic or am involved in other tasks that don’t occupy the whole brain. Thanks again.

  8. kerrymeacham says:

    I’ve not heard of him either. Very interesting guy. I’ll have to do more reading on him. Thanks ROWbro. ~clink~

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Renee: I hear you. Some days I think I’d be safer in the jungle with the cannibals 🙂

      Natalie: Thanks!

      Amy: Truly, a wealth of fiction treasure here.

      Lynn: Absolutely, many people made up Indiana Jones, no matter which ones are billed. One thing they all have in common: they are all fascinating.

      Catie: I’ve read quite a bit about Amelia and will most likely post on her one day. Sometimes I’m waiting for a spark of “hey, you know what would be cool here…” 🙂

      Jane: Glad to keep you company 🙂

      Kerry: Thanks, ROWbro clink~

      Prudence: “An” evening…heck I’d like a week, maybe two. I bet that he could fill an encyclopedia series with his experiences, in life and in death.

      Debra: Actually surprises me that you weren’t familiar with him, but then neither was I until recently. Very cool that the two of you share the same birthday 🙂

      Annalise: I remember back when Pitt was sporting that beard and catching the eye of the “rag media”. They read it as a scandal, of course, but it all makes sense now. Will be interesting to see how he portrays Percy, although it should be said that Grann’s book is part fact and part fiction, so the likeness does not have to be exact.

      John: I’m with you. The romantic version of the story, to me, would be that he discovered the lost city and started an “idyllic” (at least by his standards) society there that may still exist in some form. Far more glamorous then “died by panther while suffering the late stages of malaria or dysentery”

      Thanks for all the great comments 😀

  9. Awesome as usual, Gene. Old Percy sounds like the kind of guy I’d like to spend an evening with, note pad in hand and all ears. Thanks for another great post.

  10. Never heard of him, either. That movie should be awesome. Added bonus for me: We share the same birthday (I’m just a tad younger)! Thanks for another great read, Gene.

  11. I remember learning about him in college. Such a fascinating man. Didn’t know there was going to be a movie version. Not sure how I feel about Brad Pitt playing him. Thanks for the read!

  12. Delightful post. Exploration and/or man in search of legend and/or riches and/or increased status and/or on and on. You could almost close your eyes and throw an imaginary dart at this post and find something to write about. Being a cock-eyed optimist, I prefer to believe Fawcett and companions found the Lost City of Z…and decided not to come home.

  13. Marcia says:

    Great story, Gene! I hadn’t heard of him either. I love stories like his, real or fictionalized. The true adventurer lives a life envied by people with ‘ordinary’ lives. I look forward to the movie.
    You posts are always my after dinner treat. Thanks…they’re almost better than chocolate. 🙂

  14. J Holmes says:

    Thanks for another great article Gene.
    “What do you think became of Fawcett and his companions?” Free pizza delivery.

    Since the Portuguese and Spaniards started sending expeditions into the area it was clear that some of the tribes were happy to eat them whenever they got the chance to. Many of the earliest explorers had routinely raped, enslaved and murdered people from various tribes so to many tribes in the Amazon Europeans represented an end to their world. Turns out they were right. Most of those tribes are long vanished.

    It’s sad that today the relationship between remote Amazonian tribes and “outsiders” remains as deadly as ever for the remote tribes.

    It’s fascinating how myths are created when someone vanishes. A vanished hero is always more useful because you can create a more colorful mythology about them.

  15. Pingback: Mind Sieve 1/23/12 « Gloria Oliver

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