Study Guide

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon Exploration

By David Grann

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But, when he was thirty, he had become restless and began to disappear for days into the Amazon, trekking through the jungle. (2.10)

A major motivator for early 20th-century explorers was boredom. It's a good thing the world is already mapped out today, because now when people get bored, they play Temple Run 2 instead of trying to run to an actual temple.

And so, before plunging into the jungle, I set out to England to see if I could uncover more about Fawcett's zealously guarded route and the man who, in 1925, had seemingly vanished from the earth. (3.22)

Grann's quest stands in contrast to Fawcett's. In the modern day, Grann shows us that exploration now involves a lot more research and a lot less actual legwork.

Like many quest novels, [King Solomon's Mines] was patterned on folktales and myths, such as that of the Holy Grail. […] V. S. Pritchett noted that […] Haggard "installed a suction pump. He drained the whole reservoir of the public's secret desires." (4.35)

There have always romantic notions of exploration. People have a desire to discover something new, and this desire is at its height during Fawcett's era. Everyone wanted to be an Indiana Jones…before Indiana Jones even existed.

For ages, cartographers had no means of knowing what existed on most of the earth. And more often than not these gaps were filled in with fantastical kingdoms and beasts, as if the make-believe, no matter how terrifying, was less frightening than the unknown. (5.5)

Another reason exploration is so popular during Fawcett's time is a fear of the unknown. Well, in the case of the Amazon, what's actually there—bugs that eat your eyeballs, for example—is a lot scarier than anything an unimaginative cartographer might draw on a map.

Years later, another member [of the Royal Geographic Society] conceded, "Explorers are not, perhaps, the most promising people with whom to build a society. Indeed, some might say that explorers become explorers precisely because they have a streak of unsociability and a need to remove themselves at regular intervals as far as possible from their fellow men." (5.14)

We've shown explorers being romantic and bored, but this line shows us the answer to the formula: romantic + bored = x. In this case, x = crazy. These men don't fit into society for a variety of reasons, so for them, it's good they're able to get away from it.

Reeves would teach them what cartographers had not been able to do for most of history: fix their position anywhere. (6.8)

In an era when Google Maps is right on your phone, it's easy to forget that for the vast majority of human history, humans had no idea where they actually were. The invention of latitude and longitude, and the ability to measure it, greatly changed the mapping scene.

The need to record every observation was so ingrained that during Robert Falcon Scott's race to the South Pole he continued to make notations ever as he and all his men were dying. (6.10)

Okay, we keep adding to our list of explorer traits. Somewhere between "bored" and "crazy" we can add "cold and distant." These men are scientists first and foremost, and they don't get emotionally attached to the men on their mission. To them, everyone is a statistic.

Wasn't an explorer really just an infiltrator, someone who penetrated alien lands and returned with secrets? (8.2)

It's hard to tell if this is Grann's idea or Fawcett's, but we think both men would think similar thoughts. Both of them see the somewhat darker side to their exploration, and they try to balance it by being kind and respectful to the native population.

"I envy my great-grandfather, really," Isabelle said. "In his day, you could still go marching off and discover some hidden part of the world. Now where can you go?" (9.5)

Today, the desire for exploration seems to have turned away from our planet and outward into the solar system. Because, we guess, what's left to find here? Definitely not as much as there used to be.

As the plane got closer, they realized that is was simply an outcropping of freakishly eroded sandstone. "The illusion was remarkable—almost unbelievable," Brian said. (24.15)

What is once believed to be marvelous and magical, like Z, turns out to be mundane when technology allows us to understand it better. Brian discovers an optical illusion that looks like a city, but from a plane, he realizes it's just nature playing tricks. That doesn't make it less beautiful, but it does take away some magic; it's like knowing how a magician performs an illusion.

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