Study Guide

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

By David Grann

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Visions of the Amazon

Yet each expedition that had tried to find El Dorado ended in disaster. […] Some four thousand men died during that expedition alone, of starvation and disease and at the hands of Indians defending their territory with arrows dipped in poison. Other El Dorado parties resorted to cannibalism. Many explorers went mad. (1.9)

Welcome to the Amazon, population: falling.

Fawcett had determined that an ancient, highly cultured people still existed in the Brazilian Amazon and that their civilization was so old and sophisticated that it would forever alter the Western view of the Americas. (1.11)

This is Grann basically telling us what his whole book is about, but he also shows us how ahead of his time Fawcett was. Fawcett is one of the only people at the time who had this particular vision of the Amazon. Other scientists and explorers thought it was a backwards wilderness.

How easily the Amazon can deceive. (2.1)

Grann is describing the Amazon River here, but this line can double as a line describing the jungle. The Amazon is deceptive in that it's a jungle, but there doesn't seem to be anything to eat in this jungle. And it's deceptive in that it seems to be full of nomadic tribes, but it was also once home to great civilizations. Maybe. Or maybe we need to change our definition of civilization.

Spreading toward the horizon, this wilderness contains the greatest variety of species in the world. (2.3)

We thought the greatest variety of species in the world was on your average subway train handrail. Grann proves us wrong.

Then there was the threat of hostile "savages" and "cannibals." (6.18)

Grann includes these words in quotes because he is talking about the attitudes of Fawcett's contemporaries to the tribes of the Amazon. You might say their attitudes are "simplistic," "ignorant," or "wrong." On the other hand, there can be elements of truth in stereotypes, and we will see some violent tribes.

"My heart sank," Fawcett wrote in his journals, "and I began to realize how truly primitive this river country was." (8.17)

Here is another way the Amazon deceives Fawcett. He sees it as a beautiful, untouched wilderness. But Western influence, in particular the rubber industry, has transformed it into a dark place, a place that features slavery, murder, and the destruction of native tribes.

In the Amazon, Fawcett marveled, the animal kingdom "is against man as it is nowhere else in the world." (8.29)

Many explorers and scientists are so focused on the tribes being "savages" or "cannibals" that they lose sight of the true antagonist in the jungle: nature. It's possible to make friends with a tribe. It's not possible to make friends with a genital-biting parasite.

Although Westerners were fixated on cannibalism […] and often exaggerated its extent in order to justify their conquest of indigenous people, there is no question that some Amazonian tribes practiced it, either for ritualistic reasons or for vengeance. (8.34)

Here we see Grann (and Fawcett) giving us a more nuanced look at the Amazonian tribes. Instead of just labeling these people "cannibals" and calling it a day (and running in the other direction), he explores why these people might be cannibals. In the morality of the jungle, it's not unusual or unacceptable.

"If it were up to me, I would take you for free," Taukane said. "But all Indians must now be capitalists. We have no choice." (21.9)

As so-called "civilization" encroaches on the Amazon, the Amazon becomes more "civilized," bringing all of the negative aspects—greed, violence, bad TV—with it.

She said that by the time Fawcett and his men had arrived everything was changing. Brazilian military officials, she recalled, "told us we had to wear clothes, and they gave us each a new name." (21.57)

Changes to the Amazon are coming from within Brazil itself, too. But Brazil is most likely caving to external pressures from other countries who would like to mine the resources of the jungle without being killed. Is that too much to ask?

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon Visions of the Amazon Study Group

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