Every quest, we are led to believe, has a romantic origin. Yet, even now, I can’t provide a good one for mine.
Let me be clear: I am not an explorer or an adventurer. I don’t climb mountains or hunt. I don’t even like to camp. I stand less than five feet nine inches tall and am nearly forty years old, with a blossoming waistline and thinning black hair. I suffer from keratoconus-a degenerative eye condition that makes it hard for me to see at night. I have a terrible sense of direction and tend to forget where I am on the subway and miss my stop in Brooklyn. I like newspapers, take-out food, sports highlights (recorded on TiVo), and the air-conditioning on high. Given a choice each day between climbing the two flights of stairs to my apartment and riding the elevator, I invariably take the elevator.
But when I’m working on a story things are different. Ever since I was young, I’ve been drawn to mystery and adventure tales, ones that had what Rider Haggard called “the grip.” The first stories I remember being told were about my grandfather Monya. In his seventies at the time, and sick with Parkinson’s disease, he would sit trembling on our porch in Westport, Connecticut, looking vacantly toward the horizon. My grandmother, meanwhile, would recount memories of his adventures. She told me that he had been a Russian furrier and a freelance
For me, the most amazing part of these adventures was the figure at the center of them. I had known my grandfather only as an old man who could barely walk. The more my grandmother told me about him, the hungrier I became for details that might help me understand him; still, there was an element about him that seemed to elude even my grandmother. “That’s just Monya,” she’d say, with a wave of her hand.
When I became a reporter, I was drawn to stories that put you in “the grip.” In the 1990s, I worked as a congressional correspondent, but I kept wandering off my beat to investigate stories about con men, mobsters, and spies. While most of my articles seem unrelated, they typically have one common thread: obsession. They are about ordinary people driven to do extraordinary things-things that most of us would never dare-who get some germ of an idea in their heads that metastasizes until it consumes them.
I have always thought that my interest in these people is merely professional: they provide the best copy. But at times I wonder whether I’m more similar to them than I care to believe. Reporting involves an endless quest to ferret out details, in the hopes of discovering some hidden truth. To my wife’s chagrin, when I work on stories, I tend to lose sight of everything else. I forget to pay bills or to shave. I don’t change my clothes as often as I should. I even take risks that I never would otherwise: crawling hundreds of feet beneath the streets of Manhattan with tunnel diggers known as sandhogs or riding in a skiff with a giant-squid hunter during a violent storm. After I returned from the boat trip, my mother said, “You know, you remind me of your grandfather.”
In 2004, while researching a story on the mysterious death of a Co-nan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes expert, I stumbled upon a reference to Fawcett’s role in inspiring
Environmentalists have often portrayed the Amazon as a “virgin forest,” which, until recent incursions by loggers and trespassers, was all but unspoiled by human hands. Moreover, many archaeologists and geographers argue that conditions in the Amazon, like those in the Arctic, had made it impossible to develop the large populations necessary for a complex society, with divisions of labor and political hierarchies such as chiefdoms and kingdoms. Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution is perhaps the most in fluential modern archaeologist of the Amazon. In 1971, she famously summed up the region as a “counterfeit paradise,” a place that, for all its fauna and flora, is inimical to human life. Rains and floods, as well as the pounding sun, leach vital nutrients from the soil and make large-scale agriculture impossible. In such a brutal landscape, she and other scientists contend, only small nomadic tribes could survive. Because the land had provided so little nutrition, Meggers wrote, even when tribes had managed to overcome attrition from starvation and diseases, they still had to come up with “cultural substitutes” to control their populations-including killing their own. Some tribes committed infanticide, abandoned their sick in the woods, or engaged in blood revenge and warfare. In the 1970s, Claudio Villas Boas, who was one of the great defenders of Amazonian Indians, told a reporter, “This is the jungle and to kill a deformed child-to abandon the man without family- can be essential for the survival of the tribe. It’s only now that the jungle is vanishing, and its laws are losing their meaning, that we are shocked.”
As Charles Mann notes in his book
While looking into Z, I discovered that a group of revisionist anthropologists and archaeologists have increasingly begun to challenge these long-standing views, believing that an advanced civilization could have in fact emerged in the Amazon. In essence, they argue that the traditionalists have underestimated the power of cultures and societies to transform and transcend their natural environments, much the way humans are now creating stations in outer space and growing crops in the Israeli desert. Some contend that the traditionalists’ ideas still carry a taint of the racist views of Native Americans, which had once infused earlier reductive theories of environmental determinism. The traditionalists, in turn, charge that the revisionists are an example of political correctness run amok, and that they perpetuate a long history of projecting onto the Amazon an imaginary landscape, a fantasy of the Western mind. At stake in the debate is a fundamental understanding of human nature and the ancient world, and the feud has pitted scholars viciously against each other. When I called Meggers at the Smithsonian Institution, she dismissed the possibility of anyone discovering a lost civilization in the Amazon. Too many archaeologists, she said, are “still chasing El Dorado.”
One acclaimed archaeologist from the University of Florida, in particular, disputes the conventional interpretation of the Amazon as a counterfeit paradise. His name is Michael Heckenberger, and he works in the Xingu region where Fawcett is believed to have vanished. Several anthropologists told me that he was the person I should talk to, but warned that he rarely emerges from the jungle and avoids any distractions from his work. James Petersen, who in 2005 was head of the anthropology department at the University of Vermont and had trained Heckenberger, told me, “Mike is absolutely brilliant and on the cutting edge of archaeology in the Amazon, but I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree. Look, the guy was the best man at my wedding and I can’t get him to respond to any of my communications.”
With the University of Florida’s help, I eventually succeeded in reaching Heckenberger on his satellite phone. Through static and what sounded like the jungle in the background, he said that he was going to be staying in the Kuikuro village in the Xingu and, to my surprise, would be willing to meet me if I made it that far. Only later, as I began to piece together more of the story of Z, did I discover that this was the very place where James Lynch and his men had been kidnapped.
* * *
“YOU’RE GOING TO the Amazon to try to find someone who disappeared two hundred years ago?” my wife, Kyra, asked. It was a January night in 2005, and she was standing in the kitchen of our apartment, serving cold sesame noodles from Hunan Delight.
“It was only eighty years ago.”
“So you’re going to look for someone who vanished
“That’s the basic idea.”
“How will you even know where to look?”
“I haven’t quite figured that part out yet.” My wife, who is a producer at
“And what happened to them?”
I took a bite of the noodles, hesitating. “Many of them disappeared.”
She looked at me for a long moment. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
I promised her that I would not rush into the Xingu, at least until I knew where to begin my route. Most recent expeditions had relied on the coordinates for Dead Horse Camp contained in