25. Z

The cave is over in those mountains,” the Brazilian businessman said. “That’s where Fawcett descended into the subterranean city and is still alive.”

Before Paolo and I headed into the jungle, we had stopped in Barra do Gar?as, a town near the Roncador Mountains, in the northeast corner of Mato Grosso. Many Brazilians had told us that, over the past few decades, religious cults had sprung up in the area that worshipped Fawcett as a kind of god. They believed that Fawcett had entered a network of underground tunnels and discovered that Z was, of all things, a portal to another reality. Even though Brian Fawcett had concealed his father’s bizarre writings at the end of his life, these mystics had seized upon Fawcett’s few cryptic references, in magazines such as the Occult Review, to his search for “the treasures of the invisible World.” These writings, coupled with Fawcett’s disappearance and the failure of anyone over the years to discover his remains, fueled the notion that he had somehow defied the laws of physics.

One sect, called the Magical Nucleus, was started, in 1968, by a man named Udo Luckner, who referred to himself as the High Priest of the Roncador and wore a long white gown and a cylindrical hat with a Star of David. In the 1970s, scores of Brazilians and Europeans, including Fawcett’s great-nephew, flocked to join the Magical Nucleus, hoping to find this portal. Luckner built a religious compound by the Roncador Mountains, where families were forbidden to eat meat or wear jewelry. Luckner predicted that the world would end in 1982 and said that his people must prepare to descend into the hollow earth. But, when the planet remained in existence, the Magical Nucleus gradually disbanded.

More mystics continued to come to the Roncador Mountains in search of this Other World. One was the Brazilian businessman whom Paolo and I had encountered in the small town. Short and pudgy, and in his late forties, he told us that he had been at “a loss for my purpose in life,” when he had met a psychic who taught him about spiritualism and the underground portal. He said that he was now training to purify himself, in the hopes of eventually going down.

Amazingly, others were making similar preparations. In 2005, a Greek explorer had announced plans on an Internet site-the Great Web of Percy Harrison Fawcett, which requires a secret code to access-for an expedition to find “the same portal or the doorway to a Kingdom that was entered by Colonel Fawcett in 1925.” The trek, which has yet to take place, will include psychic guides and is billed as an “Expedition of No Return in the Ethereal Place of the Unbelief.” It promises participants they will be no longer humans but “beings from another dimension, which means that we shall never die, we shall never get sick, we shall never grow up.” Just as the world’s blank spaces were disappearing, these people had constructed their own permanent dreamscape.

Before Paolo and I left, the businessman warned us, “You will never find Z as long as you look for it in this world.”

* * *

NOT LONG AFTER Paolo and I had met with the Kalapalos, I contemplated for the first time ending our search. Paolo and I were both tired and pocked with mosquito bites and had begun to quarrel. I had also come down with a severe stomach ailment, most likely from a parasite. One morning, I slipped away from the Kalapalo village with the satellite phone that I had brought. Paolo had advised me not to advertise that I had it, and I carried it in a small bag into the jungle. Crouching amid the leaves and vines, I removed the phone, trying to get a signal. After several failed tries, I received one and dialed home. “David, is that you?” Kyra asked, picking up.

“Yes. Yes. It’s me,” I said. “How are you? How’s Zachary?”

“I can’t hear you very well. Where are you?”

I looked up at the canopy. “Somewhere in the Xingu.”

“Are you okay?”

“A little sick, but I’m okay. I miss you.”

“Zachary wants to say something to you.”

A moment later I could hear my son babbling. “Zachary, it’s Daddy,” I said.

“Dada,” he said.

“Yes, Dada.”

“He’s started calling the phone Dada,” my wife said, taking back the receiver. “When are you coming home?”


“It hasn’t been easy.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” As I was talking, I heard someone approaching. “I gotta go,” I said suddenly.

“What’s going on?”

“Someone’s coming.”

Before she could reply, I hung up the phone and slipped it back in the bag. In the same moment, a young Indian appeared, and I followed him back to the village. That night, as I lay in my hammock, I thought about what Brian Fawcett had said of his second wife after his expedition. “I was all she had,” he noted. “And this situation need not have arisen. I chose it deliberately-selfishly-forgetting what it might mean to her in my eagerness to pursue an idea to its end.”

I knew that by then I had enough material to write a story. I had found out about the bones of Vajuvi’s grandfather. I had heard the Kalapa-los’ oral history. I had reconstructed Fawcett’s youth and training at the RGS and his last expedition. Yet there were gaps in the narrative that still haunted me. I had often heard about biographers who became consumed by their subjects, who, after years of investigating their lives, of trying to follow their every step and inhabit their world completely, were driven into fits of rage and despair, because, at some level, the people were unknowable. Aspects of their characters, parts of their stories, remained impenetrable. I wondered what had happened to Fawcett and his com panions after the Kalapalos saw their campfire go out. I wondered if the explorers had been killed by Indians and, if so, which ones. I wondered if Jack had reached a point when he began to question his father, and whether Fawcett himself, perhaps seeing his son dying, had asked, “What have I done?” And I wondered, most of all, whether there really was a Z. Was it, as Brian Fawcett feared, just a concoction of his father’s imagination, or perhaps of all our imaginations? The finished story of Fawcett seemed to reside eternally beyond the horizon: a hidden metrop olis of words and paragraphs, my own Z. As Cummins, channeling Fawcett, put it, “My story is lost. But it is a human soul’s vanity to endeavor to disinter it and convey it to the world.”

The logical thing was to let go and return home. But there was one last person, I thought, who might know something more: Michael Heckenberger, the archaeologist from the University of Florida whom James Petersen had recommended I get in touch with. During our brief phone conversation, Heckenberger had told me that he would be willing to meet me in the Kuikuro village, which was north of the Kalapalo settlement. I had heard rumors from other anthropologists that Heckenberger had spent so much time in the Xingu that he had been adopted by the Kuikuro chief and had his own hut in the village. If anyone might have picked up some fragmentary evidence or legend regarding Fawcett’s final days, it would be him. And so I decided to press on, even though Brian Fawcett had warned others to stop “throwing away their lives for a mirage.”

When I told Paolo, he gave me a quizzical look-it meant heading to the very place where James Lynch and his men had been kidnapped in 1996. Perhaps out of duty or resignation, Paolo said, “As you wish,” and began to load our equipment in the Kalapalos’ aluminum canoe. With Va-juvi serving as our guide, we set out along the Kuluene River. It had rained most of the night before, and the river spilled into the surrounding forest. Usually, Paolo and I talked animatedly about our quest, but now we simply sat in silence.

After several hours, the boat approached an embankment where a young Indian boy was fishing. Vajuvi steered the boat toward him and turned off the engine as the bow slid onto the shore.

“Are we here?” I asked Vajuvi.

“The village is inland,” he said. “You’ll have to walk from here.”

Paolo and I unloaded our bags and our boxes of food, and said goodbye to Vajuvi. We watched as his boat disappeared behind a bend in the river. There was too much baggage for us to carry, and Paolo asked the boy if he could borrow his bicycle, which was propped against a tree. The boy agreed, and Paolo told me to wait while he went to find help. As he rode away, I sat under a buriti tree and observed the boy casting his line and pulling it in.

An hour passed without anyone from the village appearing. I stood and stared down the path-there was only a trail of mud surrounded by wild grass and bushes. It was past noon when four boys showed up on bicycles. They strapped the cargo on the backs of their bicycles, but they had no room for a large cardboard box, which weighed about forty pounds, or for my computer bag, and so I carried them myself. In a mixture of Portuguese, Kuikuro, and pantomime, the boys explained that they would meet me in the village, waved goodbye, and vanished down the path on their rickety bikes.

With the box resting on one shoulder and the bag in my hand, I followed on foot, alone. The path wound through a partially submerged mangrove forest. I wondered whether I should remove my shoes, but I had no place to carry them, so I left them on, my ankles sinking in the mud. The vestiges of the path soon disappeared underwater. I was unsure which way to go, and I veered to the right, where I thought I saw some trampled grass. I walked for an hour, and there was still no sight of anyone. The box on my shoulder had grown heavier, as had the bag for my laptop, which, among the mangroves, seemed like an absurdity of modern travel. I thought about leaving them behind, but there was no dry spot to be found.

Occasionally, I slipped in the mud, falling to my knees in the water. Thorny reeds tore the skin on my arms and legs, causing trickles of blood. I yelled out Paolo’s name, but there was no response. Exhausted, I found a grassy knoll that was only a few inches below the waterline, and sat down. My pants filled with water as I listened to the frogs. The sun burned my face and hands, and I wiped muddy water on myself in a vain attempt to cool down. It was then that I removed from my pocket the map of the Xingu on which Paolo and I had sketched our route. The Z in the middle suddenly seemed ludicrous, and I began to curse Fawcett. I cursed him for Jack and Raleigh. I cursed him for Murray and Rattin and Winton. And I cursed him for myself.

After a while, I stood again and tried to find the correct path. I walked and walked; in one spot, the water rose to my waist, and I lifted the bag and the box onto my head. Each time I thought that I had reached the end of the mangrove forest, a new swath opened up before me-large patches of tall, damp reeds clouded with piums and mosquitoes, which ate into me.

I was slapping a mosquito on my neck when I heard a noise in the distance. I stopped but didn’t see anything. As I took another step, the noise grew louder. I called out once more for Paolo.

Then I heard it again-a strange cackle, almost like laughter. A dark object darted in the tall grass, and another, and another. They were coming closer. “Who’s there?” I asked in Portuguese.

Another sound reverberated behind me and I spun around: the grass was rustling, even though there was no wind. I walked faster, stumbling, trying to push through the reeds. The water deepened and widened until it resembled a lake. I was looking dumbfounded at the shore, some two hundred yards ahead, when I noticed, tucked in a bush, an aluminum canoe. Though there was no paddle, I rested the box and my bag in it and climbed in, short of breath. Then I heard the noise again and bolted upright. Out of the tall reeds burst dozens of naked children. They seized the edges of the canoe and began to swim me across the lake, screaming with laughter the entire way. When we reached the shore again, I stumbled out of the canoe, and the children followed me up a path. We had reached the Kuikuro village.

Paolo was sitting in the shade of the nearest hut. “I’m sorry I didn’t go back for you,” he said. “I didn’t think I could make it.” His vest was draped around his neck, and he was sipping water from a bowl. He handed the bowl to me, and though the water hadn’t been boiled, I drank it greedily, letting it spill around my neck.

“Now you have some kind of real picture in your mind of what it was like for Fawcett,” he said. “Now we go home, no?”

Before I could reply, a Kuikuro man came and told us to follow him. I paused for a moment uncertainly, then walked with him across the dusty central plaza, which was some two hundred and fifty yards in diameter- the largest one, I was told, in the Xingu. Two fires had recently swept through the huts along the plaza’s perimeter, the flames leaping from one thatched roof to the next, leaving much of the settlement in ashes. The Kuikuro man paused outside one of the surviving homes and told us to enter. Near the door, I could see two magnificent clay sculptures-one of a frog, the other of a jaguar. I was admiring them when an enormous man stepped out of the shadows. He was built like Tamakafi, a mythical Xin-guano fighter who, according to legend, had a colossal body, his arms as thick as thighs, his legs as big as a chest. The man wore only a thin bathing suit, and he had a bowl haircut that somehow made his stern face seem even more imposing.

“I am Afukak?,” he said, in a surprisingly soft, measured voice. It was clear that he was the chief. He offered Paolo and me lunch-a bowl of fish and rice-which his two wives, who were sisters, served us. He seemed interested in the outside world and asked me many questions about New York, about the skyscrapers and restaurants.

As we spoke, a sweet serenading sound filtered into the hut. I turned to the door as a group of women dancers and men with bamboo flutes entered. The men, who were naked, had covered their bodies with elaborate painted images of fish and tortoises and anacondas, the shapes weaving along their arms and legs, the orange and yellow and red colors gleaming with sweat. Around the eyes of most of them were black circles of paint, which resembled masks at a costume party. Their heads were topped with large, colorful feathers.

Afukak? and Paolo and I stood as the group crowded into the hut. The men stepped forward twice, then back, then forward again, all the time blowing their flutes, some of which were ten feet long-beautiful pieces of bamboo that released humming tones, like wind catching an open bottle top. Several young girls with long black hair danced alongside the men, their arms slung over the shoulders of the person in front of them, forming a chain; they, too, were naked, except for strings of snail shells around their necks and a bark-cloth triangle, or uluri, that covered their pubic area. Some of the pubescent girls had recently been held in seclusion, and their bodies were paler than those of the men. Their necklaces rattled as they stamped their feet, adding to the insistent rhythm of the music. The group circled us for several minutes, then ducked under the doorway and disappeared into the plaza, the sound of the flutes fading as the musicians and the dancers entered the next hut.

I asked Afukak? about the ritual, and he said that it was a festival for fish spirits. “It is a way to commune with the spirits,” he said. “We have hundreds of ceremonies-all beautiful.”

After a while, I mentioned Fawcett. Afukak? echoed almost precisely what the Kalapalo chief had told me. “The fierce Indians must have killed them,” he said. Indeed, it seemed likely that one of the more warlike tribes in the region-most likely the Suy?s, as Aloique had suggested, or the Kayap?s or the Xavante-had slaughtered the party; it was improbable that all three Englishmen would have starved to death, given Fawcett’s talent for surviving in the jungle for long periods. But that was as far as the evidence led me, and I felt a sudden resignation. “Only the forest knows all,” Paolo said.

While we were talking, a curious figure appeared. His skin was white, although parts of it had been scalded red from the sun, and he had scruffy blond hair. He wore baggy shorts and no shirt and carried a machete. It was Michael Heckenberger. “So you made it,” he said with a smile, looking at my drenched, dirty clothes.

It was true what I had been told: he had been adopted by Afukak?, who had built him a hut right next to his own home. Heckenberger said that he had been doing research here on and off for the last thirteen years. During that time, he had battled everything from malaria to virulent bac teria that made his skin peel off. His body was also once invaded by maggots, like Murray’s. “It was kind of horrifying,” Heckenberger said. Because of the prevailing notion that the Amazon was a counterfeit paradise, most archaeologists had long ago abandoned the remote Xingu. “They assumed it was an archaeological black hole,” Heckenberger said, adding that Fawcett was “the exception.”

Heckenberger knew the story of Fawcett well and had even tried to conduct his own inquiry into his fate. “I’m fascinated by him and what he did in that time period,” Heckenberger said. “He was one of these larger-than-life figures. Anyone who would jump in a canoe or march in here at a time when you know some of the Indians are going to try to—” He stopped in mid-sentence, as if contemplating the consequences.

He said that Fawcett was easy to dismiss as “a crank;” he lacked the tools and the discipline of a modern archaeologist, and he never questioned the shibboleth that any lost city in the Amazon had to have European origins. But even though Fawcett was an amateur, he went on, he was able to see things more clearly than many professional scholars.

“I want to show you something,” Heckenberger said at one point.

Holding his machete in front of him, he led Paolo, Afukak?, and me into the forest, cutting away tendrils from trees, which shot upward, fighting for the glow of the sun. After walking for a mile or so, we reached an area where the forest thinned. Heckenberger pointed to the ground with his machete. “See how the land dips?” he asked.

Indeed, the ground seemed to slope downward for a long stretch, then tilt upward again, as if someone had carved out an enormous ditch.

“It’s a moat,” Heckenberger said.

“What do you mean, a moat?”

“A moat. A defensive ditch.” He added, “From nearly nine hundred years ago.”

Paolo and I tried to follow the moat’s contours, which curved in a nearly perfect circle through the woods. Heckenberger said that the moat had originally measured between a dozen and sixteen feet deep, and about thirty feet wide. It was nearly a mile in diameter. I thought of the “long, deep ditches” that the spirit Fitsi-fitsi was said to have built around settlements. “The Kuikuros knew they existed, but they didn’t realize that their own ancestors had built them,” Heckenberger said.

Afukak?, who had helped with the excavation, said, “We thought they were made by the spirits.”

Heckenberger walked over to a rectangular hole in the ground, where he had excavated part of the moat. Paolo and I peered over the edge with the chief. The exposed earth, in contrast to other parts of the forest, was dark, almost black. Using radiocarbon dating, Heckenberger had dated the trench to about A.D. 1200. He pointed the tip of his machete to the bottom of the hole, where there seemed to be a ditch within the ditch. “That’s where they put the palisade wall,” he said.

“A wall?” I asked.

Heckenberger smiled and went on, “All around the moat, you can see these funnel shapes, equally spread apart. There are only two explanations. Either they had traps at the bottom or they had something sticking into them, like tree trunks.”

He said that the concept of traps for invading enemies to fall into was unlikely, since the people the moat was supposed to be protecting would have been in peril themselves. What’s more, he said, when he examined the moats with Afukak?, the chief told him a legend about a Kuikuro who had escaped from another village by leaping over “a great palisade wall and ditch.”

Still, none of it seemed to make sense. Why would anyone build a moat and a stockade wall in the middle of the wilderness? “There’s nothing here,” I said.

Heckenberger didn’t respond; instead, he bent down and rooted through the dirt, picking up a piece of hardened clay with grooves along the edges. He held it up to the light. “Broken pottery,” he said. “It’s everywhere.”

As I looked at other shards on the ground, I thought of how Fawcett had insisted that on certain high areas in the Amazon “very little scratching will produce an abundance” of ancient pottery.

Heckenberger said that we were standing in the middle of a vast ancient settlement.

“Poor Fawcett-he was so close,” Paolo said.

The settlement was in the very region where Fawcett believed it would be. But it was understandable why he might not have been able to see it, Heckenberger went on. “There isn’t a lot of stone in the jungle, and most of the settlement was built with organic materials-wood and palms and earth mounds-which decompose,” he said. “But once you begin to map out the area and excavate it you are blown away by what you see.”

He began walking once more through the forest, pointing out what were, clearly, the remains of a massive man-made landscape. There was not just one moat but three, arranged in concentric circles. There was a giant circular plaza where the vegetation had a different character from that of the rest of the forest, because it had once been swept clean. And there had been a sprawling neighborhood of dwellings, as evidenced by even denser black soil, which had been enriched by decomposed garbage and human waste.

As we walked around, I noticed an embankment that extended into the forest in a straight line. Heckenberger said that it was a road curb.

“They had roads, too?” I asked.

“Roads. Causeways. Canals.” Heckenberger said that some roads had been nearly a hundred and fifty feet wide. “We even found a place where the road ends at one side of a river in a kind of ascending ramp and then continues on the other side with a descending ramp. Which can only mean one thing: there had to have been some kind of wooden bridge connecting them, over an area that was a half mile long.”

They were the very same kinds of dreamlike causeways and settlements that the Spanish conquistadores had spoken of when they visited the Amazon, the ones in which Fawcett had so fervently believed and which twentieth-century scientists had dismissed as myths. I asked Heckenberger where the roads led, and he said that they extended to other, equally complex sites. “I just took you to the closest one,” he said.

Altogether, he had uncovered twenty pre-Columbian settlements in the Xingu, which had been occupied roughly between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1600. The settlements were about two to three miles apart and were connected by roads. More astounding, the plazas were laid out along cardinal points, from east to west, and the roads were positioned at the same geometric angles. (Fawcett said that Indians had told him legends that described “many streets set at right angles to one another.”)

Borrowing my notebook, Heckenberger began to sketch a huge circle, then another and another. These were the plazas and the villages, he said. He then drew rings around them, which he said were the moats. Finally, he added several parallel lines that jutted out from each of the settlements in precise angles-the roads, bridges, and causeways. Each form seemed to fit into an elaborate whole, like an abstract painting whose elements cohere only at a distance. “Once my team and I started to map everything out, we discovered that nothing was done by accident,” Heckenberger said. “All these settlements were laid out with a complicated plan, with a sense of engineering and mathematics that rivaled anything that was happening in much of Europe at the time.”

Heckenberger said that before Western diseases devastated the population, each cluster of settlements contained anywhere from two thousand to five thousand people, which means that the larger community was the size of many medieval European cities. “These people had a cultural aesthetic of monumentality,” he said. “They liked to have beautiful roads and plazas and bridges. Their monuments were not pyramids, which is why they were so hard to find; they were horizontal features. But they’re no less extraordinary.”

Heckenberger told me that he had just published his research, in a book called The Ecology of Power. Susanna Hecht, a geographer at UCLA’s School of Public Affairs, called Heckenberger’s findings “extraordinary.” Other archaeologists and geographers later described them to me as “monumental,” “transformative,” and “ earth-shattering.” Heckenberger has helped to upend the view of the Amazon as a counterfeit paradise that could never sustain what Fawcett had envisioned: a prosperous, glorious civilization.

Other scientists, I discovered, were contributing to this revolution in archaeology, which challenges virtually everything that was once believed about the Americas before Columbus. These archaeologists are often aided by gadgets that surpass anything Dr. Rice could have imagined. They include ground-penetrating radar, satellite imagery to map sites, and remote sensors that can detect magnetic fields in the soil to pinpoint buried artifacts. Anna Roosevelt, a great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt’s who is an archaeologist at the University of Illinois, has excavated a cave near Santar?m, in the Brazilian Amazon, that was filled with rock paintings-renditions of animal and human figures similar to those that Fawcett had described seeing in various parts of the Amazon and that bolstered his theory of Z. Buried in the cave were remains of a settlement at least ten thousand years old-about twice as old as scientists had estimated the human presence in the Amazon. Indeed, the settlement is so ancient that it has cast doubt on the long-held theory of how the Americas were first populated. For years, archaeologists believed that the earliest American inhabitants were the Clovis-named for the spear points found in Clovis, New Mexico. It was thought that these big-game hunters had crossed the Bering Strait from Asia at the end of the Ice Age and settled in North America around eleven thousand years ago and then gradually migrated down to Central and South America. The Amazon settlement, however, may be as old as the first undisputed Clovis settlement in North America. Moreover, according to Roosevelt, the telltale signs of the Clovis culture-such as spears with distinctly fluted rock points-were not present in the Amazon cave. Some archaeologists now believe that there may have been a people that preceded the Clovis. Others, like Roosevelt, think that the same people from Asia simultaneously radiated throughout the Americas and developed their own distinct cultures.

In the cave and at a nearby riverbank settlement, Roosevelt made another astonishing discovery: seventy-five-hundred-year-old pottery, which predates by more than two thousand years the earliest pottery found in the Andes or Mesoamerica. This means that the Amazon may have been the earliest ceramic-producing region in all the Americas, and that, as Fawcett radically argued, the region was possibly even a wellspring of civ ilization throughout South America-that an advanced culture had spread outward, rather than vice versa.

Using aerial photography and satellite imaging, scientists have also begun to find enormous man-made earth mounds often connected by causeways across the Amazon-in particular in the Bolivian floodplains where Fawcett first found his shards of pottery and reported that “wherever there are ‘alturas,’ that is high ground above the plains,… there are artifacts.” Clark Erickson, an anthropologist from the University of Pennsylvania who has studied these earthworks in Bolivia, told me that the mounds allowed the Indians to continue farming during seasonal floods and to avoid the leaching process that can deprive the soil of nutrients. To create them, he said, required extraordinary labor and engineering: tons of soil had to be transported, the course of rivers altered, canals excavated, and interconnecting roadways and settlements built. In many ways, he said, the mounds “rival the Egyptian pyramids.”

Perhaps most startling is evidence that Indians transformed the landscape even where it was a counterfeit paradise-that is to say, where the soil was too infertile to sustain a large population. Scientists have uncovered throughout the jungle large stretches of terra preta do Indio, or “Indian black earth”: soil that has been enriched with organic human waste and charcoal from fires, so that it is made exceptionally fertile. It is not clear if Indian black earth was an accidental by-product of human inhabitation or, as some scientists think, was created by design-by a careful and system atic “charring” of the soil with smoldering fires, like the Kayap?s’ practice in the Xingu. In either case, many Amazonian tribes appear to have exploited this rich soil to grow crops where agriculture was once thought inconceivable. Scientists have uncovered so much black earth from ancient settlements in the Amazon that they now believe the rain forest may have sustained millions of people. And for the first time scholars are reevaluating the El Dorado chronicles that Fawcett used to piece together his theory of Z. As Roosevelt put it, what Carvajal described was without question “no mirage.” Scientists have admittedly not found evidence of the fantastical gold that the conquistadores had dreamed of. But the anthro pologist Neil Whitehead says, “With some caveats, El Dorado really did exist.”

Heckenberger told me that scientists were just beginning the process of understanding this ancient world-and, like the theory of who first populated the Americas, all the traditional paradigms had to be reevalu-ated. In 2006, evidence even emerged that, in some parts of the Amazon, Indians built with stone. Archaeologists with the Amapa Institute of Scientific and Technological Research uncovered, in the northern Brazilian Amazon, an astronomical observatory tower made of huge granite rocks: each one weighed several tons, and some were nearly ten feet tall. The ruins, believed to be anywhere from five hundred to two thousand years old, have been called “the Stonehenge of the Amazon.”

“Anthropologists,” Heckenberger said, “made the mistake of coming into the Amazon in the twentieth century and seeing only small tribes and saying, ‘Well, that’s all there is.’ The problem is that, by then, many Indian populations had already been wiped out by what was essentially a holocaust from European contact. That’s why the first Europeans in the Amazon described such massive settlements that, later, no one could ever find.”

As we walked back into the Kuikuro village, Heckenberger stopped at the edge of the plaza and told me to examine it closely. He said that the civilization that had built the giant settlements had nearly been annihilated. Yet a small number of descendants had survived, and we were no doubt among them. For a thousand years, he said, the Xinguanos had maintained artistic and cultural traditions from this highly advanced, highly structured civilization. He said, for instance, that the present-day Kuikuro village was still organized along east and west cardinal points and its paths were aligned at right angles, though its residents no longer knew why this was the preferred pattern. Heckenberger added that he had taken a piece of pottery from the ruins and shown it to a local maker of ceramics. It was so similar to present-day pottery, with its painted exterior and reddish clay, that the potter insisted it had been made recently.

As Paolo and I headed toward the chief’s house, Heckenberger picked up a contemporary ceramic pot and ran his hand along the edge, where there were grooves. “They’re from boiling the toxins out of manioc,” he said. He had detected the same feature in the ancient pots. “That means that a thousand years ago people in this civilization had the same staple of diet,” he said. He began to go through the house, finding parallels between the ancient civilization and its remnants today: the clay statues, the thatched walls and roofs, the cotton hammocks. “To tell you the honest-to-God truth, I don’t think there is anywhere in the world where there isn’t written history where the continuity is so clear as right here,” Heckenberger said.

Some of the musicians and dancers were circling through the plaza, and Heckenberger said that everywhere in the Kuikuro village “you can see the past in the present.” I began to picture the flutists and dancers in one of the old plazas. I pictured them living in mound-shaped two-story houses, the houses not scattered but in endless rows, where women wove hammocks and baked with manioc flour and where teenage boys and girls were held in seclusion as they learned the rites of their ancestors. I pictured the dancers and singers crossing moats and passing through tall palisade fences, moving from one village to the next along wide boulevards and bridges and causeways.

The musicians were coming closer to us, and Heckenberger said something about the flutes, but I could no longer hear his voice over the sounds. For a moment, I could see this vanished world as if it were right in front of me. Z.


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