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Percy Fawcett’s Doomed Search for the Lost City of Z

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Tales of a lost city glutted with gold have been luring treasure hunters into the Amazon for centuries. The myth originated in the 1500s, when newly arrived Spanish conquistadors in South America heard stories of a chieftain so wealthy he dusted his body in powdered gold and washed it off in a lake as an offering to the gods.

Over time, the legend of El Dorado (“the golden one”) morphed from being about a gilded man to a kingdom overflowing with riches. Many European explorers scoured South America looking for the fabled city, including Sir Walter Raleigh, whose son was killed by Spaniards during a fruitless expedition in 1617. After centuries of searching without a nugget of gold to show for it, El Dorado was widely regarded as fiction by the Victorian era—at least until explorer Percy Fawcett showed up.

If there was any explorer alive in the 20th century capable of forging a path through the rainforest to an undiscovered city, it was Percy Fawcett. After a career in the British military, he led a daring series of surveying expeditions in previously uncharted parts of South America. His exploits traversing the Ricardo Franco hills of Bolivia, while surveying that country's boundary with Brazil, even inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World. At some point in these journeys during the early 1910s, Fawcett formed the theory that sparked his most famous expedition—that of a lost city of riches, not called El Dorado, but simply Z.

Victorian experts generally believed that the Amazon was too inhospitable to support civilization—a few tribes scattered throughout the rainforest, sure, but nothing that compared to the cities of Europe. Fawcett’s own experiences led him to believe otherwise. The natives he spoke to convinced him it was possible for large communities to remain isolated in the Amazon for centuries. He studied petroglyphs, gathered ancient shards of pottery, and read accounts from the continent’s first European explorers to gather more support for his ideas. (One particular tome in the National Library of Brazil, written by a Portuguese soldier of fortune, mentioned the ruins of a vast, opulent, and "very ancient city" discovered in 1753.) A complex city had once existed in the Mato Grosso region of western Brazil, Fawcett insisted, and its remnants were just waiting to be found.

By the 1920s, Fawcett had refocused his life around what he called the "Lost City of Z" (also the title of a new movie about him coming out this week). Fawcett knew his search would draw comparisons to doomed missions of the past, but he claimed that this time was different. El Dorado, he said, was an “exaggerated romance,” while Z was a theory based on solid evidence he’d gathered over years. But two trips, in 1920 and 1921, ended with Fawcett returning home in defeat.

Fawcett launched his third and most infamous expedition to find Z in 1925. He secured funding from organizations including the UK's Royal Geographical Society and the U.S. Museum of the American Indian, and in January 1925, he boarded a ship for South America with his son, Jack, and his son’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell, filling out his party.

His trip made international headlines. “Fawcett Expedition […] to Penetrate Land Whence None Returned,” one news bulletin announced. On his departure he challenged his doubters, shouting to journalists on the pier from his ship, “We shall return, and we shall bring back what we seek!” But before he left he shared some practical words of warning—if he didn’t return, he asked that no search parties come after him, lest they suffer the same fate.

Fawcett in 1911. Image credit: Daniel Candido via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Fawcett's team and their two native guides ventured into the rainforest on April 20, 1925, three months after leaving port in New Jersey. As they trekked deep into the Amazon, they endured stifling heat, blood-sucking parasites, and close calls with unfriendly natives. Despite the harsh conditions, Fawcett and his crew were able to cover 10 to 15 miles of ground a day. By May 29 they had reached Dead Horse Camp, the location where Fawcett had shot his exhausted horse and turned around at the end of a failed expedition years earlier. What lay ahead was unknown territory, and Fawcett and his two companions would be continuing alone, without their guides. In a letter he sent back with them, he wrote to his wife: “You need have no fear of any failure.” That was the last anyone heard of Fawcett or his company.

After two years passed without further correspondence from Fawcett’s team, people began to fear the worst. The Royal Geographical Society’s George Miller Dyott organized the first official expedition to find the men, disregarding Fawcett’s earlier instructions to stay away. Dyott called it quits after concluding that surviving in such a cruel environment for that amount of time would have been impossible. But when Dyott returned to civilization without a body to show, the lack of evidence confirming Fawcett’s death opened the floodgates for more search parties to follow. Over 90 years, more than 100 would-be-rescuers died trying to find him.

Several theories have emerged surrounding the expedition’s outcome. Some said Fawcett succumbed to predators or malaria, while Popular Science speculated in 1928 that he was living as a god among native tribesmen. Of the dozen-odd groups to go after Fawcett, a trip initiated by New Yorker writer David Grann in 2005 may have come the closest to uncovering any answers. While retracing Fawcett’s route through the Amazon, Grann spoke with Kalapalo Indians, who shared a story passed down by their ancestors. Decades ago, Fawcett and his group had stayed with the tribe. Before they continued on their way, the Kalapalos had warned them to avoid the hostile Indians that lived in the territory ahead. Fawcett ignored the advice, and as Grann later explained, the Kalapalos “watched his party head off and saw their fires at first at night but then they stopped."

And what of Fawcett’s lost city? His fervent belief in a lost Amazonian civilization doesn’t seem as unlikely today as it did a century ago. Archaeologist Michael Heckenberger recently discovered the remains of over 20 pre-Columbian communities, some as large as medieval European cities, in the same area that Fawcett hoped to reach. Whether or not Fawcett lived to lay eyes on the ruins is another mystery that, unfortunately, belongs to the jungle.

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This Just In
Pablo Neruda's Death Wasn't Caused by Cancer, Experts Conclude
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MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

Pablo Neruda—whose real name was Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto—died on September 23, 1973, less than two years after he was awarded the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature. The official cause of death was recorded as cancer cachexia, or wasting syndrome, from prostate cancer. But while Neruda did have cancer, new tests on his remains indicate that the left-leaning Chilean politician and poet didn’t actually succumb to the disease, according to BBC News.

It’s still unclear what, exactly, caused Neruda’s demise. But in a recent press conference, a team of 16 international experts announced that they were "100 percent convinced" that the author's death certificate "does not reflect the reality of the death,” as quoted by the BBC.

Neruda died in 1973 at the age of 69, less than two weeks after a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet ousted the Marxist government of President Salvador Allende. Neruda, a Communist, was a former diplomat and senator, and a friend of the deposed politician.

In 2011, Manuel Araya, Neruda’s chauffeur, claimed that the poet had told him that Pinochet’s men had injected poison into his stomach as he was hospitalized during his final days, Nature reports. The Communist Party of Chile filed a criminal lawsuit, and Neruda’s remains were exhumed in 2013 and later reburied in 2016, according to the BBC.

Many of Neruda’s relatives and friends were reportedly skeptical of Araya’s account, as was the Pablo Neruda Foundation, according to The New York Times. But after samples of Neruda’s remains were analyzed by forensic genetics laboratories in four nations, Chile’s government acknowledged that it was “highly probable” that his official cause of death was incorrect.

And now, the team of scientists has unanimously ruled out cachexia as having caused Neruda’s death. “There was no indication of cachexia,” said Dr. Niels Morling, a forensic medical expert from the University of Copenhagen, as quoted by The Guardian. Neruda “was an obese man at the time of death. All other circumstances in his last phase of life pointed to some kind of infection.”

The investigating team says that their analysis yielded what might be lab-cultivated bacteria, although it could have also originated from the burial site or been produced during the body's decomposition process. Test results will be available within a year, they say.

[h/t BBC News]

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Art
Winston Churchill’s Final Painting Is Going to Auction for the First Time
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Fox Photos, Stringer, Getty Images

While serving as an influential statesman and writing Nobel Prize-winning histories, Winston Churchill also found time to paint. Now, The Telegraph reports that the final painting the former British prime minister ever committed to canvas is heading to the auction block.

The piece, titled The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell, depicts the pond at Churchill’s home in Kent, England, which has been characterized as his “most special place in the world.” A few years after the painting was finished, he passed away in 1965 and it fell into the possession of his former bodyguard, Sergeant Edmund Murray. Murray worked for Churchill for the 15 years leading up to the prime minister's death and often assisted with his painting by setting up his easel and brushes. After decades in the Murray family, Churchill’s final painting will be offered to the public for the first time at Sotheby’s Modern & Post-War British Art sale next month.

Winston Churchill's final painting.
Sotheby's

Churchill took up painting in the 1920s and produced an estimated 544 artworks in his lifetime. He never sold any of his art, but The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell shows that the hobby was an essential part of his life right up until his last years.

When the never-before-exhibited piece goes up for sale on November 21, it’s expected to attract bids up to $105,500. It won’t mark the first time an original Winston Churchill painting has made waves at auction: In a 2014, a 1932 depiction of his same beloved goldfish pond sold for over $2.3 million.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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