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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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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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History
How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
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iStock

Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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