David Grann’s The Lost City of Z & Kuhikugu

I’ve been on a nonfiction kick lately thanks to David Grann’s earlier work, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes (highly recommended), which put me in the mood for historical true crime and, let’s face it, serial killers. So I was happy to find his second book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. While not about serial killers, it’s a work on a historical mystery: the disappearance of Lt Col Percy Fawcett and the supposed missing civilisation of El Dorado (or whatever you choose to call it; Grann calls it Z).

Things I learned from this book: The Amazon is fucking terrifying. The ways nearly everyone in this narrative died is horrific, and some of the descriptions made me want to cry and/or drown myself in the bath.

It’s interesting how the myth of Z came about, but what really interests me is the lost city Grann points to in the end which he suggests may be the reason the myth was perpetuated: Kuhikugu.

Kuhikugu is a former settlement in the Amazon that may have been inhabited as recently as 400 years ago. Michael J. Heckenberger, one of the archaeologists who discovered the site, says it may be up to 28 villages of 25,000 to 50,000 people. Satellite images reveal wooden palisades, large plazas, roads, houses, roads, bridges, and canals. According to Heckenberger, the region was once full of wide, winding roads and canals, surrounded by farms and article ponds for fish farming. In other words, it was an urban settlement inhabited for 1,000 to 1,500 years.

Grann and Heckenberger suggest that because so many people died during European conquests, settlements such as this became ‘lost.’ That explanation seems too easy, but it’s not as if it hasn’t happened before — see Ankor Wat, for example. But one thing that almost makes the Kuhikugu discovery seem out of place in Grann’s story is that Europeans were dead set on believing Z was built by Europeans who had found the New World. Obviously, this was a racist, imperialist view brought on by the idea that Europeans were ‘enlightened’ and that the poor brown people of other regions of the world couldn’t possibly have the intelligence/skills to have their own versions of civilisation (see: the rise of Mormonism). But Grann goes on at length giving us all the different theories for what Z could have been, including Atlantis, that Kuhikugu almost seems tacked on at the end, without much critical analysis. He doesn’t seem to make the connection between the idea that the aboriginal people who were trying to remember Kuhikugu by passing along its memory may have eventually told these stories to Spanish settlers, who applied their own ideas of greatness and wealth (not to mention their racist views that aboriginals couldn’t possibly have built something so grand) and changed the myth of Kuhikugu into Z.

Either way, this is a really entertaining look at Amazon exploration in the modern era.

Sources: Scientific American, Science Magazine

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