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Percy Fawcett

Percy FawcettBiography, British explorer, anthropologist and archaeologist

British explorer, anthropologist and archaeologist
Percy Fawcett
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro British explorer, anthropologist and archaeologist
A.K.A. Percival Harrison Fawcett
Was Explorer Anthropologist Archaeologist Writer
From United Kingdom
Type Literature Social science
Gender male
Birth 18 August 1867, Torquay
Death Mato Grosso
Star sign LeoLeo
The details


Lt. Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett (18 August 1867 – in or after 1925) was a British artillery officer, archaeologist and explorer of South America. Along with his eldest son, Fawcett disappeared during 1925 during an expedition to find "Z" – his name for an ancient lost city, which he and others believed to exist and to be the remains of El Dorado, in the jungles of Brazil.


Early life

Percy Fawcett was born on 18 August 1867 in Torquay, Devon, England, to Edward Boyd Fawcett and Myra Elizabeth (née MacDougall). He received his education at Newton Abbot Proprietary College along with Bertram Fletcher Robinson. Percy Fawcett's India-born father was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). His elder brother Edward Douglas Fawcett (1866–1960) was a mountain climber, Eastern occultist and author of philosophical books and popular adventure novels.

During 1886, Percy received a commission as an officer of the Royal Artillery and he served in Ceylon in Trincomalee, where he also met his future wife. He married Nina Agnes Paterson during January 1901 after having previously ended their engagement. They had two sons, Jack (born 1903) and Brian (1906-1984). He joined the RGS himself during 1901 in order to study surveying and mapmaking. Later, he worked for the British Secret Service in North Africa while pursuing the surveyor's craft. He became friends with authors H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle; the latter used Fawcett's Amazonian field reports as an inspiration for his novel, The Lost World.

Early expeditions

Fawcett's first expedition to South America was during 1906 when at the age of 39 he travelled to Brazil to map a jungle area at the border of Brazil and Bolivia at the behest of the RGS. The Society had been commissioned to map the area as a third party unbiased by local national interests. He arrived in La Paz, Bolivia during June. Whilst on the expedition during 1907, Fawcett claimed to have seen and shot a 62 foot long giant anaconda, for which claim he was ridiculed by scientists. He reported other mysterious animals unknown to zoology, such as a small cat-like dog about the size of a foxhound, which he claimed to have seen twice, or the giant Apazauca spider which was said to have poisoned a number of locals.

Fawcett made seven expeditions between 1906 and 1924. He was mostly amicable with the locals by gifts, patience and courteous behaviour. During 1908, he traced the source of the Rio Verde (Brazil) and during 1910 made a journey to Heath River (on the border between Peru and Bolivia) to find its source. After a 1913 expedition, he supposedly claimed to have seen dogs with double noses. These may have been Double-nosed Andean tiger hounds.

Based on documentary research, Fawcett had by 1914 formulated ideas about a "lost city" he named "Z" somewhere in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. He theorized that a complex civilization once existed in the Amazon region and that isolated ruins may have survived. Fawcett also found a document known as Manuscript 512, written after explorations made in the sertão of the province of Bahia, and housed at the National Library of Rio de Janeiro, it is believed to be by Portuguese bandeirante João da Silva Guimarães (pt), who wrote that during 1753 he'd discovered the ruins of an ancient city that contained arches, a statue, and a temple with hieroglyphics; the city is described in great detail without providing a specific location. This city became a secondary destination for Fawcett, after "Z". See Fawcett's own book "Exploration Fawcett".

At the beginning of World War 1 Fawcett returned to Britain for active service, volunteered for duty in Flanders, and commanded an artillery brigade despite the fact that he was nearly fifty years of age.

After the war Fawcett returned to Brazil to study local wildlife and archaeology. During 1920 he made a solo attempt to search for Z but ended after suffering from a fever and shooting his pack animal.

Final expedition

During 1925, with funding from a London-based group of financiers known as the Glove, Fawcett returned to Brazil with his elder son Jack and Jack's friend, for an exploratory expedition to find "Z". Fawcett left instructions stating that if the expedition did not return, no rescue expedition should be sent lest the rescuers suffer his fate.

Fawcett was a man with years of experience travelling, and had brought equipment such as canned foods, powdered milk, guns, flares, a sextant, and a chronometer. His travel companions were both chosen for their health, ability and loyalty to each other—- his eldest son Jack Fawcett and Jack's long-time friend Raleigh Rimell. Fawcett chose only two companions in order to travel lighter and with less notice to native tribes, as some were hostile towards europeans.

On 20 April 1925 his final expedition departed from Cuiabá. In addition to his two principal companions, Fawcett was accompanied by two Brazilian labourers, two horses, eight mules, and a pair of dogs. The last communication from the expedition was on 29 May 1925, when Fawcett wrote a letter to his wife that he was ready to go into unexplored territory with only Jack and Rimell, which was delivered by a native runner. They were reported to be crossing the Upper Xingu, a southeastern tributary river of the River Amazon. The final letter, written from Dead Horse Camp, gave their location and was generally optimistic.

Many people assumed that local Indians had killed them, as several tribes were nearby at the time: the Kalapalos, the last tribe to have seen them, the Arumás, Suyás, and the Xavantes whose territory they were entering. Both of the younger men were lame and ill when last seen, and there is not any proof they were murdered. It is plausible that they died of natural causes in the Brazilian jungle.

During 1927, a name-plate of Fawcett was found with an Indian tribe. During June 1933, a theodolite compass belonging to Fawcett was found near the Baciary Indians of Mato Grosso by Colonel Aniceto Botelho. However, the name-plate was from Fawcett's expedition five years earlier and had most likely been given as a gift to the chief of that Indian tribe. The compass was proved to have been left behind before he entered the jungle on his final journey.

Posthumous controversy and speculations

Rumours and unverified reports

During the decades ensuing, various groups mounted several rescue expeditions, without success. They heard only various rumours that could not be verified. In addition to reports that Fawcett had been killed by Indians or wild animals, there was a tale that Fawcett had lost his memory and lived out his life as the chief of a tribe of cannibals.

An estimated 100 would-be-rescuers died on several expeditions attempting to discover Fawcett's fate. One of the earliest was commanded by American explorer George Miller Dyott during 1927; he claimed to have found evidence of Fawcett's death by the Aloique Indians, but his story was unconvincing. During 1930-31, Aloha Wanderwell used her seaplane to try to find him. A 1951 expedition unearthed human bones that were found later to be unrelated to Fawcett or his companions.

Villas-Bôas story

Danish explorer Arne Falk-Rønne journeyed to the Mato Grosso during the 1960s. In a 1991 book, he wrote that he learned of Fawcett's fate from Orlando Villas-Bôas, who had heard it from one of Fawcett's murderers. Allegedly, Fawcett and his companions had a mishap on the river and lost most of the gifts they'd brought along for the Indian tribes. Continuing without gifts was a serious breach of protocol; since the expedition members were all more or less seriously ill at the time, the Kalapalo tribe they encountered decided to kill them. The bodies of Jack Fawcett and Raleigh Rimell were thrown into the river; Colonel Fawcett, considered an old man and therefore distinguished, received a proper burial. Falk-Rønne visited the Kalapalo tribe and reported that one of the tribesmen confirmed Villas-Bôas's story about how and why Fawcett had been killed.

Fawcett's bones?

During 1951, Orlando Villas-Bôas, activist for indigenous peoples, supposedly received the actual remaining skeletal bones of Fawcett and had them analysed scientifically. The analysis allegedly confirmed the bones to be Fawcett's, but his son Brian Fawcett (1906–1984) refused to accept this. Villas-Bôas claimed that Brian was too interested in making money from books about his father's disappearance. Later scientific analysis confirmed that the bones were not Fawcett's. As of 1965, the bones reportedly rested in a box in the flat of one of the Villas-Bôas brothers in São Paulo.

During 1998, English explorer Benedict Allen went to talk to the Kalapalo Indians, said by Villas-Bôas to have confessed to having killed the three Fawcett expedition members. An elder of the Kalapalo, Vajuvi, claimed during a filmed BBC interview with Allen that the bones found by Villas-Bôas some 45 years before were not really Fawcett's. Vajuvi also denied that his tribe had had any part in the Fawcetts' disappearance. No conclusive evidence supports either statement.

Russian documentary

During 2003, a Russian documentary movie, "Проклятье золота инков / Экспедиция Перси Фоссета в Амазонку" (The Curse of the Incas' Gold / Expedition of Percy Fawcett to the Amazon), was released as a part of the television series "Тайны века" (Mysteries of the Century). Among other things, the movie emphasizes the recent expedition of Oleg Aliyev to the presumed approximate place of Fawcett's last whereabouts and Aliyev's findings, impressions and presumptions about Fawcett's fate.

Commune in the jungle

On 21 March 2004, the British newspaper The Observer reported that television director Misha Williams, who had studied Fawcett's private papers, believed that Fawcett had not intended to return to Britain but rather meant to found a commune in the jungle based on theosophical principles and the worship of his son Jack. Williams explained his research in some detail in the preface to his play AmaZonia, first performed during April 2004.

Grann's Lost City of Z

During 2005, The New Yorker staff writer David Grann visited the Kalapalo tribe and discovered that it had apparently passed down an oral history about Fawcett, among the first europeans the tribe had ever seen. The oral account said that Fawcett and his party had stayed at their village and then left, heading eastward. The Kalapalos warned Fawcett and his companions not to go that way—- that they would be killed by the "fierce Indians" who occupied that territory—- but that Fawcett insisted on going. The Kalapalos observed smoke from the expedition’s campfire each evening for five days before it disappeared. The Kalapalos said they were sure the fierce Indians had killed them. The article also reports that a monumental civilisation known as Kuhikugu may have actually existed near where Fawcett was looking, as discovered recently by archaeologist Michael Heckenberger and others. Grann's findings are further detailed in his book The Lost City of Z (2009).


  • Fawcett, Percy and Brian Fawcett (1953), Exploration Fawcett, Phoenix Press (2001 reprint), ISBN 1-84212-468-4
  • Fawcett, Percy and Brian Fawcett (1953), Lost Trails, Lost Cities, Funk & Wagnalls ASIN B0007DNCV4
  • Fawcett, Brian (1958), Ruins in the Sky, Hutchinson of London

In popular culture

  • Was the subject of an episode of Digging for the Truth.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle based his Professor Challenger character partly on Fawcett, and stories of the "Lost City of Z" became the basis for his novel The Lost World.
  • A contemporary reviewer of Evelyn Waugh's novel A Handful of Dust suggested he may have derived the plot partly from Fawcett's disappearance. The novel's hero vanishes into the Brazilian jungle and is kept prisoner there.
  • Fawcett has been proposed as a possible inspiration for Indiana Jones, the fictional archaeologist/adventurer. A fictionalised version of Fawcett aids Jones in the novel Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils.)
  • Fawcett was a prototype of Percy Foster, fictional explorer in the Russian-language novel The grave of Tame-Tung. There, Foster and his son became obsessed with riches of Indians and were killed by their former friend Raleigh Rimer (based on Raleigh Rimmel) to prevent pillaging.
  • According to an article in Comics Scene No. 45, Fawcett was the inspiration of Kent Allard, an alter ego of the Shadow.
  • Director Pete Docter named Fawcett as one of the inspirations for the character Charles F. Muntz, the antagonist of the Pixar movie Up.
  • David Grann's The Lost City of Z was optioned by Brad Pitt's Plan B production company and Paramount Pictures. James Gray is directing the film, which stars Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett.
  • The Cruise of the Condor (1933), one of W. E. Johns' "Biggles" stories, is inspired by Fawcett's search for Z.
  • Writers Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child mentioned in their books that Percy Fawcett was a great-great uncle of Aloysius Pendergast on his mother’s side.
  • The plot of the first episode of the television programme Hooten & the Lady was about the search for Fawcett's camp.
  • In Hergé's adventure of Tintin "L'Oreille Cassée", Fawcett is believed to be the model for Ridgewell, an explorer disappeared for ten years who has become as "the white old man" a member of the Arumbaya tribe.
  • Grann, David (2009) The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Doubleday, New York, pages 8 and 95, ISBN 978-0-385-51353-1
  • "The Times". 4 September 1934: 7. 
  • Neither George Lucas nor Steven Spielberg—- co-creators of the successful concept and franchise—- have indicated that any specific individual inspired their character, other than the generic stock heroes popularised in the matinée serials and pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s they admired and wished to modernise, or later exotic-culture adventure moviess such as 1954's Secret of the Incas.
  • "Making Raiders of the Lost Ark". Raiders News. 23 September 2003. Archived from the original (archived web page) on 7 December 2003. Retrieved 14 October 2008. 
  • Rob MacGregor (November 1991). Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils. Bantam Books. ISBN 978-0-553-29035-6. 
  • Larry Orcutt. 2000. Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett

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