Tuesday, January 12, 2010
El Dorado by David Grann
Heckenberger knew the story of Fawcett well and and even tried to conduct his own inquiry into his fate. "I'm fascinated by him and what he did in that time period (1908-27)," Heckenberger said. "He was one of those larger than-life-figures. Anyone that would jump into 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 archeologist, and he never questioned the 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, Afukaki, and me into the forest, cutting away tendrils from the trees, which shot upward, fighting for the glow of the sun. After walking a mile or so, we reached an area where the forest thinned. Heckenberber pointed to the ground with his machete. "See how the land dips?", he asked...
"It's a moat."
"What do you mean, a moat?"
"A moat. A defensive ditch, from nearly nine hundred years ago."
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 settlement.
"Poor Fawcett- he was so close," Paolo said. The settlement was in the very region where Fawcett believed it would be.
Hockenberger began walking once more through the forest, pointing out what were, clearly, the remains of a massive man-made landscape. There was not one moat but three, arranged in concentric circles. There was a giant circular plaza where the vegetation had a different character, because it had been once 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. Roads. Causeways. Canals. "We even found a place where the road ends at one side of the river in a kind of ascending ramp and then continues on the other side with a descending ramp: there must have been some kind of wooden bridge connecting them, over an area that was a half a mile long."
Altogether, he had uncovered twenty pre-Columbian settlements in 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 astonishing, the plazas were laid out along cardinal points, from east to west, and the roads were positioned at the same geometric angles. 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 communities were the size of many medieval 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. He has helped to upend the view of the Amazon as a counterfeit paradise that could never sustain what the explorer Percy Harrison Fawsett had envisioned: a prosperous, glorious civilization. Other scientists are contributing to this revolution in archeology, which challenges virtually everything that was once believed about the Americas before Columbus. The are aided by ground-penetrating radar, satellite imagery and remote sensors that can detect magnetic fields in soil to pinpoint buried artifacts. Anna Roosevelt, an archeologist at the University of Illinois, has excavated a cave near Santarem, 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 had bolstered his theory of Z. Buried in the cave were remains of a settlement at least ten thousand years old, casting doubt on the long-held theory of how the Americas were first populated.
Scientists have uncovered so much terra preta do Indio- Indian black earth- soil that has been enriched with organic human waste and charcoal from fires, 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. What the Spaniard Carvajal described was without question "no mirage." Scientists have not found evidence of the fantastical gold that the conquistadores had dreamed of. But the anthropologist Neil Whitehead says, "With some caveats, El Dorado really did exist."