The mysterious disappearance of Percy Fawcett took place in 1925, during a risky expedition where he and two others were searching for an ancient lost city in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
Fawcett was a highly-experienced explorer, and had served in the military. Despite these competencies, Fawcett went missing, and his disappearance has never been solved – leading to a myriad of theories developing.
This article looks at his disappearance. You’ll find a reader’s poll at the end of the article, which we invite you to vote on. This will help us to find out what the overall belief is among our readers as to which theory is the most accurate.
Fawcett was born in 1867, and attended the prestigious Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, London. During his military career, Fawcett reached the rank of Lieutenant. After leaving the military behind, Fawcett changed his focus into exploration.
Fawcett took a special interest in South America – a continent that at the time wasn’t known overly-well by the western world. Due to his various expeditions, Fawcett became well-known in the area, as well as back home.
Over a span of 18 years, Fawcett completed 7 expeditions. During this time, he visited multiple countries in the continent, supposedly met wild animals, discovered new locations, and made good connections with several people.
Fawcett’s past experiences, a manuscript in a museum and other sources of information led Fawcett to believe in the existence of “Z” – a lost city in the Mato Grosso area of the vast amazon region in Brazil.
The lost city would be similar to the Machu Picchu ruins that were discovered in 1911. So-called “lost cities” have been located by many people, with Fawcett hoping to follow suit and find a lost city of his own.
Of course, the Amazon region of Brazil is enormous, and with limited communication methods in 1925, any expedition was seen as dangerous. But with Fawcett’s experience, he was hopeful of navigating to “Z”.
Once the plans of Fawcett had been finalised, he returned to Brazil with his son Jack and a friend named Raleigh Rimell. They set off on 20th April 1925, aiming to find “Z”. They were initially accompanied by two Brazilian labourers, horses, mules and dogs.
Knowing the danger involved, Fawcett, 57 at the time, left clear instructions that no rescue team should be sent for the group if they did not return – as this would surely result in inevitable loss of life.
Fawcett’s group made a strong start. They kept in contact with the outside world, with Fawcett sending a letter to his wife via the Brazilian labourers and their connections.
But after a few weeks, the Brazilian labourers turned back – believing it was too dangerous to continue. It is known that Fawcett and his group marched on.
Fawcett sent a final letter to his wife back with the labourers, who subsequently sent it. The letter suggested Fawcett was confident, and that his team were approaching “unexplored territory”.
Fawcett cautioned that they would no longer be able to send letters, due to where they were heading. Sadly, nothing else was ever heard from them.
As months went by without contact, Fawcett’s family became increasingly worried. After two years without contact, Fawcett’s group were considered to have died.
Despite Fawcett’s wishes being to the contrary, several rescue efforts were made. Many teams set off to look for Fawcett’s group. They hoped to either find the group in “Z”, or save them from whatever predicament they may be in.
Given Fawcett’s relative fame, it was deemed to be an exciting opportunity for many to try and find him. There was no shortage of efforts, but they were never located. Tragically, it is believed that one searcher died in their attempt to find Fawcett’s group.
Some human bones were found during some expeditions, but they were determined to not be belonging to Fawcett or his companions.
A tribe called the Kalapalo came forward to say that they had seen the group exploring without the Brazilian labourers – meaning this would have happened after the final letter contact. The tribe said that the trio looked in a rather bad state; the younger two seemed ill, with Fawcett trying to aid them.
They also said that they had noticed their fires being built each morning and evening. But 5 days after their final sighting, they noticed that no fires were being made anymore. This may suggest that something happened in those 5 days.
Sadly, the sheer vastness of the Amazon rainforest of Brazil meant that finding the trio became almost impossible. Investigators were reluctant to search far, due to the risk of loss of life.
Sadly, despite all the efforts, no trace of Fawcett, his son, or his friend were ever found. Many searches took place in the century after they went missing, albeit with no positive result.
But there have been other developments. In 1951, one of the most well-known aspects of this case happened – which was the search that Brazilian activist Orlando Villas-Boas undertook.
Villas-Boas said that his conversations with tribespeople led him to believe that all three men had been killed by a senior member of the Kalapalo tribe.
While Villas-Boas wasn’t able to provide proof of this, a fellow explorer – Arne Falk-Ronne – backed up Villas-Boas’ account, saying that he had been told by a member of the Kalapalo tribe that they had killed the three men.
Villas-Boas found skeletal bones and claimed that they belonged to Fawcett. However, the bones were analysed, and found to not be those of Fawcett.
Other than the above, the main development in this case has been based on the sheer impact that Fawcett’s life has had. The various expeditions that Fawcett underwent are believed to have been one of the leading inspirations for the Indiana Jones films.
The lost city of “Z” has also garnered significant interest, with many others setting out to try and find it. Many films, TV shows and books based on “Z” have been released.
Among the best-known of these is David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon – which is based on Percy Fawcett. The book eventually spawned a film, further cementing the legacy of Fawcett.
With very limited information as to what happened, we are required to use our imagination to think about what could have happened – along with the low amount of evidence involved.
We take a look at a few different theories:
Theory One: A native tribe killed the group
Many suggest that an aggressive tribe killed the group – potentially in defence. It is known that many tribes lived in and around the areas where the trio were exploring.
The Kalapalo tribe’s account of the event would suggest that they were heading to a dangerous area. If a native tribe who had little contact with the outside world – came across a group of strangers, it would be understandable if they acted in defence and killed them.
As many of these tribes have very limited communication with the outside world – especially in 1925 – they may have buried the bodies in a remote area. This could explain why no bodies have been found.
However, a man named Henry Costin – who accompanied Fawcett on many expeditions – said that Fawcett had good relations with many tribes, making him think this theory wasn’t plausible.
Theory Two: Disorientation, lack of food and death by hunger or exhaustion
A theory that is often put forward is that the group became either disoriented, exhausted, or ran out of food – resulting in the death of the trio.
They were not entirely sure where they were heading to, and it is likely that food sources would’ve got more scarce as the weeks went by. The Kalapalo tribe did state too that the two younger members of the group did look ill.
This might be the most logical answer, given that the expedition would have lasted a long time. As they didn’t have a clear idea where they were going, disorientation would be very likely.
Fawcett had previously attempted to find “Z” on his own in 1920, but he had to turn back after becoming ill. Maybe this time, he and his companions were unable to make it back.
However, Fawcett was highly-experienced, which may lessen the chance of the group losing their bearings or becoming ill. They also had plenty of food and provisions when setting off.
Theory Three: The group found “Z”, and lived there for the rest of their lives
Perhaps the dream scenario is that Fawcett and his companions managed to make it to “Z”, where they may have chosen to live out the rest of their lives.
While it is possible, it is sadly very unlikely. Firstly, the group had families to get back to, loved to explore, and would have enjoyed going back to the United Kingdom to inform others of “Z” – and make a name for themselves.
It is also unlikely that “Z” would be liveable, given that it had presumably been uninhabited for several years. Still, this theory would at least explain why no bodies were ever found.
Given continuous searches for lost cities though, it is questionable how realistic it is for an area like “Z” to go unseen in the century since Fawcett’s group went missing.
Theory Four: Kalapalo Tribe involvement
The Kalapalo tribe were certainly helpful during the investigation – but is it possible that they decided to kill the trio? Maybe they didn’t want their land encroached on?
While this seems unlikely, especially as they already knew Fawcett, it would explain why they weren’t heard from again after the Kalapalo tribe were the last people to certainly meet them.
They may then have tried to cover up their crime by helping out the investigation. But this seems an awful lot of effort. It also isn’t entirely clear why they would do this – but it is an idea.
One prominent explorer that believed this theory was Arne Falk-Ronne, who published a book in the 1990s that suggested Fawcett and his group had lost some gifts intended for some tribes, and that the Kalapalo tribe then decided to kill them. This theory has been doubted by many.
With the above theories in mind, we now invite you to vote on the theory that you believe is most likely in the poll below.
Unfortunately, Fawcett’s group seemed to vanish without trace. Due to the vast nature of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, it is very possible that their remains are somewhere out there.
Fawcett will be remembered for his various expeditions, but sadly for him, answers of what truly happened to him and his group in their final days and weeks are unknown to the world – we will never know how far he and his team made it, and if they did find “Z”.