The enigmatic 512 Manuscript describing an ancient Mediterranean civilization in pre-Hispanic Brazil

The Manuscript 512 / photo public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

Like a Lovecraft tale, the Rare Works section of the National Library of Brazil jealously guards a strange ten-page document baptized with the suggestive name of Manuscript 512.

It narrates an eighteenth-century expedition during which the ruins of an ancient city were discovered that seemed to have developed a classical civilization in the Mediterranean style.

There is a harsh controversy about its veracity but Manuscript 512 was fascinating enough to be of interest to two famous nineteenth-century scholars: Sir Richard Burton and Percy Fawcett.

It all began in 1839, when a naturalist named Manuel Ferreira Lagos found by chance that unusual piece lacking explicit authorship and titled, in the style of the time, Relação histórica de huma oculta, e grande Povoação, antiguissima sem moradores, que se descubrio no anno de 1753 (Historical relationship of an occult and a great settlement, very old without residents, that was discovered in the year 1753.)

Arrival of Diogo Álvares in Bahía (anonymous)/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

Delivered to the Brazilian Historical and Geographic Institute, its official magazine published a copy with a contextual explanation of the 18th century in which it narrated the history of the bandeirantes (adventurers who went into the jungle to hunt slaves or make a fortune) who went out in search of presumed mines found at the beginning of the 16th century by Muribeca; with this nickname was known the descendant of a shipwrecked man welcomed by the Indians called Diogo Alvares Correia, and who refused to confess the exact location of these sites (although other versions give a different identity to Muribeca, as Belchior Dias or his son Roberto).

In that first half of the 19th century Brazil had just become independent from Portugal and, as often happens in these cases, needed a foundation to support the new nation by mixing historical and mythological elements, for that reason the Manuscript 512, as that strange document had been baptized, was given for good. The fact that by then they began to discover ancient pre-Hispanic cities forgotten encouraged to find something similar in Brazilian territory that gave the newborn state shaft as a previous culture, instead of the simple and primitive Amazonian tribes.

In fact, a multitude of legends of this type were circulating, the result of the fantasy of the bandeirantes and the mixture with the stories of palenques and quilombos (settlements of maroon slaves, some of which grew extraordinarily until they became real cities hidden in the jungle, with one of their chiefs self-proclaimed king).

The strange alphabet / photo public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

According to Manuscript 512, which is written as if it were a kind of diary over ten years, an expedition of Portuguese bandeirantes went into the serton (a vast region of northeastern Brazil) in search of the mines of the aforementioned Muribeca. With this objective they had left a few missions centuries ago but they never found anything except some precious stones that did nothing but excite the imagination even more: that Muribeca possessed a fantastic treasure in the mountain range of Itabaiana, that he went down to Salvador de Bahia to sell the gems, that he had been interviewed with Felipe III himself to ask him for a noble title and the king tried to deceive him by ending up executing him, and so on.

The fact is that looking for that Brazilian version of El Dorado, the expedition members came across an old city eaten by the undergrowth that broke everything known by those latitudes: large buildings, paved roads, arches, reliefs, statues… They even saw a canoe with two men of white complexion and dressed in European style who hurriedly fled. The enigmatic text of the manuscript is completed with some curious details, such as the account of having found a bag with gold coins bearing the silhouette of an archer and a crown inscribed, or the reproduction of hieroglyphics copied from various corners of the city in which some see a certain resemblance with Greek and Phoenician letters.

With all this, and bearing in mind the aforementioned juncture of the search for an ancestral identity for Brazil, some expeditions were organized that, following the story, tried to find the fabulous city. The most important was the one that came out in 1840 under Canon Benigno José de Carvalho e Cunha, who after gathering a lot of testimonies from people who had traveled through the region, and employing six years of effort, found absolutely nothing but gossip that accentuated the fantasy tone of the matter, as in the case of references to a dragon that guarded the place.

The priest had not yet returned when in 1848 a soldier named Manoel Rodrigues de Oliveira also left in search of the unknown city and returned with the same negative result. The illusion that had unleashed that story was beginning to crumble.

Richard Francis Burton/Photo: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

A few decades passed and in 1865 Sir Richard Burton, the famous explorer who, together with John Hanning Speke, had led a famous expedition to Central Africa in search of the sources of the Nile, arrived in Brazil; Speke thought he could find them in Lake Victoria and Burton thought he could not. That controversy, which ended with Speke’s death, ostracized Burton, who from then on was only able to hold a few pitiful secondary posts as British consul, first in Fernando Poo (Spanish Guinea) and now in Santos (state of Sao Paulo).

In both destinations he spent more time exploring than in his administrative work and, as expected, his stay in Brazil was spent traveling through the interior. Of course, he learned of Manuscript 512 and probably took advantage of some of those periplos to see if he discovered anything. He did not, but in exchange, his wife translated the document into English and he included the translation in a book he published narrating his passage through Brazil: Explorations of the highlands of Brazil.

However, there was still another Englishman willing to let himself be carried away by the daydreams of Manuscript 512: Percy Harrison Fawcett, a colonel born precisely the year Burton landed in America and who in 1921 organized another expedition through the interior of the country. In fact, Fawcett was not exactly looking for the city described in the manuscript -in fact, his route was not through that northeast region but through the Mato Grosso-, which he called Raposo City, but another that he had baptized as Z, although he did not rule out the possibility that it was the same.

It is not known what source this peculiar adventurer used to search for Z, but he also carried the Manuscript 512 because another British exconsul claimed to have seen a city that corresponded to the description of the document. The expedition, which also included Fawcett’s son and a friend of Fawcett’s, was never heard of again and only recently were some objects that they carried with them found, speculating that they probably died at the hands of the Indians. In any case, their mysterious disappearance has since displaced interest from the city of the manuscript.

Percival Harrison Fawcett/Photo: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

Multiple explanations have been sought for this one: leaving aside the daring hypothesis of the arrival of a ship from one of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations, such as the Phoenician (according to the alphabet of the coins), Hittite (by the Pedra de Ingá, a gigantic stela with engravings that some see as similar to the language of that people) or Roman (the review of the document on triumphal arches), the personal odyssey of João da Silva Guimarães (a soldier who in 1720 found some mines that later turned out to be worthless and stayed to live with the Indians), to that of Antonio Lourenço da Costa (who spent a decade in the region coinciding chronologically with the expedition described by the text) or, more rationally, the fact that in that illuminated eighteenth century archaeology was taking its first and resounding steps, having discovered impressive sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, something later magnified with the appearance of Palenque and other pre-Columbian remains. From history to myth; or vice versa.

Sources: Manuscrito 512 (Diomário Gervásio de Paula Filho) / O Manuscrito 512: a cidade perdida da Bahia (Wagner Ribeiro de Carvalho) / A Cidade Perdida da Bahia: mito e arqueologia no Brasil Império (Johnni Langer) / Wikipedia.

Este artículo también está disponible en español