In 1939, with much of the world’s attention focused on escalating tensions in Europe, a privately funded, multinational expedition departed for the jungles of South America. Their stated objective: to explore one of the last blank spots left on the map.
In the dense jungles of the Guiana Highlands, obscured by clouds, vast plateaus loom over the surrounding land. To the Pemon, the indigenous people who inhabit the Gran Sabana, these rock towers are known as “tepuis”: the houses of the gods. If a lost world existed on Earth, surely it would be here.
The PROJECT: TEPUI expedition, comprising approximately twenty-five scientists plus their accompanying guides, set out in search of one of these lost worlds.
What they have found has remained secret… until now.
The top illustration for this post is from the author’s Artstation page.
The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first published in 1912, remains the author’s best-known work outside his Sherlock Holmes stories. In it, a group of explorers discovers a prehistoric world atop a giant plateau in the Amazon rainforest. Project: Tepui — Discovering a Lost World by Welsh illustrator Andy Frazer isn’t as much a sequel to that story as a reimaging of it. The background for Frazer’s book is that on the eve of World War II, an expedition is launched to study the strange creatures living on one of the plateaus, known as tepui. The expedition disappeared and was subsequently forgotten during the chaos of the war. Years later, a single ammunition tin full of notes and faded black-and-white photos is found along a riverbank far downstream from the tepui. The book collects those notes along with color recreations of the photographs.
Project: Tepui is an illustrated bestiary of the wildlife of the lost world. The twist is that instead of recreating dinosaurs as the dynamic animals we know today, Frazer imagines them as the upright, lumbering behemoths they were believed to be at the time of his fictional expedition. Still, his approach is that of a modern paleoartist. Rather than the monotone green of countless early illustrations, Frazer’s dinosaurs pop with vibrant colors. They sport feathers, quills, frills, and other speculative fleshy features. The results are striking and unlike any paleoart I’ve encountered. I admittedly prefer the appearance of dinosaurs as we now know them: colorful and feathered, with their tails held high off the ground. But Project: Tepui shows that projecting out-of-date reconstructions through a modern lens can be a lot of fun.
The first quarter of Project: Tepui is mostly sketches of various animals taken from field journals left by the doomed expedition. The remainder of the book consists of full-page illustrations of individual species accompanied by notes detailing animal behavior and the expedition’s encounter with the creature in question. Fans of speculative biology will get a kick out of these descriptions as Frazer lets his imagination run wild with conjectures about dinosaur behavior and habitat. He also hints at the reason for the demise of the expedition, although readers are never given an answer to that question.
If I have one complaint, it is Frazer uses photo collages of real-life plants and landscapes for his backgrounds. This is a time-saving technique often employed in modern paleoart. I’m not a fan even if I understand the reasons for it: artists are paid very little for their work so need to produce as much art as quickly as possible just to make a living. That said, the animals themselves are beautifully illustrated, so the photo collages are a forgivable compromise. Project: Tepui is well worth your time.
- Project: Tepui is a self-published book that was funded through Kickstarter. It can be purchased through the artist’s Etsy page.
- This book is not the first work of fiction to reimagine Doyle’s lost world. That distinction may belong to Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear, which transformed the plateau into a wilderness where non-avian dinosaurs continued evolving after they went extinct everywhere else.
- A map that accompanied the Kickstarter edition of the book gave the size of the lost world as 11.6 kilometers (7.2 miles) at its widest point. That is too tiny to support any population of large dinosaurs but keeping in tradition with the lost world of Doyle’s novel.
- Frazer has two other illustrated books that may be of interest to fans of paleofiction. The Dragons of Wales posits that small pterosaurs survived the end-Cretaceous extinction and evolved into new forms. Novosaurus imagines a future where new species of dinosaurs have been genetically engineered from modern birds. I have not read the books at the time of this post but plan to seek them out.