The Whittlesey/Maxwell Amazon Basin Expedition was a 1987 expedition of the New York Museum of Natural History. It was led by John Whittlesey and Edward Maxwell. The expedition traveled to the Upper Xingú Rainforest of Brazil to search for traces of the Kothoga tribe, as well as to survey the flora and fauna of an area of the rainforest that was barely known to science.
Members of the expedition included a paleontologist, a mamalogist, a physical anthropologist, an entomologist, and several assistants. A botanist named Jörgensen was supposed to go but was dismissed by Maxwell shortly before departure.
The expedition struggled from the beginning as Whittlesey and Maxwell fought for control. Maxwell, though an anthropologist by training, became interested in collecting rare plant specimens from the jungle. Whittlesey complained that he was filling their specimen crates with rubbish. Whittlesey attempted to obtain permission from the Brazilian government to ascend a high mesa called a tepui, where he thought the Kothoga might still reside, but was denied.
Whittlesey announced that he intended to climb the tepui, permit or no. Maxwell, fearing that his botanical specimens would be impounded, said he would not go. The expedition split up; Whittlesey and another scientist, Thomas Crocker, continued up the tepui and Maxwell and the rest returned to civilization.
The expedition ended in disaster. Whittlesey and Crocker disappeared after sending back a crate of Kothoga artifacts, discovered in a hut at the base of the tepui. Maxwell's party died in a plane crash while returning to the United States.
The seven crates of specimens collected by the expedition returned to the United States following a long and tortuous route. They were first sent to Belém, Brazil, then by ship to New Orleans, and finally to New York City. At every step the crates were followed by a series of highly unusual kilings that later became known as the Museum Beast Murders.
When the crates finally arrived at the museum, two years after the expedition's demise, they were met with little enthusiasm. The museum's leadership wanted to forget the disastrous expedition, and only one of the seven crates, the one containing Kothoga artifacts, was ever catalogued.
The scientist working with the crates, Hugo Montague, later disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The crates and the artifacts within sat ignored until 1995, when the museum decided to feature one of the Kothoga artifacts, the so-called "Mbwun figurine", in its upcoming Superstition Exhibition.
By that time, few of the museum staff remembered Whittlesey or Maxwell or their ill-fated expedition, but they seemed to be connected with the murders going on in the museum. Doctoral candidate Margo Green, her advisor Dr. Whitney Frock and journalist Bill Smithback sought to learn more about the expedition to try and understand the nature and motive of the killer.