The legend of El Dorado myth and reality

Well known by name alone the legend of El Dorado is often associated with a mystical Pre Columbian city lost in the recesses of time
deep in the jungles of South America full of golden treasures waiting to de rediscovered. Of course the real story of El Dorado is quite different and is a fascinating story of the ceremonial customs of the Pre Columbian Muisca peoples of Colombia and the subsequent attempts by colonial Europeans to recover there golden treasures made and used in ceremonial contexts over centuries

The pre Columbian cultures of South America develop a highly sophisticated knowledge of metal work with technical abilities to produce gold art works of outstanding complexity and beauty rarely surpassed at any time in any part of the world. Masks of Gold with platinum had been produced by the goldsmiths of the La Tolita people of southern Colombia/Ecuador and the 2nd century BC a highly complex process requiring very high temperatures only discovered in Europe in the 19th century.
In Pre Columbian Colombia metal working in gold was prolific and peoples such as the Muisca, Quimbaya Calmina, Sinu and Tairona had for centuries produced fantastic works of art in gold. After the Spanish conquest in the 16th century it was discovered by the Spanish colonists that many In Indian burials sites contained large amounts of gold objects, the wholesale looting of these sites began with Spanish crown issuing mining rights to colonists to mine native burial sites for gold with the Spanish crown receiving the Royal 5th share of all exploits. It has been noted that many sites yielded huge quantities of gold artifacts amounting to many hundreds of kilos of gold,  the greatest tragedy is that most were melted down to ingot and the magnificent art works have been lost of ever.

The Myth and the Reality

During colonial times in Colombia the Spanish began to hear stories of El Dorado (the gilded man) from captured native peoples interrogated about the possible location of large quantities of gold. The story of a Native ceremony that used to take place in a lake called Guatavita, Located in the cordillera oriental of the Colombian Andes The name of the lake is derived from Chibcha the native language of the Musica. The stories the Spanish heard were consistent and at the time some indigenous Indian people were still alive who had witnessed the last ceremony of the gilded man on lake Guatavita.

The ceremony took place when a new Ruler or Zipa was appointed, before taking office he had to spend a period of time secluded in a cave without the presence of women and forbidden to eat foods such as salt and chilli or meat after which a elaborate initiation ceremony was performed on the lake , the details of this ceremony are best told by an account from 1636 by Juan Rodriguz Freyle

The first Journey he had to make was to go to the great Lagoon of Guatavita to make offerings and sacrifices to the Demon they worshipped as their Lord and god. During the ceremony which too place, they made a raft of rushes, embellishing and decorating it with the most attractive things they had, they put on it 4 lighted braziers in which they burned much Moque which is the incense of these natives and also resin and many other perfumes. The lagoon was large and deep so that a ship with large sides could sail upon it, all loaded with a infinity of men and women dressed in fine plumes, golden plaques and crowns…At this time they stripped the heir to his skin and anointed him with a sticky earth on which they placed gold dust so that he was completely covered in this metal. They placed him on the raft on which he remained motionless and at his feet they placed a great heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god.
On the raft with him went 4 principal subject chiefs decked in plumes, crowns bracelets pendants and earrings of gold. They too were naked and each one carried his offerings. As the raft left the shore the music began with trumpets flutes and other instruments and with singing which shook the mountains and valleys, until, when the raft reached the center of the lagoon, they raised a banner as a signal for silence. The gilded Indian then made his offering, throwing out all the pile of gold into the middle of the lake, and the chiefs who accompanied him did the same on their own accounts. After this they lowered the flag which had remained up during the whole time of the offering and as the raft moved towards the shore the shouting began again with pipes, flutes and large teams of singers and dancers. With this ceremony the new ruler was received and was recognized as lord and king. From this ceremony came the celebrated name of EL Dorado which has cost so many lives.

This is the real story behind the legend of El Dorado and it is one that is as marvellous in reality as it is in myth, However memories are short and imagination easily replaces reality and it soon became a myth and a dream that was to occupy men’s efforts to find a mythical city deep in the unexplored forests of South America for the next 200 years.

Musica Gold Raft ornament of the gilded man ceremony

Draining Lake Guatavita

Over the centuries many attempts have been made to drain lake Guatavita to try collect the great treasures that lie there from hundreds or indeed thousands of years of ritual offerings from the Muisca ceremonies, the treasure estimated at the time to be in the region of £150 million pounds, many individuals efforts as well as full blown companies formed in Bogota and London with the sole aim of draining the lake, some notable attempts: 1580`s Antonio de Sepulveda a rich merchant from Bogota cut a large notch in the side of the lake using 8000 local Indians, lowering the level by 20 meters before the cut collapsed killing many laborers, some treasure was recovered and the sent to Spain. 1898 Contractors Ltd a London joint stock company obtained the rights from a Colombian company and managed, through a system of tunneling, to successfully drain the lake but found that the bed was filled with meters of mud and slime to soft to walk on, within days the sun had baked the clay to the hardness of cement, drilling equipment was ordered but during the interim period of weeks, the tunnel had filled with mud solidified like concrete and the lake filled to its original depth of water after rains. This company`s efforts continued using different methods and some gold and emeralds where recovered, some were sold at Sotheby`s London in December 1911, the company eventually ran out of money and investors

Ken Mackay

Lake Guatavita showing the notch cut by treasure hunters attempting to drain the lake


Pottery recovered from the lake



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