The Search for El Dorado – Lost City of Gold
For hundreds of years, treasure hunters and historians alike have searched for El Dorado, the lost city of gold. The idea of a city filled with gold and other riches has a natural appeal, drawing the attention of individuals from all over the world in hopes of discovering the ultimate treasure, and an ancient wonder. In spite of numerous expeditions around all of Latin America, the city of gold remains a legend, with no physical evidence to substantiate its existence.
The origins of El Dorado come from legendary tales of the Muisca tribe. Following two migrations – one in 1270 BC and one between 800 and 500 BC, the Muisca tribe occupied the Cundinamarca and Boyacá areas of Colombia. According to legend, as written in Juan Rodriguez Freyle’s “El Carnero,” the Muisca practiced a ritual for every newly appointed king that involved gold dust and other precious treasures.
Portraits of rulers of Muisca (Wikimedia Commons)
When a new leader was appointed, many rituals would take place before he took his role as king. During one of these rituals, the new king would be brought to Lake Guatavita, where he would be stripped naked, and covered in gold dust. He would be placed upon a highly decorated raft, along with his attendants, and piles of gold and precious stones. The raft would be sent out to the center of the lake, where the king would wash the gold dust from his body, as his attendants would throw the pieces of gold and precious stones into the lake. This ritual was intended as a sacrifice to the Muisca's god. To the Muisca, “El Dorado” was not a city, but the king at the center of this ritual, also called “the Gilded One.” While El Dorado is meant to refer to the Gilded One, the name has now become synonymous with the lost city of gold, and any other place where one can quickly obtain wealth.
Muisca raft, representation of the initiation of the new Zipa in the lake of Guatavita, possible source of the legend of El Dorado. It was found in a cave in Pasca, Colombia in 1856, together with many other gold objects. Dated between 1200 and 1500 BC. (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1545, Conquistadores Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada attempted to drain Lake Guatavita. As they did so, they found gold along its shores, fueling their suspicion that the lake contained a treasure of riches. They worked for three months, with workers forming a bucket chain, but they were unable to drain the lake sufficiently to reach any treasures deep within the lake. In 1580, another attempt to drain the lake was made by business entrepreneur Antonio de Sepúlveda. Once again, various pieces of gold were found along the shores, but the treasure at the depths of the lake remained concealed. Other searches were conducted on Lake Guatavita, with estimates that the lake could contain up to $300 million in gold, with no luck in finding the treasures. All searches came to a halt when the Colombian government declared the lake a protected area in 1965.
Guatavita Volcanic Lagoon, Cundinamarca, Colombia, the sacred lake and center of the rites of the Muiscas. Source: BigStockPhoto.
Nonetheless, the search for El Dorado continues, even without the ability to search Lake Guatavita. The legends of the Muisca tribe, the Gilded One and their ritualistic sacrifice of treasures have transformed over time into today’s tale of El Dorado, lost city of gold. To many individuals, El Dorado is a real city, and the desire to discover this city is great. Whether led by greed, a desire for fame, or a desire to unravel the mysteries of an ancient legend, these individuals have gone on conquests in hopes of finding El Dorado. As the legends have shifted and transformed, so has the location of El Dorado. Searches for the city are not restricted to Colombia, or Lake Guatavita, where the Muisca tribe practiced their rituals, but span all areas of Latin America. Expeditions to find El Dorado have been conducted far and wide.
Gold artifacts from the Muisca tribe of Colombia (public domain)
England’s Sir Walter Raleigh made two attempts to find El Dorado. In 1595, it was rumored that El Dorado could be found at Lake Parime in the highlands of Guyana. Raleigh set sail, in hopes of discovering the lost city, establishing an English presence in the Southern Hemisphere, and creating an English settlement in the lad of Guyana. His desire to find El Dorado remained strong, although he only discovered bits and pieces of gold along the way. In 1617, Raleigh returned to South America with his son, in hopes of finding El Dorado. His son was killed in conflict with the Spaniards, and Raleigh did not find El Dorado on his second, disastrous expedition. Upon his return to England, he was executed for disobeying King James’ orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.
Sir Walter Raleigh went on two expeditions to find El Dorado. ‘Raleigh's First Pipe in England’ by Frederick William Fairholt, 1859. (public domain)
Several expeditions to find El Dorado have been attempted since Raleigh’s time, but none have been successful. Monks Acana and Fritz, Don Manuel Centurion - Governor of San Thome del Angostura, and entrepreneurs Nicholas Rodriguez and Antonio Santos, have all led expeditions in hopes of finding the lost city. All have failed to find the El Dorado, and the expeditions have led to the loss of hundreds of lives – from those killed during the attempts to drain Lake Guatavita, to those who perished while searching the landscape of Latin America. The most recent attempt to find El Dorado occurred in 2000. The Monastery of Santo Domingo was searching for underground Incan tunnels, when they found a large tunnel beneath the Monastery, but no gold. Then in 2001, Italian archaeologist Mario Polia discovered a document from the 1600s that contained descriptions of a city that could potentially be El Dorado. Within the area, located in Paratoari in Peru, tools and evidence of manmade structures have been recovered, but El Dorado remains a mystery.
Although the costly search for El Dorado has yet to yield any evidence of an actual city of gold, the topic remains one of interest to this day. Searches for El Dorado have spanned hundreds of years and vast areas of Latin America, while costing a great deal of money, and hundreds of lives. To some, it has become clear that the costs and risks of continuing to search for El Dorado are not worth it, while others remain determined to find the lost city of gold. Perhaps someday the city of El Dorado will be discovered, and the riches rumored to be contained within will be found, but for now, it remains a mystery whether El Dorado is a real gold-filled ancient city, or simply a legend.
Featured image: Golden vitives figures (known as tunjos), Muisca-Chibcha culture — pre-columbian culture in the territory of modern Colombia; Gold Museum, Bogotá, Colombia (Wikimedia Commons)
The Legend of El Dorado – Historic Mysteries. Available from: http://www.historicmysteries.com/legend-of-el-dorado/
El Dorado Legend Snared Sir Walter Raleigh – National Geographic. Available from: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/el-dorado/
El Dorado – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Dorado
El Dorado – Myths Encyclopedia. Available from: http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/Dr-Fi/El-Dorado.html
By M R Reese