The legend of El Dorado

28th September 2012

Stories and legends of the quest for, and discovery of, fabulous golden treasure dominate the popular history and mythology of gold. No legend is more popular than that of the search for El Dorado, the Lost City of Gold. It is a legend that has endured for the better part of four centuries, appealing to man’s fundamental sense of adventure and craving for discovery and wealth.

Unfortunately, that narrative has become considerably distorted over the centuries – to the extent that the legend of a lost city of gold is far removed from the actual concept of El Dorado.

El Dorado, which is Spanish for ‘the golden person’, was the name of a Muisca tribal chief, referred to as the Zipa, who, as part of an elaborate initiation ritual, offered gold and other treasures to the goddess Gautavita, who resided in a highland lake of the same name. (That lake, Laguna de Gautavita, is situated some 50 km north-east of the Colombian capital, Bogotá.)

To make such offerings, the Zipa would cover himself with gold dust, make his way to the centre of the lake and throw the golden treasures into the water.

In Muisca mythology, gold repre- sented the energy contained in the trinity of Chiminigagua, which constituted the creative power of everything that existed in the universe.

The nature of that initiation ceremony was recorded by Spanish chronicler Juan Rodriguez Freyle in 1636. Freyle described the ritual thus:
“The ceremony took place on the appointment of a new ruler . . . 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 with this metal. “They placed him on the raft . . . and at his feet they placed a great heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god. “When the raft reached the centre of the lagoon, the gilded Indian then . . . threw out the pile of gold into the middle of the lake. With this ceremony, the new ruler was received and was recognised as lord and king.”

It was that old Muisca tradition that became the origin of the El Dorado legend.

In the early sixteenth century, the Spanish conquistadors heard rumours of the existence of el hombre dorado, a gilded king who, in some sort of ritual observance, covered himself in gold dust and bathed in a lake.

Inevitably, the rumours became dis- torted and soon the Spaniards believed that El Dorado was, in fact, a fabulous city furnished with gold that stood on the edge of a lake.

Many expeditions were launched in pursuit of that legend, the most famous of which was led by the conquistadors Francisco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro in 1541. The expeditions were concen- trated in the region of the Bogotá plateau and in the upper Amazon basin, areas in which the Muisca towns and villages were located.

As was inevitable, the Muisca towns and their treasures quickly fell to the Spanish conquistadors. In fact, it is said that, during one of the first lootings ordered by King Phillip II, over 14 loads of gold were taken from the Muisca people.

However, once they had taken stock of the treasure they had looted and the territory they had won, the Spanish realised that, despite the quantity of gold the Muisca had possessed, there were neither golden cities nor rich mines in the area. (The Muisca obtained all their gold through trade.)

In time, the Spanish and subse- quent treasure hunters abandoned their hunt for the Lost City of Gold and concentrated their efforts on exploit- ing the golden wealth that was believed to lie within the depths of Lake Gautavita.

The Spaniards attempted to drain the lake several times, the two most noteworthy efforts being undertaken by Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada in 1545 and by Antonio de Sepúlveda in 1580.

In the first attempt, the two Spaniards attempted to drain the lake using slaves and buckets but, after three months, they only managed to lower the level of water by 3 m. However, they were able to recover some golden artefacts, although it is not known how many.

In the second attempt, Antonia de Sepúlveda tried to drain the lake by excavating a channel through the rim of the crater in which Lake Guatavita sits. He succeeded in reducing the water level by 20 m, but the walls of the channel eventually collapsed, killing many of his slaves. It is believed that he was able to recover considerable quantities of golden treasure.

The other noteworthy attempt was made as recently as 1911 by Contractors, a British company owned and operated by Hartley Knowles, an English engineer. By means of a tunnel, Knowles successfully drained the lake and is said to have recovered gold, emeralds, amber and even Chinese jade from the sides of the lake. Speaking to a journalist from The New York Times, in 1912, Knowles claimed that he had recovered treasure worth around $20 000.

Knowles told the journalist: “I think that most of what we have taken out to date is from the side of the lake. We have not yet dug down to the bottom, and we don’t know how much more we have to dig before we reach it. “But, according to the stories, the bottom of the lake is where the richest treasures are.”

Unfortunately, once the lake had been drained, the silt and mud at the bottom of the lake set as hard as con- crete, making further recoveries almost impossible.

Such treasure hunts were effectively brought to a complete end when, in 1965, the Colombian government brought Lake Guatavita under legal protection as part of the nation’s historical and cultural heritage.

At present, some of the treasures of El Dorado are part of collections that the Colombian Bank of Republic has managed to recover and are exhibited in the Gold Museum, in Bogotá. Among the treasures is the renowned Muisca Raft, which depicts the pinnacle of Indian rites on the waters of Guatavita.