During the 16th century, the Spanish exploring the South American continent heard tales of a native tribe who lived high in the Andes mountains with a strange tradition. This tradition focused on the newly appointed chieftain, and his ceremony of commencement. This entailed covering him in gold dust and putting him on a raft. He was then pushed out into the middle of Lake Guatavita and then dove into the water. While this was going on, people along the shores would toss gold objects into the lakes to please the god Chie whom they believed lived in the murky depths. This tradition however has been documented and known about for quite some time and its story made it to the Caribbean in the time of the Conquistadors. When the Spanish heard of this tale they went on an expedition to find the treasure. They named the chieftain who was in this ceremony "El Dorado”, which translates into, “The Gilded One.” The Spanish did indeed find Lake Guatavita and attempted to drain the lake to gather its gold, but their initial attempt was futile. Jose Oliver, who works at the Institute of Archaeology at the University of London has this to say, “ The legend of El Dorado endures, because you want it to be true.”
The Truth behind the Myth
The "Gilded One"
It has become apparent that El Dorado is in fact the name given to a Muisca chieftain, and not an actual lost city of gold. A book published in 1636 by Juan Rodriguez Freyle goes into great detail the actual ceremony that made Conquistadors believe in a real El Dorado. In his book he writes that when a Muisca leader died, a new one was appointed as was typically his nephew. The initiation was long and eventually ended with the newly appointed leader paddling out on a raft in a sacred lake such as Lake Guatavita and jumping in. Prior to going on the raft, the leader to be would be stripped naked and covered in gold dust. His raft would be filled with gold, emeralds and other precious items. Along his voyage into the lake, he would be surrounded by four high priests who where adorned in gold crowns, feathers and body ornaments. In the heart of the lake the new leader would toss the gold and other items into the lake to appease the god Chie they believed lay below. Upon the shores it would be filled with spectators, richly dressed and playing music. There would be great fires being burned along the shore, so many that Freyle says it almost blocked out the sun. Upon the raft there were four fires burning. At the center of the lake and after he had thrown in his offerings to the gods, the new leader would raise a flag and all upon the shore would commit allegiance by yelling for their new chieftain. This tale has been backed up by recent and ongoing archaeological evidence. Many pieces of gold have been uncovered from Lake Guatavita and all of their chemical makeup is identical, telling researchers that they made these gold offerings were made specifically for this purpose. In 1969 a gold raft exactly matching the depiction by Freyle was found in a cave south of Bogota, Columbia by three native villagers. These remarkable facts further prove the point that El Dorado is a person, not a lost city
Location, Location, Location
Lake Guatavita is considered the epicenter for the El Dorado myth. The lake itself is theorized to have been made by a meteor impact or thought by others by a volcano. Many attempts have been made to find the gold hidden by the lake. The first was in 1545 by Spanish conquistadors. They successfully drained the lake a total of three meters but were only able to retrieve 3,000-4,000 pesos worth of gold. Then in 1580 Antonio Sepulveda and his team drained the lake a total of twelve meters and recovered 12,000 pesos worth of gold. It wasn't until 1898 that the Spanish came in and dug a tunnel under the lake and successfully drained the whole lake. What was left was four feet of mud that they decided to let dry out. When this happened though, the mud turned into essentially concrete, locking in all the possible gold it contained. After all that effort the Spanish were only able to extract 500 pesos worth of gold. Many believed that there would be a large amount of gold there but modern dives are hard to do because of the lakes depth, temperature as well as it being a very murky lake.
The Native People
The Muisca people inhabited modern day Colombia and were a loose confederation of tribal states. The two main and largest of these tribal states were the Zipa and the Zaque. The Zipa were the people on the western half, who lived in the Andes mountains and the area of Lake Guatavita. The Zaque on the other hand controlled the eastern portion of the Muisca confederation. This confederation consumed a total area of 18,000 square miles and its people are considered the most disciplined of their time. The legends of the Lake Guatavita ceremony were well known throughout the confederation as well as most of south america. It is believed that the Zaque pointed the conquistadors western towards the Zipa controlled lands as a way of getting them out of their territory. Because of this idea, many believe that the Zaque could have came up with El Dorado as a way to convince the conquistadors to look elsewhere.
Ancient Muisca people had no written language, they instead relied upon oral tradition and stories to pass onto their people. Gold was very important to the Muisca people. It however represented no monetary value to them, instead it was very symbolic to them. Gold to them symbolized the sun, which to many south american cultures was their main deity or main target of worship. The Muisca gold work gave them a great sense of pride which is very different compared to most ancient civilizations who built great structures to give them this same feeling. Gold in this part of the word was everywhere, until the Gold Rush of California, forty percent of the whole world’s gold had come from this region. As a result, gold to the Muisca was not just for the poor or the upper class, it was instead for everyone. Pure gold was often hard to come by, so the Muisca people would mix in copper or silver creating what they called Tumbaga. Altering the amount of copper or silver could drastically change the color of gold produced. Since the Muisca held gold with no monetary value they would use it ceremonies and traditions and would discard it readily. The Lake Guatavita ceremony is a great example of this.
Francisco de Orellana
A Lost Civilization Found?
Spanish explorer Francisco Orellana led a group of adventurers through the amazon in search of El Dorado. Along their journey they found the amazon filled with vast settlements and a large population. Until recently, this idea was dismissed because the amazonian soil is very acidic and is extremely hard to go crops in. With this being said, a large population observed by Orellana would be unfeasible without the amount of food needed. After his return to Spain, Orellana was convicted of mutiny and his story of his journey through the amazon was locked away for nearly three hundred years. Scientist have recently discovered large amounts of pottery spread out all over the amazon. Next they discovered a layer of man made soil covering a total area equal to Belgium spread out through the amazon. This soil is called Terra preta is one of the best soils on the earth. It is comprised of charcoal, pottery as well as fish bones. It is also a very good preservative because it has a pH level of almost neutral. It seems in history that El Dorado and the Lost City of Z are essentially the same thing. A man named Percy Fawcett with his son and a few other adventurers go on a journey to find the Lost City of Z and encounters many tribes. A large majority of these tribes speak about a once great civilization that once covered the amazon. Modern archaeology has proven this idea. They have found massive ancient settlements strewn throughout the amazon all connected by large roadways. They estimate these settlements to number in the hundreds and each settlement a mile or more in diameter. On his journey Orellana says they say magnificent white cities, but new science has shown that the amazonian mud combined with the building techniques used by the people turn the mud white. Based on these findings scientists believe the population of pre-Conquistador population of the amazon between one and two million. Scientist also believe that when the Spanish did come, they brought with them diseases and sicknesses that wiped out this ancient civilization.
For a civilization to exist and thrive it must have an extensive agriculture. In the Savannah of Bolivia no one thought an ancient civilization could have existed, but recent findings suggest different. They have found “islands’ of trees. These islands are actually on mounds, starting anywhere from being four feet higher than the rest of the Savannah to up to eighteen in others. Researches have found large amounts of pottery in these islands, and evidence of very large pots. This evidence suggest a large permanent population was here. Archaeologists have discovered causeways as well as canals connecting these forests together. Almost perfectly straight lines can be seen throughout the Savannah and until now no one could figure it out. On the Savannah itself the same built up earth mound can be found, covering large amount of the Savannah. Its theorized that these are ancient fields that are built on the mounds so they do not flood during the rainy season, but when they dry season comes in, the canals built in would keep the fields supplied with water. With these findings in a hostile environment scientists figured why couldn't such a civilization spring up in the amazon. They did indeed find evidence of civilization and it all thanks to Terra Preta, a self regenerating soil. It is mixed with charcoal and the native amazonian soil. Scientists believe that the charcoal holds in the nutrients and can last for decades. When compared to where Orellana said there were settlements, in every case there has been Terra preta found, indicating a settlement was indeed there. A study found that when the charcoal was mixed with the amazonian soil the amount of yields in crops increased by 880 percent. Many argue that this is the real El Dorado because it could save the amazon and be used all over the world.
In recent satellite images taken over Brazil’s Bolivian border, over two hundred earthen mounds have been discovered which scientists are arguing ancient settlements. They also suspect there are hundreds more hidden in the jungle that are unable to be captured by satellite imagery. However the mounds they have found and studied, they estimate the age anywhere from 200 to 1283 CE depending on the mound and location. It was noted that in one particular mound, the configuration resembles closely to what El Dorado hunters use. The tale of El Dorado could be explained in other ways. One theory is that the Incas told the invading conquistadors about the Lost City of El Dorado as a way of distraction and for them to get out of their lands. Another idea is the Spanish made the whole story up as a way to justify their actions in the amazon. Lastly and least likely is the Spanish stored all the gold they found in one secure location and that this location is the actual El Dorado, however this has no evidence backing it up.
Ancient Amazonian Civilization
Where El Dorado Could Be Found
Upon dredging Lake Guatavita and discovering little gold there, the Spanish refused to believe that the real El Dorado cannot be here and that all the gold must be somewhere else. One early hypothesis is that it is located in the eastern Andes Mountains. An expedition starting from Quito and heading east discovered that the Amazon continued all the way to the Atlantic but no signs of El Dorado were found. Another location considered is the Highland of Guyana in northeast south america. A Spaniard named Juan Martin de Albujar claims that he was captured by natives in this area and was taken to a city called Manoa. He also claims that he was held here for quite some time and was also given gold. The ruler of this area was a rich and powerful Inca. He believed that this was El Dorado. It has been concluded that El Dorado as a lost city does not exist but rather the name given to a Muisca chieftain by the Spanish and that Lake Guatavita is the location for the start of the myth of El Dorado.