The Real Story Of El Dorado
Mutiny, beheading, malaria, and horse-eating are just a few of the things Europeans subjected themselves to during their bloody search for El Dorado. With no evidence other than hearsay incorrectly based on one indigenous worship ritual, 16th-century conquistadors trampled through South America, killing and subjugating the indigenous Muisca people in their chase of a myth of a gold-plated city that never proved real.
The closest thing to El Dorado turned out to be a lake in Colombia which was the site of religious rituals involving gold offerings. The City of Gold did not exist, but the cost to prove that was a steep and tragic one.
- Photo: Tisquesusa / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
El Dorado Was A Person, Not A Place
El Dorado is Spanish for “the gilded one," or "the golden one,” and is the shortened form of El Hombre/Rey Dorado: “the golden man," or "the golden king.” Originally, the legend of El Dorado told of a man who covered himself in gold and submerged himself in Lake Guatavita in the Colombian Andes.
Although this imagery was rooted in real rituals practiced by one indigenous civilization, European conquistadors did discover gold artifacts during their colonization of indigenous South Americans and became convinced these items were indicative of a large treasure source — possibly a city. Thus, the legend of El Dorado came to refer to a kingdom of gold rather than an individual figure.
- Photo: Muisca / Wikimedia Commons / CC01 1.0
Worship Rituals To Ancient Gods Likely Started The Myth Of El Dorado
The legend of El Dorado originated with the Muisca people of Colombia, who migrated into the area around 500 BCE and formed a confederation that was, along with the Aztecs, Inca, and Maya, one of the four major civilizations of the ancient Americas.
The ancient Muisca idolized the Sun and Moon, as well as natural places such as lakes and caves. They thought gold represented creativity and cosmic energy, and sacrificed gold objects to the divine cosmic energies by throwing offerings, called tunjos, into Lake Guatavita. Tunjo offerings included sculptures of humans and animals made out of gold, often alloyed with silver and copper and sometimes studded with precious stones.
Muisca rulers, referred to as the zipa, made offerings to the water goddess Chie in an elaborate cleansing ritual, then covered themselves in gold dust and waded into the lake. A glimpse of this ritual by a European explorer is most likely where the origin of the legend of El Dorado began.
- Photo: Mandy / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
Lake Guatavita Didn't Have Natural Gold In Its Water
Although the Muisca are known as the origin of the El Dorado myth because of the zipa rituals, they did not actually have an abundance of natural gold. Rather, they were rich in salt, emeralds, and copper. The Muisca were prolific traders, exchanging their natural resources and handicrafts for gold from neighboring regions.
Because the Muisca were talented at crafting items from gold and were well known for their dedication of those objects to the Guatavita gods, they were mistakenly assumed for centuries to have been sitting on a literal city of gold. El Dorado never existed, and the Muisca paid a steep price for Europeans’ centuries of assumptions.
- Photo: Willem Blaeu / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
German Conquistadors Mounted The First Major Attempt To Find El Dorado
From 1528-1546, there was a significant settlement in South America by German conquistadors called Klein-Venedig, or "Little Venice," in part of modern-day Venezuela. An important banking family in Augsburg bought the rights to this area from Charles I of Spain with the purpose of searching for El Dorado.
The area’s first governor, Ambrosius Ehinger, headed to Lake Maracaibo in 1529. After bloody battles with the indigenous people in the region, bouts of malaria, and near-starvation where they had to eat their horses and dogs, both Ehinger's attempts to find El Dorado failed. On the last, Ehinger was shot with a poisoned arrow and died in 1533. The surviving expedition returned to Germany, and was replaced with subsequent missions which were also unsuccessful.
- Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The Germans Lost Hundreds Of Men In A Second Attempt To Find El Dorado
After Ambrosius Ehinger’s spectacular failure, he and one of the members of the original expedition, Georg von Speyer, set off into the interior of southwestern Venezuela and northern Colombia in another attempt to find El Dorado in 1535. For four years they trooped through hostile indigenous settlements, got heat stroke, and dealt with mutinies. Von Speyer started out with nearly 2,000 men and returned in 1539 with just 80, having again failed to find El Dorado.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The Spanish Stumbled Upon On Lake Guatavita
As Germans quested after El Dorado, rumors also circulated among various other colonial powers about a sacred lake in South America and native rituals involving a lot of gold. In 1537, a Spanish conquistador named Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada first saw both the Muisca people and Lake Guatavita while roaming the highlands of the Andes. He was looking for gold but not, supposedly, on a specific quest for El Dorado. However, his accidental discovery changed the lives of the Muisca forever. Finding the lake was no small feat: indigenous people, attempting to throw the Spaniards off the scent of gold, often pointed to far away places when the Spanish asked to be shown to El Dorado.