Though the legend of El Dorado fueled European ambition during the conquest of the Americas, direct evidence for a golden metropolis in the Andes has never been found. In all likelihood, that’s because El Dorado wasn’t a city at all, but instead referred to an ancient ritual involving a man covered in gold dust. However, after searching the lake where this lavish ceremony is said to have occurred, researchers found puzzlingly little evidence for its existence.
Reporting the results of this archaeological survey in a new study, Juan Pablo Quintero-Guzmán from Bogota’s world-famous Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) explains that the myth of El Dorado began with the 17th-century Spanish chronicler Juan Rodríguez Freyle, who described a coronation ceremony carried out by the Muisca people at Lake Guatavita in modern-day Colombia. According to Freyle, the heir to the chieftaincy had to spend six years fasting in a cave, before being covered in powdered gold and transported to the middle of the lake on a raft that was loaded with gold objects.
“The golden Indian made his offer by throwing all the gold he had at his feet in the middle of the lake,” wrote Freyle. “From this ceremony, they took the celebrated name of El Dorado, which has cost so many lives and farms,” he continues, alluding to the numerous expensive expeditions to the non-existent golden city.
Following the thread a little further, Quintero-Guzmán attributes the Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar with triggering this foolish gold rush, noting that it was he who first used the term El Dorado to refer to a place, referencing the area around Lake Guatavita. And while archaeologists have long since abandoned the search for any such place, there is some evidence to suggest that the El Dorado ceremony really took place.
For instance, in 1912, British engineer Hartley Knowles retrieved numerous gold objects and other jewels from the bottom of the lake after it was drained. More recently, a golden model raft that was discovered by a local farmer in a nearby cave in 1969 has come to represent the best solid evidence for the ancient ritual.
Seeking further proof, Quintero-Guzmán and his colleagues searched the area around Lake Guatavita for artifacts that would suggest that large-scale ceremonial events were regularly held there. Surprisingly, however, they found only 157 ceramic fragments.
The fact that these vessels seem to have contained the ancient alcoholic drink chicha indicates that they were indeed used during ceremonial events, yet their scarcity would appear to “suggest that the ritual activities were not of great magnitude,” Quintero-Guzmán writes.
Based on this outcome, he explains that “there is very little evidence to support a continuity of ritual practices [at Lake Guatavita] from the Early Muisca period until the colonial period.” Despite this, however, he insists that he does “not conclude that an El Dorado ceremony never existed.”
Offering an explanation, he speculates that the El Dorado ceremony may have occurred once, but was not a recurring tradition. In all likelihood, the flashy event was organized by a chieftain during a period of political tension, possibly as an attempt to demonstrate his dominance over his rivals while also seeking the favor of the gods.
“Once the sociopolitical order stabilized, the offerings continued in sacred places, such as in Lake Guatavita, except that it was no longer the ceremony of the golden man,” writes Quintero-Guzmán.
“When the Spanish arrived, they encountered groups that had heard of the ceremony performed by their ancestors, and that is what they described to the conquistadors,” he concludes.
The study is published Latin American Antiquity.