Tales of a glistening golden city hidden deep in the jungles of South America have captivated explorers and historians for half a millennium. Researchers have now discovered a lost settlement in northern Colombia that could potentially have helped spawn the legend of El Dorado.
Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that the fabled city probably never actually existed. It is thought that the term El Dorado – meaning “the golden one” – was first coined by Spanish conquistadores in relation to a tribal chieftain, who, according to certain accounts covered himself in gold dust on the shore of a lake in the Colombian Andes as part of his coronation rite.
Over time, this story was altered, adapted and mutated, resulting in the enduring myth of the city (sometimes empire) of El Dorado. In all likelihood, the spinning of this tale was fuelled by encounters between early conquistadores and a civilization known as the Tairona, who lived in the jungle-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta near Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and who were notable for their numerous gold ornaments.
For that reason, the search for El Dorado has often focused on this region, and led to the discovery of a large settlement dubbed La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) back in the 1970s. Despite becoming a popular destination for archaeologists and adventure tourists, this pre-Columbian metropolis is sadly lacking in golden streets, meaning the search for El Dorado continues.
As part of a new National Geographic documentary due to air next month, explorer Albert Lin and archaeologist Santiago Giraldo used a technique known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to build up a detailed three-dimensional image of the verdant mountains around Ciudad Perdida, in search of undiscovered settlements.
LiDAR involves the use of lasers that are fired onto the ground from an aircraft, reflecting back signals that are picked up by a sensor in order to detect hidden details in the topography, such as overgrown structures.
Sure enough, the team discovered a patch of artificially flat ground some 1,220 meters (4,000 feet) up the mountainside, and after trekking through the jungle to reach it, they came across pieces of pottery and stonework that suggested that a settlement had once existed at the site.
Like Ciudad Perdida, this new discovery was somewhat short of gold, although the team has detected a further six lost settlements in the area, all of which are likely to have been built by the Tairona.
Eventually eliminated by the Spanish, the Tairona were not in fact as flush with gold as their conquerors believed, but instead developed an extremely sophisticated method for gold-plating, allowing them to create ornaments that appeared to be made of solid gold.
"For the Tairona it wasn't about the [value of] the gold," Lin told Newsweek. "It was about their connection to the Earth. Each part of the earth or each part of nature was its own deity. So to them, the Spaniards were basically coming and taking away the soul of the earth by taking away these metals."