Gold makes monsters of men.
–Erin Bowman, Vengeance Road
Gold, glory and God
The origins of the quest for El Dorado can be traced back to the early 16th century when a story about a place containing vast golden treasures began spreading from one Spanish settlement to another along the Caribbean coast of South America. In contemporary times, the name has been exploited in fiction and film, and has long carried the connotation of a search for riches.
Despite the Spanish translation of ‘el dorado’ being ‘the golden’–an adjective meaning ‘the golden one’ and not denoting a city of gold–the legend quickly became embellished to refer to an entire city made of gold which was said to be located in the Valley of Dorado, a place hidden deep in the mountains of the continent’s northern Andes. It was this feverish quest to acquire gold in all its forms that drove numerous European expeditions–from which most adventurers would never return–over the high ranges of the Andes and through dense jungles filled with wild animals, deadly reptiles, unfriendly tribes and jungle fevers.
The first regional expeditions in search of gold were led by German and Spanish explorers traveling along the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela. Soon after, Spanish conquistadors stationed in the Caribbean port town of Santa Marta heard stories from wandering natives of an Indian chieftain living high in the mountains whose wealth in gold was so great that he covered his entire body in the precious mineral.
Encountering the Muisca
In 1636, the news of this gold-laden chieftain led Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and his army of 800 men to abandon their mission of finding an overland route to Peru, and instead head east and up into the Andes. There they encountered the Muisca people, a highly advanced civilization whose territories were divided into a confederation of states without a single centralized leader or ruler.
Note: The Muisca confederation consisted of three adjoining regions in present-day Colombia’s eastern range of the Andes. Each Muisca state had a regional administrative center and a different name for their leader as follows:
•Hunza (the site of today’s city of Tunja) was the administrative center of the northwestern state and the leader was called the ‘zaque’.
•Bacatá (present-day Bogotá) was the center for the southern state, where the leader was known as the ‘zipa’.
•Suamox (today’s town of Sogamoso) was located to the northeast. It was a religious center where the leader, the ‘iraca’, presided over the ceremonies held at the sacred Sun Temple.
Quesada and his men found the Muisca to be very skilled artisans, especially in creating gold ornaments which were numerous and highly prized by the people for their connection to the gods. With this discovery, the Spaniards declared that the quest for El Dorado was near.
Archaeologists often list the Muisca–whose civilization flourished from about 600 CE – 1600 CE–along with the Aztecs, Incas and Mayas as the four most advanced civilizations in the Americas at the time the Europeans arrived. The Muisca were highly skilled metal-workers, had advanced systems of writing and numeracy and an economy that depended on well-developed trade networks across the region. The Muisca spoke Chibcha, a language group also found in Central America, and are often referred to as Chibcha people, even though many other aspects of their culture were unique.
Although gold in its raw form was not found in large quantities high on the altiplano where they lived, it was through their extensive trade networks that the Muisca acquired the mineral. The Muisca mined salt, which was present in vast quantities in their high-altitude lands and was more highly prized by their lowland neighbors than the gold offered in its place.
While the Spanish conquistadors craved gold for the monetary wealth and prestige it could buy in their culture, to many pre-Columbian societies, gold embodied profound meanings in their cosmologies. This sacred metal represented the Sun’s energy, a life-giving star, and the source of fertility. To the indigenous peoples, gold objects were not considered a symbol of material wealth, but signified honored positions in society and served as religious offerings.
Gold was essential to the Muisca worship of their principal god, Sué, the sun god. They believed that all things with luster represented the god’s presence, therefore, intricately worked and highly polished golden ornaments became the perfect objects to represent the sun god’s power. The ruling families of each confederated state would adorn themselves in gold ornaments which were also offered to other gods during special ceremonies.
Origin of the legend
Most historians agree that the legend of El Dorado originated with one such ceremony that was carried out on Lake Guatavita, located northeast of Colombia’s present-day capital, Bogotá. The ritual was described in detail in Juan Rodríquez Freyle’s book El Carnero, which is regarded as the definitive history on this region’s early colonial period.
When a Muisca leader died, his successor was called ‘the golden one’ or ‘gilded one’ and had to spend time by himself in a cave without salt products or being allowed to leave for a specified period. Upon his release, he would be taken to the ceremonial lake of Guatavita. A special raft was created for the ceremony and adored with Muisca gold and fine weavings. Surrounded by four priests adorned with feathers, gold crowns and body ornaments, the heir was stripped naked and covered with mud and powdered gold. As part of the initiation rites, the new chief would dive into the middle of the lake while the priests offered gold ornaments, emeralds and other precious objects to the gods by throwing them into the lake.
-Juan Rodríquez Freyle in El Carnero
Gold fever strikes lake guatavita
Since the origins of the legend kept leading back to Colombia’s high altitude Lake Guatavita, the search for El Dorado’s gold eventually reached its shores. There were numerous attempts to drain the alpine lake to reveal the gold ornaments that had been ceremonially offered to the lake’s spirits.
In 1545, the conquistadors Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada were the first to attempt to drain the lake. Their method, using a bucket chain of laborers, only lowered the lake by around three meters after several months of toiling at high altitude in always cold, and often miserable, weather. They ended up extracting gold ornaments worth approximately US $100,000 at current value.
Next came Bogotá business entrepreneur Antonio de Sepúlveda, who had workers cut a notch in the lake’s rim in order to drain more of the water. This was more successful than the earlier attempt and resulted in lowering the lake by 20 meters before the dirt around the notch collapsed, once again sealing the rim of the lake. The take this time amounted to approximately US $300,000 at today’s rates. Despite some degree of success, Sepúlveda still died a poor man and is buried at a church in a small town near the lake.
In 1801, German geographer, naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt made a visit to Lake Guatavita. After his return to Paris, he calculated from the findings of Sepúlveda’s efforts that the lake could offer up as much as US $300 million worth of gold.
In 1898, the Company for the Exploitation of the Lagoon of Guatavita was formed by British expatriate Hartley Knowles. The lake was drained through the digging of a tunnel that emerged at its center. The water level was drained to a depth of about 4 feet of mud and slime.This made it difficult to explore, plus when the mud had dried in the sun, it set like concrete which made retrieving even the visible fragile gold objects extremely difficult. Gold ornaments worth only around £500 British pounds were found before the company filed for bankruptcy and ended all activities in 1929. The gold artifacts were auctioned at Sotheby’s of London, with some being donated to the British Museum.
In 1965, the Colombian government designated the lake as a protected area. Any attempt to drain the lake in search of gold objects was declared illegal.
Demise of great civilizations
For the indigenous peoples of Latin America, their perceived wealth in precious metals foretold an early doom as Europeans searching for personal wealth and favorable standing with their monarchs back at home invaded all along the Caribbean coast in Central and South America.
The fact that the Muisca were not empire builders prone to subjugating other tribes, unlike the Aztecs and Incas, determined their quick demise. Within two years, the Spaniards had conquered, looted and pillaged all the Muisca territories. The last zipa’s rule in Bacatá ended in 1539, quickly followed in 1540 by the last zaque in Hunza. The last iraca of Suamox was known as Sugamuxi and is honored by several monuments in present-day Sogamoso.
An Archaeologist’s Mission
Unlike the Maya and Aztec who built towering stone pyramids, or the Inca who constructed stone cities with stone-paved roads to connect them, the Muisca built with thatch and wood. These materials were easily burned by the Spanish invaders who sought to destroy the natives’ way of life.
Without such monuments being visible above ground, the search for an ancient culture’s roots can be much more difficult. Luckily for Colombia, and for our understanding of Musica culture today, such a champion appeared in the form of Eliécer Silva Celis who lived from 1914–2007. Celis, a Colombian anthropologist, archaeologist and writer, dedicated his career to studying all aspects of Muisca history and culture.
His most important archaeological discoveries began when he uncovered a Muisca cemetery in a neighborhood of Sogamoso (ancient Suamox), a town approximately 209 kilometers (130 miles) to the northwest of Bogotá. Celis suspected this was the location of the Muisca’s famed Sun Temple after the discovery of a large group of mummified remains in the cemetery.
Over the next twenty years, the archaeologist worked diligently to map the site and reproduce Muisca dwellings and a complete, full-scale reconstruction of the Sun Temple on the spot where it once stood 500 years earlier. The grounds of the Sun Temple and cemetery can be visited today in Sogamoso, along with a very good archaeology museum established by Celis.
Although most of the Muisca’s most dazzling gold work can be found in Bogotá’s highly rated Gold Museum, the Sugamuxi–Eliécer Silva Celis Museum of Archaeology in Sogomoso contains an excellent collection of some 4,000 Muisca objects. This lesser-known museum not only allows visitors to browse without the normal crowds found at the Gold Museum, but it’s exhibits have been created to reflect a more complete history and teach visitors about daily life within traditional Muiscan society.
When in Colombia…
After my pilgrimage to the three Muisca regions–Hunza, Suamox and Bacatá, today’s Tunja, Sogamoso and Bogotá, respectively–I talked with Colombian friends who had no knowledge of the archaeology museum in Sogamoso. It’s obviously a well-kept secret and definitely a real jewel for those who are as keenly interested in ancient Latin American cultures as I am.
To reach Sogamoso, take a bus from either of Bogotá’s main bus terminals heading north for several hours to Tunja where you must change buses for Sogomoso, about a ninety-minute bus ride to the northeast. The return trip is easy by simply reversing the above instructions.