Photo: Gold artwork

The scene depicted in this ancient artwork, on display at the Gold Museum in Bogota, Colombia, shows the origin of the El Dorado myth. Legend tells of a Muisca king who would cover himself in gold dust during festivals, then dive from a raft into Lake Guatavita.

Photograph by Mauricio Duenas/AFP/Getty Images

By Willie Drye

The lust for gold spans all eras, races, and nationalities. To possess any amount of gold seems to ignite an insatiable desire to obtain more.

Through the centuries, this passion gave rise to the enduring tale of a city of gold. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans believed that somewhere in the New World there was a place of immense wealth known as El Dorado. Their searches for this treasure wasted countless lives, drove at least one man to suicide, and put another man under the executioner's ax.

"El Dorado shifted geographical locations until finally it simply meant a source of untold riches somewhere in the Americas," says Jim Griffith, a folklorist in Tucson, Arizona.

But this place of immeasurable riches hasn't been found.

The origins of El Dorado lie deep in South America. And like all enduring legends, the tale of El Dorado contains some scraps of truth. When Spanish explorers reached South America in the early 16th century, they heard stories about a tribe of natives high in the Andes mountains in what is now Colombia. When a new chieftain rose to power, his rule began with a ceremony at Lake Guatavita. Accounts of the ceremony vary, but they consistently say the new ruler was covered with gold dust, and that gold and precious jewels were thrown into the lake to appease a god that lived underwater.

The Spaniards started calling this golden chief El Dorado, "the gilded one." The ceremony of the gilded man supposedly ended in the late 15th century when El Dorado and his subjects were conquered by another tribe. But the Spaniards and other Europeans had found so much gold among the natives along the continent's northern coast that they believed there had to be a place of great wealth somewhere in the interior. The Spaniards didn't find El Dorado, but they did find Lake Guatavita and tried to drain it in 1545. They lowered its level enough to find hundreds of pieces of gold along the lake's edge. But the presumed fabulous treasure in the deeper water was beyond their reach.

Raleigh's Quest

English courtier Sir Walter Raleigh made two trips to Guiana to search for El Dorado. During his second trip in 1617, he sent his son, Watt Raleigh, with an expedition up the Orinoco River. But Walter Raleigh, then an old man, stayed behind at a base camp on the island of Trinidad. The expedition was a disaster, and Watt Raleigh was killed in a battle with Spaniards. Eric Klingelhofer, an archaeologist at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, says Walter Raleigh was furious at the survivor who informed him of Watt's death and accused the survivor of letting his son be killed. "The man goes into his cabin on the ship and kills himself," says Klingelhofer, who is trying to find the site of Raleigh's base camp on Trinidad.

Raleigh returned to England, where King James ordered him beheaded for, among other things, disobeying orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.

The legend of El Dorado endures because "you want it to be true," says Jose Oliver, a lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. "I don't think we've ever stopped seeking El Dorado."

So where is this lost city of gold? In his 1849 poem "El Dorado," writer Edgar Allan Poe offers an eerie and eloquent suggestion: "Over the Mountains of the Moon, down the Valley of the Shadow, ride, boldly ride…if you seek for El Dorado."

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