Does El Dorado Exist?

The year was 1531 A Spanish conquistador called Juan Martinez lay on his deathbed

With the final breath in his body, he confessed a secret: the story of a long lost place, deep in South America It was an isolated city he stumbled across when lost in the jungle, a place safe from the ravages of the European conquerors The people there were kind and peaceful, and astonishingly wealthy For they lived in a great city of gold, on the edge of a giant lake whose shores were laced with gold dust The Spanish called it El Dorado, and it has become legend

Does recent evidence suggest it really existed? El Dorado has captured the imagination of the world ever since the first rumours of its existence emerged in the early 16th century At least 20 expeditions have gone in search of it So certain were explorers that it was real, numerous early maps of South America include the lost city Juan Martinez, the catalyst for the craze, claimed he found the city after becoming separated from an expedition led by Diego de Ordaz De Ordaz was already looking for El Dorado along the Orinoco River, but never found it

Martinez, however, got lost floating downriver on a canoe Carried by the current, he was eventually found by a native tribe who blindfolded him and took him to their emperor, Inga They were kind to him – Emperor Inga treated him like a royal guest, feeding him and housing him in his great palace, where everything was made of gold The native Indian empires were incredibly rich in gold – the Spanish seized or mined most of it during their conquest For instance, Francisco Pizarro ransomed the Incan ruler Atahualpa for 24 tonnes of gold and silver

Estimates suggest up to 180 tonnes of gold and 16,000 tonnes of silver were brought from the New World to the Old The precise amount is unknown, because most of it was melted down and traded around the world Martinez did not call the city El Dorado He called it Manoa, and said the journey to it from the Orinoco lasted fourteen or fifteen days He claimed he lived there for seven months

Based on Martinez’ description, many expeditions went looking for El Dorado Spanish, German, Dutch and English explorers concentrated on Venezuela and the Colombian plateaus The main clue to its location was the name, Manoa, which means “big lake” This correlated with separate stories of a gigantic body of water called Lake Parime, somewhere in the mountains south of the Orinoco Explorers were convinced that Manoa and Parime were the same place, and the city of El Dorado was on the shore

Yet every expedition ended in failure German adventurers Nikolaus Federmann, Georg von Speyer and Philipp von Hutten spent 15 years leading hundreds of men to their deaths in search of El Dorado English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh went looking for it twice The second time was such a disaster, his son was killed, his best friend committed suicide and Raleigh himself was beheaded by the order of King James I The younger brother of Francisco Pizarro led thousands of men into the jungles to look for the gilded empire

He was forced to turn back after many of them died from disease, starvation and attacks from the natives However, his companion, Francisco de Orellana, did discover the Amazon River during the expedition The one recurring feature of all the expeditions, despite their tragic ends, was that they found gold almost everywhere among the tribes they encountered and along the riverbanks they navigated – presumably washed down from Lake Parime On the other hand, around the year 1800, scientist Alexander von Humboldt carried out an extensive survey of the river basins in the region, and found no trace of Lake Parime or El Dorado He noticed that a confluence of rivers flooded seasonally, and he concluded that tales of a giant lake were inspired by this

By the end of the 19th century, El Dorado was considered a mere myth, a metaphor for the folly of greed Instead, the story of El Dorado seems to have originated from a much more specific place The earliest references to it seem to be Spanish accounts of El Hombre Dorado – the gilded man Native Indians had told the Spanish about a ritual carried out by a tribe at Lake Guatavita near Bogota As Juan Rodriguez Freyle recorded in 1638, whenever the tribe appointed a new ruler, “They made a raft of rushes… [and] stripped the heir to his skin, and anointed him with a sticky earth on which they placed gold dust so that he was completely covered with this metal

They placed him on the raft… and at his feet they placed a great heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god… The gilded Indian then… [threw] out all the pile of gold into the middle of the lake… With this ceremony the new ruler was received, and was recognised as lord and king” This, according to historians, is the real El Dorado – an Indian ritual now vanished, another victim of the conquistadores However, in 1977 Brazilian geologists found a horizontal line running along hillsides at a uniform level roughly 120 metres above sea level The line is a mark of the water level of an ancient lake about 80,000 kilometres square – in other words, a massive body of water similar to Lake Parime Archaeology proves that people lived around it for thousands of years

Intriguingly, the lake existed until quite recently In 1690, an earthquake created a crack in the bedrock, and the lake drained away Any gold in the lake would have washed away with the water This may be the lake European explorers were searching for – and if Lake Parime existed, might the city of Manoa have existed too? For two centuries, El Dorado has been considered a myth It seems likely the name arose to describe a rare ritual, then was transferred to a legendary city

There is no proof that Juan Martinez’ story is true However, recent scientific discoveries support his tale of a big lake high in the mountains, one that could have been rich with gold and minerals It may be that El Dorado doesn't exist as a city made of gold But an isolated paradise boasting enormous wealth could well have been real, and inspired the stories that led so many explorers to disappointment and death

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