The name “El Dorado” has been attributed throughout the years to a city or countries with a fabulous wealth, inaccessible to geographers, explorers, and adventurers. All those who have ventured to look for the utopian El Dorado have endured incredible sufferings and ended up either by losing their minds or by killing their comrades or by curtailing their lives by suicide.
Most people who are at least vaguely curious about the ancient history of the Americas and the Age of Exploration know of the legend of El Dorado.
It’s the tale of an ancient, advanced city built entirely of gold, and tucked away in the “New World” where it was either destroyed or simply never located by European explorers and their descendants.
It’s a wonderful idea, and the sort of thing that, like the great civilization of Atlantis or extraterrestrial influence on the construction of the pyramids, you can’t help but want to believe.
This is painted old school in acrylics for DreamWorks animated feature The Road to El Dorado.
(Animation art art by Nathan Fowkes)
At this point in history, however, El Dorado is usually discounted fairly easily as a myth, or at least a dramatic exaggeration.
Perhaps the most well-known version of the legend we have in modern times is an animated Dreamworks film that, curiously enough, was critically panned (with most animated films of the era traditionally doing quite well). Said one review, the less you know about history, the better your chances of enjoying The Road To El Dorado.
That’s a nicer way of stating that the film somewhat butchered the legend, as well as the whole era of exploration, conveniently avoiding the genocidal aspect of it all.
The only major version of the El Dorado tale that’s more recent than this somewhat regretful film is Gonzo’s Quest, an animated online slot machine game that has taken the digital casino world by storm.
Revolving around an explorer in Peru, it uses New World symbology and a cartoonish but engaging jungle setting to capture the notion of hunting for lost riches.
While this game too makes light of explorers who, in real human history, committed atrocities, it’s almost a better take on the legend, presenting El Dorado as a goal to be sought, rather than the cheesy setting of an insensitive film.
In both cases though, El Dorado is treated as a fiction. It is, as stated, a myth or an exaggeration in the minds of the creators and animators who have attempted to bring it to life. This is fair enough given that we have no conclusive proof of a New World city of gold, and such a thing sounds unlikely. What’s important to remember however is how little we actually know about the Americas in ancient times. And for that reason it’s fair, despite everything just mentioned, to ask the question: is El Dorado actually real?
The mythical lost city of gold El Dorado, also known as Manoa, was thought to be located in the jungles of Colombia, South America, and remains a legend.
It’s a question that can’t be answered with certainty, but one that’s worth more consideration than some assume.
In particular, there are two legitimate cases for something resembling a “city of gold” has existed.
The first concerns satellite evidence of an undiscovered, great civilization in the heart of the Amazon. Fairly recently, satellite imagery has detected more than 200 huge geometric earthworks near the Brazil-Bolivia border.
These earthworks, which evidently hint at much more beneath the surface, are evidence of a “sophisticated pre-Columbian monument-building society,” according to one journal.
And in a more abstract sense, they may well be evidence of a mysterious civilization that was sought by numerous explorers. Some refer to it as El Dorado, and others as the Lost City Of Z (a similar idea that has spawned its own legends, most notably in the form of a book and recent film adaptation).
Whatever the case, we know that there were, in fact, early South American explorers who either glimpsed or heard tell of a great, deep Amazonian civilization and a great, hidden city.
None ever found it to document it in what we’d call recorded history, but the modern satellite evidence suggests the civilization really did exist.
An artist’s rendering of Cibola – one of the Seven Cities of Gold. For more than 500 years, explorers, scientists and researchers have been hunting for the legendary City of Gold, which according to ancient myth, is a buried metropolis full of gold and relics
The second case is actually, if anything, a little bit more concrete. It is essentially the existence of the Colombian Muisca tribe, which has been said to be responsible for the origins of the El Dorado legend.
There are different accounts, but the basic idea is that a people called the Muisca (whose descendants still live today) occupied Columbia thousands of years ago, and established a tradition of burying old kings and crowning new ones via a great deal of ritual.
That ritual included coating people in gold dust and stacking rafts with rich golden artifacts to be sent into a special lake.
It is largely accepted these days that Muisca traditions were distorted in tales, ultimately leading to tales of an entire city of gold.
This seems a satisfying explanation for the hyper-rational, but at the same time, it seems almost difficult to believe such a straightforward set of rituals being so dramatically misinterpreted.
This begs the question: might the ancient Muisca people have established something more closely resembling a small city of gold? Might it in fact now be at the bottom of the aforementioned lake?
Muisca people. Votive figure Tumbaga 600 A.D. – 1600 A.D. Guatavita – Colombia.Colección
The truth of it all is that we just don’t know what, if anything El Dorado ever was, and where its remains might be today.
However, while modern versions of the legend are quick to dismiss it as something playful or imagined, there is still compelling evidence out there for a version of the story (and city) that may have been very real.