National Geographic : 1988 Dec
SIEl Dorado: agolden king on a golden rat umors of riches lured the Spanish conquistadores to penetrate South America in the 16th century, and riches they found. But the most storied prize remained the most elusive: the kingdom of El Dorado, "the gilded man." Indian legend told of a sacred lake and a golden king. Anoint ed with resin and dusted with pure powdered gold, he would raft to the lake's center to hurl gold and emeralds into the water as gifts to the gods. A ritual bath completed his offerings. Themenona raft in this cast gold statue published in the September 1985 NATIONAL form separate parts of the group ing, even the fine twining wire of the king's nose ornament. Long before Spaniards ar rived, Muisca goldsmiths were making tunjos depicting many aspects of Indian life, generally as single figures: a shaman, a coca-leaf chewer, a mother cra dling her child. One tunjo repre sents a proud warrior, his club in one hand, a severed head in the other. The golden raft is an unusually elaborate example. The Spaniards imagined the land of El Dorado as a place of indescribable wealth, yet the Muisca had no local source for gold. They imported all they had from neighboring tribes in exchange for salt and emeralds. And their craftsmen learned to conserve. They developed a copper-and-gold alloy and used a distinctive flat style for their tunjos. Both techniques stretched their supply. Today the golden king is displayed at the Museo del Oro in Bogota, Colombia. "The Spaniards sought gold and spices," an official told us, GEOGRAPHIC seem to portray the ceremony of El Dorado. Found in the central highlands of Co lombia in 1968, this tunjo, or votive offering, was crafted by the Muisca Indians. Only 18.3 centimeters (7 inches) long, it displays exquisite detail from the king's high headdress to the tiny lashings of the reed raft. Crafts men used lost-wax casting to "but when they saw the gold ornaments, they forgot about the spices." Though Europeans wrested thousands of gold relics from their owners and melted them down for shipment home, they never forgot El Dorado. Tales of the ceremony persisted for cen turies, centering on Lake Guata vita near Bogota. Guatavita was partially drained. Gold was found, but no great cache to match the fabled wealth of the legend.