The legendary lost city of El Dorado has become an integral part of modern conspiracy mythos, as demonstrated by an offhand reference in Image Comics’ The Department of Truth #19, by James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds. When Cole Turner asks where they’re going, his partner jokes that they’re headed to “El Dorado,” but then reveals they’re actually going to Fort Knox. The obvious parallel is that both El Dorado and Fort Knox are associated with gold, but both sites are also linked to conspiracy theories.
In The Department of Truth, Fort Knox is home to evidence of an alternate version of the 20th century, but in our own world, the military base is occasionally accused of being the focus of Deep State conspiracies to manipulate the value of gold and otherwise allow the Federal Reserve to become a puppet master of the economy. Back in 2010, Congressman Ron Paul introduced a bill to audit the Federal Reserve, which would allow Congress to find out what was really being held in Fort Knox, and perhaps more importantly, build credence with his voting base and their distrust of the Reserve.
Similar dreams of becoming masters of a global economy drove the 16th century European fervor that became the hunt for El Dorado. Except unlike Fort Knox, the gold of El Dorado was never more than the product of colonial imagination. From the very beginning, the European invasion of the Americas had the hunt for gold as a foremost thought.
Christopher Columbus noted numerous times in the account of his first voyage that many of the indigenous people he encountered wore gold jewelry. After pressuring them, and sometimes imprisoning people in an effort to learn the source of this gold, he ascertained that “going from the island to the south, there was a king who had great cups full [of gold], and who possessed a great quantity.” It should be noted that neither Columbus nor the indigenous people he harassed spoke one another’s languages, so Columbus’ account must have been considerably influenced by his own assumptions.
Over the next 50 years, conquistadors encountered numerous complex and wealthy indigenous American cultures, most notably the Maya of Central America, the Mexica (or Aztec) of Central Mexico, and the Inka of Andean South America. These meetings magnified their belief that great mountains of gold could be discovered in the Americas.
The name El Dorado is derived from a tradition of the Muisca people, a group indigenous to modern day Colombia. The Muisca carried out a ritual that Spanish conquistadors referred to as El Hombre Dorado, or “The Golden Man.” In this ritual, the leader of the Muisca was coated from head to foot in a mixture of gold dust and mud, creating a truly golden man. Next, a raft was loaded with golden objects and other finely crafted goods. The Muisca leader would board the raft and float to the center of Lake Guatavita, where he threw the lustrous objects into the dark waters, never to be seen again.
A story of such unrestrained wealth, coupled with the riches gained through pillage and conquest, fired the European imagination into believing that surely even greater riches could be found in the Americas. The first formal expedition for El Dorado was launched from Cuzco, Peru, in 1541, under the direction of Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of Francisco Pizarro, who’d led the Spanish assault on the Inka Empire. The goal was to locate the fabled golden city thought to lie in the heart of the Amazon jungle. In order to reach the Amazon, Pizarro’s forces had to first cross the Andean mountains, a process that proved grueling and nearly disastrous for the poorly outfitted company.
Once across the mountains, the soldiers faced a wholly new set of challenges, as they became the first Europeans to enter the world’s largest rainforest. As the expedition struggled through the jungle, Pizarro became convinced that El Dorado lay just out of reach. Whenever the expedition encountered indigenous people, Pizarro would question them as to the whereabouts of the famed golden city. When the locals couldn’t tell him where it was, he often threatened them with the company’s war dogs or outright tortured them, demanding they give up the city’s location.
With his soldiers starving, and no actionable information on the location of El Dorado, Pizarro grew increasingly desperate. In an attempt to find an accessible route forward, he split the party in two, sending his lieutenant, Francisco Orellana, further downriver while he explored an overland route. The two parties never saw each other again. Pizarro was soon forced to return to Cuzco with his tattered and demoralized troops, while Orellana continued following the river.
Orellana and his party were the first Europeans to travel the length of the Amazon River, ultimately emerging in the Atlantic Ocean, where they worked their way north to Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. When Orellana returned to Spain, he told spectacular stories about their voyage, claiming the jungle was full of native cities, many of which were controlled by a distant city of even greater size and wealth. He also claimed the party had been attacked by a group of noble warrior women, which led to the region being named after the Amazons of Greek legend.
With the apparent spectacle of another wealthy American empire to conquer, the Spanish Crown agreed to fund a return expedition to the Amazon, led by Orellana. On his way across the Atlantic, though, Orellana became ill and ultimately died as the ships approached the mouth of the great river. Without their leader, the expedition crumbled, and with it the chance to find El Dorado.
Many of Orellana’s contemporaries argued that his stories were exaggerations aimed at gaining the favor of the Crown and avoiding the wrath of Gonzalo Pizarro, who’d accused Orellana of desertion after their separation. By the 19th century, this view had become codified among Western historians, who considered the Amazon an inhospitable place, unsuitable for large-scale populations. Recent archaeological research, however, has begun to challenge these assumptions.
Over the past 20 years, archaeological projects working in the Amazon Basin have regularly found signs that suggest the region was home to larger populations then previously demonstrated. In 2003, Michael Heckenberger documented the existence of extensive earthworks and even raised roads connecting settlements along the Upper Xingu river. In 2014, Crystal McMichael suggested that more than 3% of the Amazon Basin’s soils had been created through human activities. In 2018, Jonas Gregoria de Souza and his colleague used satellite imagery to document a network of interconnected villages stretching over 1,000 miles. And earlier this year, new LiDAR images revealed urban settlements in the Bolivian Amazon.
While these findings are impressive and change our understanding of the history of the Amazon basin, they still don’t match the whispered rumors of El Dorado’s wealth in gold. The magnificence of El Dorado stories was instead rooted in attempts by indigenous Americans to thwart European invaders. From Columbus to Pizarro, as conquistadors became increasingly violent in their demands, natives increasingly responded with claims that the gold they sought was across the next river or behind the next hill, anywhere but nearby. Indigenous Americans realized that stories of treasure were a surefire way to distract, and maybe even get rid of, these unwanted guests.
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