El Dorado and the Art of Gold in Colombia

Have you ever heard of the legend of a city made of pure gold called “El Dorado” from South America? Well this myth made famous by Spaniards searching for gold had its origin in Colombia with the Muiscas, a native Colombian chiefdom. The Muiscas loved gold but in a very different way from the Spaniards or even us today, they saw it as a way to communicate with the divine through ritual. And it wasn’t only the Muiscas, there were many other indigenous groups that created incredible objects with gold for their adoration of the divine.

With this post I am aiming to learn a bit about some of these indigenous chiefdoms and showcase their extraordinary goldsmith work and of course when we get to the Muiscas, I will tell you a summarized version of El Dorado! ^ ^

This is the only graphic I found of the Colombian Indigenous groups and the dates of their chiefdoms:

Cr. Todacolombia

And this is a map of their location within Colombia:

Wikimedia Commons. Cr. Dr. Brains

The Calima

Calima culture (200 BCE–400 CE) is a series of pre-Columbian cultures from the Valle del Cauca in Colombia. The four societies that successively occupied the valley and make up Calima culture are the Ilama, Yotoco, Sonso, and Malagana cultures.

Animal Figure Pendant 1-7BC. Cr. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ceremonial Tweezers. 900-1000 BCE Cr. The Walter Art Museum
Nose ornament with danglers, in the shape of a feline
Calima-Malagana Region – Yotoco Period-200/1300. Cr. El Museo del Oro, Colombia

A Chieftain of the Yotoco period in the Calima region, in the South-western part of Colombia, was buried with this gold ornament, his nose ring.

The eyes in green stone give him a penetrating look; his spotted skin and ears indicate a jaguar, the golden coloured American feline with night sight. The two lower extensions are the front legs and on both sides we can see, in accordance with the American Indian perspective showing the two sides simultaneously, the back legs doubled as the ravenous feline is preparing to jump at us.

Necklace with flower pendant. 100 BCE-400 CE Cr. El Museo del Oro, Colombia

Connection to home! Recently I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and they had some gold from the Calima and other chiefdoms. I will place them through out this post. I was so impressed with their goldsmith abilities!

The Tolima

Tolima metalsmiths created flat, abstract pendants based on human form, casting the face in low relief to accentuate the head as the source of spiritual power. The Tolima and many ancient American religions believed that humans had spirit companions and that certain people (called shamans in English) could transform themselves into their spirit forms. This pendant represents a shaman in their animal spirit form. The wing-like arms and tail signify the shaman’s supernatural flight. (3)

Breastplate in the form of a jaguar – man
Mid-Magdalena Valley (Tolima) – Middle Period-1/700 Cr. Museo del Oro, Colombia

This large chest plate was manufactured by a skilled goldsmith with the technique of lost wax casting in a tumbaga –gold and copper alloy– in reddish colour due to the high copper content. The design of the fretwork on the body and the headdress of the figure were finely cut out in the wax before the metal pouring took place.

Wondering what this means? I found this great video that shows the casting method of making gold pieces like these. It is incredible how much work it takes!

The Zenú (Sinú)

The Zenú or Sinú is a pre-Columbian culture in Colombia, whose ancestral territory comprises the valleys of the Sinú and San Jorge rivers as well as the coast of the Caribbean around the Gulf of Morrosquillo.

The Zenú culture existed from about 200 BCE to about 1600 CE, constructing major waterworks and producing gold ornaments. The gold that was often buried with their dead lured the Spanish conquistadors, who looted much of the gold. With the arrival of the Spaniards, the tribe almost died out due to excessive taxation, forced labor, and western diseases. The Zenú language disappeared around 200 years ago. However, the 2018 Colombian Census showed 307,091 Zenú people in Colombia.

Staff finial in the shape of a bird
Caribbean Plains (Zenú) – Early Period-200/1000 Cr. Google Arts And Culture
Nose ornament with danglers
Caribbean Plains (Zenú) – Early Period-200/1000 Cr. El Museo del Oro, Colombia
Pendant with birds. Zeú or Tairona. Early Period. 200-900 CE. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Cr. Maria G. Acuna
Anthropo-zoomorphous pendant
Caribbean Plains (Zenú) – Late Period1000/1600. Cr. El Museo del Oro, Colombia
Gold earrings. Zenu -200-1000 CE. Cr. Museo del Oro

In the figure of a shamanic dancer, this pendant is made of tumbaga, a gold and copper alloy, with the cire perdue (lost wax) casting method. A model made of beeswax was covered with clay to form a mold, heated to remove the wax while preserving its shape in the mold, and finally transformed into metal by pouring melted metal into the hollow shape. In Conquest times, Spaniards thought that Indian goldsmiths could melt gold with some plants: the proof was that fingerprints could be seen on some objects. The pattern on this pendant seems, however, to be that of a textile used to work the beeswax. (3)

The Tairona

The Tairona inhabited northern Colombia in the isolated mountain range of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (current Magdalena Department, northern Colombia). They created a wide variety of gold alloy objects using the lost-wax technique as well. These typical Tairona figures depict animal faces and fantastical headdresses suggesting the portrayal of transformed beings. These beings (shamans) act as intermedaries between the community and the supernatural.

I saw all these at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston:

One thing I read about related to the Tairona and their descendants called The Kogi is that there is an incredible ancient site called “Teyuna.” In Spanish known as “La Ciudad Perdida” (The Lost City) This site in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Colombia is believed to have been founded about 800 CE. If so, Ciudad Perdida predates Machu Picchu by about 650 years! They are still confirming this…

Ciudad Perdida was discovered in 1972 by Los Sepúlvedas, a group of local treasure looters. Los Sepúlvedas were a small family of looters living in Colombia. The family often went hunting in the forests, and one day they shot a wild turkey. While retrieving the turkey, they noticed it had fallen on a series of stone steps rising up the mountainside.

Soon after, gold figures and ceramic urns from Ciudad Perdida began to appear on the local black market. This alerted archaeologists, and a team led by the director of the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología, reached the site in 1976. The site was reconstructed between 1976 and 1982. Although La Ciudad Perdida is an impressive site, it is not the only one of its kind. Only about 30–40% of the sites in the Sierra Nevada region have been explored. However, thanks to recent widespread lidar access, more and more of these sites are being discovered. (1)

Ready to see it? Let’s do it!

Incredible huh? I thought the same… how did they use it? who lived where? … so much we still don’t know hidden all over South America. In a way I pray that these places are preserved as we “discover” them.

Members of local tribes – notably the Kogi people – have stated that they visited the site of Ciudad Perdida regularly before it was widely reported, but had kept quiet about it. They call the city “Teyuna” and believe it was the heart of a network of villages inhabited by their forebears, the Tairona.

Here are some photos via Wikimedia Commons.

View of the center area of Ciudad Perdida Cr. Wanderingstan
Dwayne Reilander 
Section of the stone staircase that leads up from the river valley. Cr. Dwayne Reilander 
Koguis Tribeswoman and child. Cr. Dwayne Reilander 
Koguis Shaman. Cr. Dwayne Reilander 

The Muisca

The Muisca inhabited mainly the area of what is now Bogotá and the departments of Boyacá and Cundinamarca in central Colombia, where they formed the Muisca Confederation. They farmed corn, potato, quinoa and cotton, and traded gold, emeralds, blankets, ceramic handicrafts, coca and especially rock salt with neighboring nations.

The Muisca goldsmiths are known for creating small votive offerings called “Tunjos.” These have been found in groups numbering as few as two and as many as fifty-seven. The arrangement of these pieces often hints at a cosmology built around the idea of a dualistic universe defined by complementary opposed principles, such a barrenness and fertility and the need to maintain equilibrium between the sun-lit word of humans and the dark spirit world. (2)

Tunjos were cast in a single mold, using one flow of metal. the mold included the fine details, even though it would have been easier to make those separately and attach them afterwards. The difficult technique suggest that the very production of the pieces was linked to ritual. (2)

All of the following photos are of Tunjos made of gold or gold alloy by the Muiscas or Guane peoples from CE 600-1600. All of these are part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Crown and ear pendants with danglers. Muisca CE 600-1600. Cr. Museo del Oro, Colombia.

Notice the lace like rim on the previous crown. This visual effect of Muisca metalwork objects is partly due to the technique most commonly used, lost-wax casting with the surface left unfinished. This fine ornamental detail on the rim of this diadem, would disappear if the surface was made smooth.

Anthropomorphous breastplate with danglers. Muisca CE 600-1600. Cr. Museo del Oro.

This Muisca breastplate illustrates a common –and extraordinary– motif which used to adorn the chests of numerous Muisca chieftains in the central part of the territory now known as Colombia. A man with legs apart and arms raised is wearing an enormous radial headdress. The hanging plates create countless reflections of light, which clearly represent the sun’s rays. This is the Sun, the star that gives us life every day, in human form. It crosses the firmament each day: the position of the body indicates his flight, as do the birds either side of the waist, with plates that indicate the movement of the shining feathers. (3)

With a breastplate like this, Muisca farmers would never have doubted the life-giving power of their chieftain. These laminar Muisca artefacts were not hammered, but cast: the principal plate and all the details were made out of and decorated in beeswax, and on seeing them close up, it is both easy and exciting to imagine the artisan’s work. The sun-man’s face was made with a stamp carved in soft stone, a technique that was developed by the metalsmiths from this region. (3)

The Legend of El Dorado

Before I get into the Legend of El Dorado, I wanted to let you know that the barge you saw above was cast as a single piece!!! It is considered the masterpiece and the most extraordinary gold artifact created by the Muiscas. One cast… my jaw is under my feet! ^ ^

The legend of El Dorado (meaning the golden one) was a term used by the Spaniards to describe the initiation rite of the chief or king of the Muiscas people at lake Guatavita. What was observed soon became a legend going from the king to a place.

This is the account of a Spanish writer named  Juan Rodriguez Freyle from what he observed in 1638:

“The ceremony took place on the appointment of a new ruler. Before taking office, he spent some time secluded in a cave, without women, forbidden to eat salt, or to go out during daylight. The first journey he had to make was to go to the great lagoon of Guatavita, to make offerings and sacrifices to the demon which they worshipped as their god and lord. During the ceremony which took place at the lagoon, they made a raft of rushes, embellishing and decorating it with the most attractive things they had. They put on it four lighted braziers in which they burned much moque, which is the incense of these natives, and also resin and many other perfumes. The lagoon was large and deep, so that a ship with high sides could sail on it, all loaded with an infinity of men and women dressed in fine plumes, golden plaques and crowns. … As soon as those on the raft began to burn incense, they also lit braziers on the shore, so that the smoke hid the light of day.

At this time, they 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. In the raft with him went four principal subject chiefs, decked in plumes, crowns, bracelets, pendants and ear rings all of gold. They, too, were naked, and each one carried his offering … when the raft reached the centre of the lagoon, they raised a banner as a signal for silence.

The gilded Indian then … [threw] out all the pile of gold into the middle of the lake, and the chiefs who had accompanied him did the same on their own accounts. … After this they lowered the flag, which had remained up during the whole time of offering, and, as the raft moved towards the shore, the shouting began again, with pipes, flutes and large teams of singers and dancers. With this ceremony the new ruler was received, and was recognized as lord and king.”

The concept of El Dorado underwent several transformations, and eventually accounts of the previous myth were also combined with those of a legendary lost city. The resulting El Dorado myth enticed European explorers for two centuries. Among the earliest stories was the one told on his deathbed by Juan Martinez, a captain of munitions for Spanish adventurer Diego de Ordaz, who claimed to have visited the city of Manoa. Martinez had allowed a store of gunpowder to catch fire and was condemned to death, however his friends let him escape downriver in a canoe. Martinez then met with some local people who took him to the city of gold… El Dorado.

The fable of Juan Martinez was founded on the adventures of Juan Martin de Albujar, well known to the Spanish historians of the Conquest; and who, in the expedition of Pedro de Silva (1570), fell into the hands of the Caribs of the Lower Orinoco.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans, still fascinated by the New World, believed that a hidden city of immense wealth existed. Numerous expeditions were mounted to search for this treasure, all of which ended in failure. The illustration of El Dorado’s location on maps only made matters worse, as it made some people think that the city of El Dorado’s existence had been confirmed. The mythical city of El Dorado on Lake Parime was marked on numerous maps until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt during his Latin America expedition (1799–1804). (1)

This was one of these maps:

Wikimedia Commons. Cr. Jodocus Hondius, 1598. 

Lake Guatavita

But of course there was still Lake Guatavita… and the gold from the rituals… and here is what happened to the lake:

While the existence of a sacred lake in the Eastern Ranges of the Andes, associated with Indian rituals involving gold, was known to the Spaniards possibly as early as 1531, its location was only discovered in 1537 by conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada while on an expedition to the highlands of the Eastern Ranges of the Andes in search of gold.

Conquistadores Lázaro Fonte and Hernán Perez de Quesada attempted (unsuccessfully) to drain the lake in 1545 using a “bucket chain” of labourers. After 3 months, the water level had been reduced by 3 metres, and only a small amount of gold was recovered, with a value of 3000–4000 pesos (approx. US$100,000 today; a peso or piece of eight of the 15th century weighs 0.88 oz of 93% pure silver).

A later more industrious attempt was made in 1580, by Bogotá business entrepreneur Antonio de Sepúlveda. A notch was cut deep into the rim of the lake, which managed to reduce the water level by 20 metres, before collapsing and killing many of the labourers. A share of the findings—consisting of various golden ornaments, jewellery and armour—was sent to King Philip II of Spain. Sepúlveda’s discovery came to approximately 12,000 pesos. He died a poor man, and is buried at the church in the small town of Guatavita.

In 1801, Alexander von Humboldt made a visit to Guatavita, and on his return to Paris, calculated from the findings of Sepúlveda’s efforts that Guatavita could offer up as much as $300 million worth of gold.

In 1898, the Company for the Exploitation of the Lagoon of Guatavita was formed and taken over by Contractors Ltd. of London, in a deal brokered by British expatriate Hartley Knowles. The lake was drained by a tunnel that emerged in the centre of the lake. The water was drained to a depth of about 4 feet of mud and slime.This made it impossible to explore, and when the mud had dried in the sun, it had set like concrete. Artifacts worth only about £500 were found, and auctioned at Sotheby’s of London. Some of these were donated to the British Museum. The company filed for bankruptcy and ceased activities in 1929.

In 1965, the Colombian government designated the lake as a protected area. Private salvage operations, including attempts to drain the lake, are now illegal.

Lake Guatavita. Cr. Juan Camilo Jaramillo
Cr. Trip Advisor.

The tradition of goldsmith continues in Colombia into today. Many people travel to Colombia to buy gold and emeralds from their very talented and experienced goldsmiths. I wanted to look into this but I think this post is already long enough!

If you wish to see more of the beautiful gold pieces from Museo del Oro go HERE.

Here are also some great videos:

When placing oneself as a witness… it’s incredible to see what this mineral we have called gold has meant to human kind…

Thank you so much for coming along on this shiny virtual ride!


(1) Wikipedia

(2) Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

(3) Museo del Oro via Google Arts and Culture

1 Comment

  1. Increíble todo lo descrito en este Post sobre las diferentes tribus indígenas que poblaron la geografía de Colombiay que por cientos de años trabajaron El Oro para rituales religiosos y como parte de su decoración corporal. Precioso. Gracias


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