Did El Dorado Really Exist?

The legend of El Dorado is a long-enduring story shrouded in mystery, controversy, and perhaps even a twist of truth (via BBC). As legend would have it, 16th and 17th-century explorers with a thirst for gold and their sights set on South America described a land of enormous wealth and unparalleled beauty. They called this fantastical destination El Dorado – the City of Gold.

From the 1500s on, thousands of explorers would risk life, limb, and reputation in the name of discovering El Dorado (via History Collection). All of their attempts were in vain. No golden city was discovered in this rumored region of the Andes Mountains — not by land or even by lake. Many historians believe it was greed that fueled the rumors of this fabled place. 

As time wore on, an inevitable question was asked — Did El Dorado even exist? The answer is likely yes, but not the way European explorers envisioned it.

El Dorado was likely a person, not a place

According to the Muisca people, the inhabitants of the area at that time, El Dorado was likely a person, not a place (via BBC). Their twist on the legend was that the "Golden One" lived and breathed as a chief who draped himself in gold as part of an ancient ritual. By this standard, there was likely more than one El Dorado to speak of, as chiefs were born in succession and partook in the tradition of adorning themselves in gold and offering up precious metals as gifts to their gods. Archeological evidence supports this claim.

As part of the rites ritual, El Dorado would reportedly even toss gold into the local lake, a gesture that was seen as somewhat ordinary since gold was quite abundant in the region at that time. For this reason, some explorers believed the golden treasure was not covering the land of the village but rather buried at the bottom of the lake. Adding to the mystical appeal of the legend, some explorers went so far as to even drain the lake of all its water, only to find a paltry pile of gold worth much less than the endeavor ultimately cost (via History Collection).