No-one has ever found the fabled treasure of the Incas

Posted in Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

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This edited article about the Incas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 579 published on 17 February 1973.

The Golden Man,  picture, image, illustration

The Golden Man or El Dorado

As the early morning sun rose behind the peaks surrounding the lake, so the surface of the water changed at last. The sinister and gloomy appearance that it presented in the shadows disappeared, and suddenly the rippling surface looked alive. The first rays of sunshine had hardly become apparent when, at a signal from the high priests, a ceremonial raft was pushed away from the shore to begin its slow journey to the centre of the lake.

On board the raft was only one man, his body glittering with gold dust. This was El Dorado, the Gilded Man, and the beginning of the legend of the world’s most fabulous treasure. For the Chibcha tribe, who lived around the Holy Lake of Guatavita, it was also the climax to months of feasting and preparation as they finally crowned a new king.

The ritual at each coronation was the same. The king was first anointed with a resinous gum to which the gold dust could stick and then given an elaborate head-dress made of pure gold and encrusted with emeralds. When his balsa wood raft reached the middle of the lake his new subjects all turned their backs while he plunged into the lake and let all the gold dust wash off. Thus cleansed, he returned to the bank, and, amidst great celebrations, his subjects cast their own offerings of gold, rubies, sapphires and emeralds as far into the lake as they could.

It must have been an incredible sight. A people who hardly valued gold were throwing unbelievable treasures away as if they were worthless trinkets. The lonely lake, set 10,000 feet up in the mountains and about thirty miles from what is now Bogota in Colombia became, over the centuries, the most fabulous treasure chest that even South America, with all its Inca gold, could not match.

Not surprisingly, the story of the gold-encrusted king long outlived the actual ceremonies and as a result Guatavita lake had seen some of the most determined and ingenious treasure hunts that have ever been mounted. They started as early as 1538 when the legend of the lake reached the ears of the gold-hungry Spaniards who were already looting and conquering much of the the northern part of the continent.

Gonzalo Ximenes de Quesada was one of the men who was given the task of subduing the Chibcha provinces and finding the treasure. He led 625 soldiers along the back-breaking and tortuous trails, losing nearly five hundred of them from disease, hunger and privation before he finally reached the high plateau in the Cordillera and came face to face with the fabled lake.

Quesada had to be sure he was not searching in vain and when the remains of the staircase down which the king walked were found he could at last be satisfied that one part of his task was over. Treacherous Indian guides had so often led them astray that there had been times when he felt his little party would all perish. Now the survivors threw themselves into the search with new-found energy. Around the edge of the lake, where the water was shallow, the treasure could quite simply be picked up, but Quesada was more ambitious.

He had decided to drain the lake – an immense undertaking. His soldiers rounded up no less than 8,000 Indian slaves and, driving them to work with whips began to breach the steep wall of the crater where the walls were thin, and so let out the water. The channel was hastily constructed and badly made and soon walls crumbled and fell and the flow of water was reduced to a trickle. Quesada’s tiny force could no longer maintain a hold over their huge army of slaves and unrest, strikes and finally an open revolt erupted.

One of the victims of the revolt was Quesada himself and it was left to his brother, Herman, to continue the search as best he could. Despite the appearance of more soldiers, a huge landslide stopped any further progress and soon afterwards a profound silence once more closed around the secrets of the Holy Lake.

Few people today believe that Quesada recovered more than a tiny fraction of Guatavita’s treasure, yet the items taken would probably be valued now at almost half a million pounds. Meanwhile the legend of El Dorado persisted for three centuries without anyone being able to repeat Quesada’s feat. The Spanish eventually coined a proverb to explain their failure. They said “Happiness is only to be found in El Dorado, which no-one has yet been able to reach.”

Interest in the lake was stimulated again in the 19th century by both explorers and archaeologists, not least when a Frenchman announced that according to his calculations the value of the treasure was over a thousand million pounds.

Then in 1903 a British syndicate achieved the engineering feat of draining the lake completely. They did so by piercing a hill with an 1,100 foot tunnel and there, in the silt and mud on the lake floor could be seen engraved idols, jugs, rings, jewels and golden armour – an indication of the treasure that was there for the taking.

Some items were retrieved that day, but within 24 hours the mud had baked as hard as concrete, and the party had to go to Bogota for fresh drills. By the time they returned, the lake had mysteriously refilled.

Neither this expedition, nor many subsequent ones, have been able to do more than recover very small proportions of what must remain in El Dorado. Yet it is not the only magnet for South American treasure hunters. The story of Atahualpa’s ransom is a sordid and treacherous one but it, too, is well documented and the key to another immense fortune awaits someone who can unlock its secrets.

Atahualpa was an Inca king who was captured by Franciso Pizarro, leader of the conquistadores and perhaps the arch-plunderer of all the continent’s Spanish visitors. Atahualpa realised that he could only appeal to his captor’s greed and so, in 1533, he struck a bargain with Pizarro that he should buy his freedom. He guaranteed to fill his room in which he was held captive with gold and silver to a height equal to his upstretched hand.

The Spanish could hardly believe their good fortune, for this was no mean cell but an imposing chamber measuring 22 feet by 17 feet. Orders were sent to every part of the vast Inca kingdom and gold trains were set in motion. But the Spanish had no intention of keeping their part of the bargain and, once they were satisfied that the precious cargoes were being delivered, Atahualpa was hastily hauled before a court on a concocted charge, and murdered. In doing so, however, the Spanish lost far more than they gained by their treachery.

As news of the murder spread throughout the empire, the captains of the great llama trains hurriedly hid their treasure in caves, lakes and secret passageways. With incredible speed and efficiency, the bulk of the ransom literally disappeared before the Spanish could collect it. So well was the task performed, that hardly an item of it (and the total must now be worth fifty million pounds) has ever been found.

Since then, countless treasure hunts have been mounted by poor but hopeful individuals, groups of explorers and soldiers and august bodies like the Royal Geographical Society. One man spent years searching for an artificial lake into which much of the treasure is believed to lie. Another was deserted by his porters and rescued, half mad and completely exhausted, by a relief expedition.

The real problem facing all the would-be treasure hunters lies in the reaction of the Inca people to the Spanish treachery. A proud and independent race, they were absolutely determined not to bow to their conquerors and, long after the treasure was actually hidden they resolved to keep the secret.

Even in recent years, questioning about the treasure has produced a hostile reaction from Indians. Pedro Pizarro’s warning to his fellow countrymen is still true. “There are countless treasures in this country,” he said, “but only a miracle can bring them to light.” Despite all the aids of modern science, that miracle is still being sought.

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