Having just finished David Grann’s wonderful book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, which examines the obsessive hunt of Colonel P.H. Fawcett for a lost city in the Amazon, I felt compelled to write on the legend of El Dorado. This book is a wonderful read, offers some surprising insights, and is exceptionally well researched, we highly recommend it. Grann’s “Lost City of Z” focuses on Fawcett’s expeditions in the lower Xingu, a southern tributary of the Amazon. Here Fawcett believed he would discover a great lost city and indeed, modern archeologists are unearthing just such a site in this precise area. The modern day discoverer of these ruins is the archeologist Michael Heckenberger who had unearthed several great cities surrounded by massive moats and connected by gigantic arrow straight causeway-roads. Though now largely overgrown by the jungle and their once great populations vanished, such cities were indeed reported by the first Europeans to venture into the Amazon. It was long thought that the conditions in the Amazon were inimical to large populations and that the first conquistadors to travel the Amazon were simply lying. However, the truth is far more terrifying, for these first lonely explorers carried with them diseases and illnesses previously unknown to region and in the dark years that followed when few white men entered the Amazon, the great indigenous populations were all but wiped out.
By the time Fawcett began exploring the Amazon in early 20th century the legend and mythic quality of El Dorado was already firmly established. Thus when Fawcett started discovering these causeway-roads and pottery deposits in the middle of an area inhabited only by a few primitive seeming jungle tribes, the association with the mythical lost city of gold was natural. However, for centuries El Dorado had already been appearing on maps, though quite far from the lower Xingu. Instead most antique maps place El Dorado far to the north, on an island in the midst of a vase saline lake between the lower Orinoco River and the northern Amazon tributaries. How did it get there?
The legend of El Dorado, or “Golden Man”, seems to be an amalgamation of fact and fantasy. The legend, which describes a great king who is daily covered in gold dust so that he shines like a god before cleansing himself in a sacred lake, is in fact based on Chibcha rituals. The Chibcha, a tribe living in what is today part of Columbia, did exactly this, though not daily. By the time the Europeans had arrived, this practice seems to have been largely abandoned but it easy to imagine why Europeans, fresh from the conquest of Peru and Mexico, would be drawn to the idea.
However, we digress, the real culprit responsible for several hundred years of mapping “El Dorado” and “Lake Parime” in Guyana must be Sir Walter Raleigh, who explored this region in search of the legendary kingdom of gold in 1595. Raleigh was the first to connect “El Dorado” to the the land or city of “Manoa”. Raleigh does not visit the city of Manoa (which he believes is El Dorado) himself due to the onset of the rainy season, however he describes the city, based on indigenous accounts, as resting on a salt lake over 200 leagues long somewhere in what today must be Guyana, northern Brazil, or Southeastern Venezuela. Nor does Raleigh precisely locate Manoa, but his second, Captain Keymis, does provide directions in his own narrative:
it lieth southerly in the land, and from the mouth of it unto the head they pass in twenty days; then taking their pro-visions, they carry it on their shoulders one day’s journey; afterwards they return to their canoes, and bear them likewise to the side of a lake, which the Jaos call Roponowini, the Charibes Parime, which is of such bigness that they know no difference between it and the main sea. There be infinite numbers of canoes in this lake, and I suppose it is no other than that whereon Manoa standeth.
Back in Europe cartographer Hondius, reading Raleigh’s narrative and enchanted by the idea, added the Lake Parime to his 1599 map “Nieuwe Caerte van het Goudrycke Landt Guiana.” Most subsequent cartographers followed suit for the next 300 years or so.
This lake may indeed have some basis in fact. Sir Robert Schomburgk, studied this region from 1835 to 1844 and made this interesting note:
From the southern foot of the Pacaraima Range extended the great savannahs of the Rupununi, Takutu, and Rio Branco or Parima, which occupy about 14,400 square miles, their average height above the sea being from 350 to 400 feet. These savannahs are inundated during the rainy season, and afford at that period, with the exception of a short portage, a communication between the Rupununi and the Pirara, a tributary of the Mahu or Ireng, which falls into the Takutu, and the latter into the Rio Branco or Parima.
The annual inundation of this region thus opened what must have been an ancient and popular trade route from the Orinoco, to the Rio Branco and hence to the Amazon tributaries, the Solimoes, the Japura, and the Rio Negro. Thus when European explorers in the lower Orinoco during the rainy season saw Indian traders appear with gold jewelry and trade pieces, the connection to El Dorado seemed obvious. When asked where the gold came from, the local tribes could only answer “Manoa.”
As late as the 17th century the Manoas were a large and populous trading nation, lead by the dynamic King Ajuricaba, occupying the banks of the Rio Negro. It seems that the Manoas were very secretive of their trade routes – as all good traders must be – and jealously guarded their territory. There are records of trade arrangements between the Dutch in Guyana and “Manoa” dating to the late 16th century. The range of the Manoa trade network extended over a vast region from the “mouth of the Jupura up and down the Amazon to Quito and Para, from the Cayari to Santa Fe and the Upper Orinoco, from the Parima to the Essequibo and its sister rivers of the northern watershed of Guiana”. This may partially account for the extraordinary diverse regions where legends of Manoa can be heard.
But where did all the gold come from? This may be impossible to answer, but we can speculate. The first European to “see” Manoa was Juan Martinez c. 1542. Martinez was a munitions master under the conquistador Diego Ordas. Ordas was searching for El Dorado in lower Orinoco where he perished. Before his own death, which is itself mysterious, Ordas condemned Martinez to death as the culprit in an unfortunate munitions explosion. Martinez was to be tied up and set adrift in a boat upon the Amazon. Many consider what follows to be a complete fabrication on the part of Martinez, but I generally consider the habit of attributing of anomalous elements in early travel accounts to intentional falsification an easy solution to a complex issue. Martinez claims to have been picked up by Manoan traders in the region who, finding him unusual due to his skin tone, conveyed him, blindfolded, to their city. Here, Martinez describes a great city. Curiously, he also describes meeting the heir to the recently conquered Inca Empire. Given the discoveries of Heckenberger and the new understanding that, at least in the earliest days of South American exploration, that the Amazon was indeed a populous and well organized region, this story is completely reasonable. That the Manoans may have had traffic with the Incas, given their range in the western Amazon is almost a given. It would also allow them access to gold mining regions on the eastern slopes of the Andes. Martinez’s association of Manoa with the lost heir to Inca Empire also brings up the possibility that this was none other than the long lost refuge city of Pattiti – though this opens an entirely new can of worms.
Edmondson, George, “Early Relations of the Manoas with the Dutch, 1606-1732”, The English Historical Review, Vol. 21, No. 82 (Apr., 1906), pp. 229-253. Edmondson, George, ” The Dutch on the Amazon and Negro in the Seventeenth Century. Part II.-Dutch Trade in the Basin of the Rio Negro,”The English Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 73 (Jan., 1904), pp. 1-25. Von Hagen, Victor W., The Golden Man: The Quest for El Dorado (Farnborough, Saxon House, I974, 4.-25). Pp. xiii+338. Meggers, Betty J., “The Continuing Quest for El Dorado: Round Two”, Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 304-325. Raleigh, Sir Walter, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtifiul Empyre of Guiana. Grann, David, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, 2008.