6. The Real Life Origins of the Fictional El Dorado
In the children’s game of telephone, a message passed on in whispers from one person to another gradually gets altered with each retelling, until the final recipient ends up with something completely from what had originally been said. The same thing seems to have happened with the legend of El Dorado, the fictional City of Gold. It began with the first Spaniards who came in contact with the native Muisca people, in today’s Colombia. From them, they heard stories about chiefs who coated themselves in gold dust as part of a religious ceremony.
They then rowed into Lake Guatavita, about 35 miles northeast of modern Bogota, to drop golden gifts for the water god. The Spaniards coined a term for those mythical Muisca chiefs: El Hombre Dorado, or “The Golden Man”. Over the years, and with repeated retellings, El Hombre Dorado was transformed. What began as a tribal chief coated in gold dust became a city made of gold, then a kingdom of gold, and finally a fabulously wealthy empire that had more gold than the rest of the world put together.
5. Gold Lust Fueled Numerous Expeditions in Search of El Dorado
The legend of El Dorado was helped by the fact that Spaniards and other Europeans had encountered significant amounts of gold among the natives of the Caribbean coast of South America. So it made sense to them that there must be a huge source of gold somewhere in the interior. As the years went by, many Spanish Conquistadors and other European adventurers who heard the El Dorado story version that described a city of gold, came to believe in its existence.
Wishful thinking took hold of the imaginations of many and ran away with them. That, and the lust for gold and fabulous riches said to be found in the fabled city, eventually fueled numerous expeditions and searches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. None of them managed to discover the nonexistent city of gold. However, as seen below those seekers who shied away from the more fictional accounts and stuck to the original version of the story, met with some success.
4. The Disastrous Expeditions to Find a Fictional City
Some explorers focused on the narrative of the Muisca people about chiefs who dropped golden gifts into Lake Guatavita for the water god. So they set out to drain the lake, and managed to lower its level enough to allow them to recover hundreds of golden artifacts from around its edges. However, whatever treasures had been tossed into the deeper waters remained beyond their reach. Other than the partial success at Lake Guatavita, the only results of the search for the fictional El Dorado were numerous lives wasted in fruitless treasure hunts.
One of the more jinxed searches was carried out by the English courtier and adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, who conducted two expeditions in Guiana in search of El Dorado. In the second one, in 1617, an aged Raleigh grew too feeble to endure the rigors of the search. So he set up a base camp in Trinidad, and sent his son, Watt, up the Orinoco River to find the City of Gold. The attempt to locate the fictional city ended in utter disaster, and in the death of Raleigh’s son in a battle against the Spaniards. Things did not end much better for Raleigh himself: upon his return to England, King James I had him beheaded because he had defied his orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.
For centuries, accounts of South American giants circulated throughout Europe. The tales were fictional, but they were accepted by contemporaries as all too real. They began with tales brought back to Europe by the survivors of Ferdinand Magellan’s Spanish expedition that circumnavigated the globe. En route, the ships had dropped anchor off Patagonia – a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America. There, they spotted a naked huge native singing and dancing on the shore. A curious Magellan ordered one of his men to make contact.
The man imitated the big native, and sang and danced as well, in order to demonstrate friendliness. It worked, and the giant was induced to meet Magellan. As described by a scribe who kept a diary that was later turned into a book account of the voyage: “When he was before us, he began to marvel and to be afraid, and he raised one finger upward, believing that we came from heaven. And he was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist“.
Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition made contact with the rest of the big Patagonian tribe, and in subsequent weeks, the explorers hunted with them, and built a house ashore to store their provisions. When Magellan prepared to finally depart, he wanted to take some Patagonians to display back in Spain. So he invited some aboard his ship with the lure of trinkets, got them drunk until they passed out, and placed them in chains. When the Patagonians came to, the ships were already underway, sailing away from their homeland.
Sadly, the kidnapped Patagonians did not survive the voyage. Nor, for that matter, did Magellan. However, the sailors who did complete the trip and return to Spain brought back with them the fantastic tale of a land inhabited by giants. It was a tall tale that kept growing taller. Later voyages described encounters with Patagonians who stood 10 feet tall. Others came in contact with ones whose height was measured at 12 feet. Yet others encountered Patagonians who truly towered above normal people, measuring 15 feet in height. Reports of the fictional South American giants gripped European imaginations for over 250 years.
1. The Real Native Americans Behind the Fictional Patagonian Giants
The first challenge to the tall tales about Patagonian giants came from the famed British seaman and pirate, Sir Francis Drake, who encountered Patagonians during his own circumnavigation of the globe. As described by his nephew: “Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.”
Yet the fictional accounts of South American giants persisted and were accepted as true by many. As late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British Royal Navy ship had encountered a tribe of 9-foot tall natives. However, when the ship’s account of the voyage was finally published, it turned out that the natives measured actually stood around 6 feet 6 inches tall – quite tall, but not incredibly so, and certainly not giants. In reality, the tribe in question, the Tehuelche, were statuesque and bigger than average. But for the most part, they stood in the 6-foot range.
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