Muisca people of Laguna de Guatavita

Muisca people of Laguna de Guatavita

The Muisca people formed one of the biggest confederations in South America. The organisation was split into two between the north and south of the Colombian Andean region. But it was the rituals of ‘El Dorado’ at Laguna de Guatavita that the Muisca people became most known for. 

The Northern confederation was ruled by a zaque and were based in what is now known as the region of Boyacá in Colombia. The Southern confederation was where the majority of the Muisca people lived. Here they enjoyed most of the wealth and resources. They were led by a zipa and their capital was where Bogotá is now.

View of Bogotá
View of Bogotá today from Cerro Monserrate

El Dorado at Laguna de Guatavita

Laguna de Guatavita
Mountainous region of Laguna de Guatavita

The extravagant tradition of appointing a new zipa turned into legend and word of it began to spread. Even reaching across to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The famous legend of ‘El Dorado’ made many conquistadors go in search for this mystical lake. A place they thought copious amounts of gold awaited them.

An early Spanish writer, Juan Rodríguez Freile, wrote in his 16th century novel, El Caldero, about the colonisation of the Muisca people at Laguna de Guatavita in the 1630s by the Spanish.

He described the events of El Dorado at Guatavita and the lavish tradition of appointing a new zipa. He mentions that when the zipa died, his nephew would take his place. The next ruler then had to spend 6 years hiding in a cave. He had no contact with women and ate no meat nor salt. During this period, he could only leave the cave at night to lie beneath the moon and the stars. Once he had completed these 6 years, he then had to go out on to the lake covered in gold and jewels as an offering to Chie, the goddess of water.

View of the lagoon of Guatavita
La Laguna de Guatavita

El Dorado – not a city of gold, but a person

Four of the zipa’s soldiers would join him on an embellished raft and they would strip him completely naked. They burned moque (incense) to create flames around them to hide the light of day. The zipa was covered in a sticky dirt, followed by gold dust, until he was covered in this precious metal. They placed gold and emerald objects at the bottom of his feet as an offering. 

While this was ongoing, the Muisca people would be celebrating with musical instruments and dancing on the shore. Once the raft made it to the centre of the lake, they held up a flag as a signal for silence. The zipa would throw out all of the gold pieces into the lake and then submerge himself, rinsing all the gold off into the water. His four subjects joined him, also covered in jewels and plumage. The flag remained lifted during this process, maintaining silence amongst the tribe. 

Once the raft began to return back to land, the civilians welcomed them with shouts and cheers. The music would commence once more. This ceremony was to welcome their new leader and this is where the famous legend of ‘El Dorado’ originated from.

Gold objects found from Muisca people
La Ofrenda Sala – where the Muisca gold objects are displayed in the Museo de Oro in Bogotá

Spanish colonialism of the Muisca people

Naturally, once the Spaniards had heard of such a myth, they were keen to explore and search for this ‘city of gold’ that did not even exist. They set off from Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. They encountered many natural disasters and indigenous tribes hidden in the dense jungle attacked many of the soldiers along the way. Some indigenous tribes that they came across used this legend as a way to distract Spanish conquistadors and pointed them in a direction far away from them.

The Spanish found the Muisca confederation sprawled across the vast Andean regions of Colombia. They slowly defeated the Muiscas between 1537 and 1540. They killed the zipas and zaques and placed any indigenous survivors in specific areas and forced them to work the land they knew so well.

Draining Laguna de Guatvita

The conquistadors explored the vast lake in search of the gold offerings. In an attempt to find this gold, conquistador Hernán Pérez de Quesada enforced a “bucket chain” of workers to start draining the lake over 3 months in 1545. This was hugely unsuccessful as they reduced the lake by a mere 3 metres and only found a small amount of wealth.

Over the years, explorers made other attempts to drain the lake by using more enhanced methods. A British company took over the ‘Company for the Exploitation of the Laguna de Guatavita’ in 1898 and they succeeded to drain the lake by constructing a tunnel. What was left was a 4 feet pile of mud. The mud dried in the heat, and they discovered very little gold.

Muisca head dress
A Muisca headdress found at Laguna de Guatavita

The gold objects of the Muisca

According to studies of the manufacturing techniques of the gold pieces found, there existed three different styles of goldsmith. They are based on which region the Muiscas made the gold pieces; the purpose; and when they made it.

Gold pieces such as necklaces with geometric shapes, bracelets, rectangular nosepieces and tools to make textiles were mainly associated with the central area of the Cordillera.

Muisca gold objects
Gold applications to make textiles

Items that they discovered in the western and south-western slopes of the Colombian mountain range were more ornate. It is said that the shapes of the towns they came from in this mountainous region influenced the designs of the gold pieces. They found pieces such as, elaborate headdresses, conical pendants and heart-shaped pectorals.

Ornate gold objects
Elaborate gold headpiece by the Muisca people

Finally, in the Santander area, they discovered a more simpler style used. Nose rings, earmuffs and pendants were found and they seemed to have been made by a simple hammering technique.

The Muisca raft

Of what has been extracted from the Lake and Muisca territories now resides in the Museo de Oro in Bogotá. In a hidden exhibition you will see the famous gold figure of la balsa Muisca (the gold raft), which represents the ceremony of El Dorado and his soldiers at Laguna de Guatavita.

No European visitors ever witnessed the ceremony of El Dorado. Instead it was the myths that surrounded Laguna de Guatavita for centuries that kept it alive. So when the raft was found, it brought the tales to life and reinforced this legend.

They did not find the first ‘balsa Muisca’ at Guatavita, but in Laguna de Siecha by two brothers who had partially drained the lake in 1856. They found this gold figure and immediately associated it with the legend of El Dorado. The raft went to the diplomat, Salomón Koppel, who sold it to a museum in Germany. However it was destroyed in a fire at the port of Bremen.

Over a century later, in 1969, a father and son came across some gold and ceramic pieces in a cave in Pasca. They took their findings to Father Jaime Hincapié Santamaría, priest of Pasca in Cundinamarca. He recognised this figure and compared it to an illustration of the Siecha’s raft that was published in Liborio Zerda’s book, El Dorado (1947) and its resemblance led Father Jaime to realise its importance. It was acquired by the Museo de Oro and still to this day is one of their most important pieces of Colombian history.

Find out how to visit Guatavita Lagoon in my next post.

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