The indigenous people of South America were rich in gold and silver. These people had been mining the Andes and working with the precious metal for thousands of years, creating finely crafted treasure and jewelry. Their use of gold was religious and ceremonial, as a beautiful offering to the gods or a sign of status and power.
An exhibit at the Gold Museum in Bogota. This gold mask was made between 200 BC to 900 AD.
When the Spanish came, they quickly stripped the Inca Empire of thousands of pounds of gold and silver. What little survived were hidden away in secret tombs and sacred sites, and now are at display at the Gold Museum. The museum was founded in 1939 with its first major acquisition, a container from the Quimbaya people called the Poporo Quimbaya. The vessel’s smooth gold surface and symmetrical crown is strikingly modern, even though it was crafted between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago.
The museum’s most precious collection is the Muisca Raft discovered in 1886 in a Colombian cave. The piece is about 10 inches long and depicts a chieftain standing on a flat raft and surrounded by priests and oarsmen, in what appears to be a ceremony of the legend of El Dorado, a mythical city of unimaginable richness, that seduced the Spanish colonizers. The item weighs 287 grams of which 80% is gold.
The Muisca Raft, circa 600 AD – 1600 AD.
As apparent from the Gold Museum, the Spanish invaders did not manage to get their hands on all of Inca’s treasures, but some believe that there is an even larger collection — a fabulous hoard of gold, hidden somewhere deep inside a mountain, still waiting to be found.
The legend begins in the 16th century, when Emperor Atahualpa was captured by the Spanish commander Francisco Pizarro. Pizarro agreed to release Atahualpa if the Inca Emperor filled a large room, about 22 feet by 17 feet by 8 feet, with gold and twice with silver. Atahualpa fulfilled his end of the deal, but the Spaniard did not. Before the last and largest part of the ransom had been delivered, the Spanish, fearing an imminent attack from Atahualpa’s general, had him executed. The story goes that when Atahualpa’s men learned about the murder, they buried the gold in a secret cave in Llanganates mountain somewhere between the Andes and the Amazon. There is a different version according to which the gold was thrown into a lake so that the Spanish could never get it.
Over the next two hundred years, dozens of expedition carrying thousands of men came looking for the lost treasure, but the mountains of the Llanganates refused to surrender their secret.
A funerary mask, circa 100 BC - 400 AD.
It’s hard to say whether it really happened or is just a fable, but there is another extension to this story. The legend goes that a Spaniard named Vincente de Valverde, who later became the bishop of Cuzco, discovered the gold after marrying an Inca princess from the area. Before he died, Valverde wrote a detailed guide — the so-called Derrotero de Valverde — on how to find the treasure, and bequeathed the document to King Charles V of Spain. Several attempts were made to locate it but each time the dispatcher the King sent would mysteriously disappear.
Nothing was known about the treasure or the guide, until more than 300 years later, in the 1850s, when English botanist Richard Spruce reportedly uncovered Valverde's guide and a related map. Richard Spruce couldn’t find the gold, but treasure seeker Captain Barth Blake is believed to have.
Blake made maps of the area and sent letters back home. In one of his letters he wrote:
It is impossible for me to describe the wealth that now lays in that cave marked on my map, but I could not remove it alone, nor could thousands of men … There are thousands of gold and silver pieces of Inca and pre-Inca handicraft, the most beautiful goldsmith works you are not able to imagine, life-size human figures made out of beaten gold and silver, birds, animals, cornstalks, gold and silver flowers. Pots full of the most incredible jewelry. Golden vases full of emeralds.
Blake took what he could carry and left for New York where he planned to raise funds for an expedition to recover his prize. Blake never reached New York. Some say he was pushed overboard. If the story is true, Blake might have been the last person to see the lost gold.
The legend of Inca’s lost treasure persist to this date, inspiring dozens of books, movies and the occasional adventurer who still roam the steamy jungles of South America in search of it.
A breastplate in the shape of a bat-man, circa 900 AD – 1600 AD.
A female figure made of clay, circa 300 AD – 1600 AD.
Earing pendants. Circa 600 AD – 1700 AD.