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Beyond El Dorado – the looted treasures of a civilisation drowned in blood

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Issue 2383

The beginning of the modern country of Colombia was the end of a much longer history.

More than 95 percent of the area’s indigenous population died out within 100 years of the first European settlement—from famine, disease, slavery or murder.

These had been complex and highly developed societies, with evidence of irrigation, farming and states going back almost 2,000 years in some areas.

Invading Conquistadors ran amok in search of gold. They were driven in part by the legend of El Dorado based on exaggerated reports of rituals at the sacred mountain lake Guatavita.

A British company eventually succeeded in draining the lake in 1910, and found only £500 worth of loot. Some of the gold behind the frenzied myth is on display in the British Museum’s Beyond 

El Dorado exhibition.

Gold marked a threshold between life and death. There are tiny, delicate figures of people and animals to hide in important places. And brash chest and face decorations for warriors and chiefs.

Skilled artisans used advanced smelting, beating and casting techniques. 

These treasures—along with the few textiles and pottery that survived the centuries and the church’s war on “idols to the devil” are about all that’s left of the civilisations that made them.

The exhibition only euphemistically acknowledges, many of their descendants are still brutally oppressed today.

They look as impressive as the museum’s Greek and Egyptian collections. 

It makes you wonder what could have been if they hadn’t been crushed so soon. 

Beyond El Dorado, British Museum, London, £10/£8, until 23 March 2014


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