The first evidence of agricultural in South America appears about 6500 BCE when beans, potatoes and chilies were cultivated for food in the Amazon Basin. Copper was forged as early as 3000 BC in Argentina, according to a recent Smithsonian report, and the earliest gold artifacts were discovered in the Titicaca basin in modern Bolivia which dated to 2155–1936 BCE. REF#004.

The group identified as ‘Muisca’ emigrated to the Altiplano Cundiboyacense in the Andean Andes between 5500 and 1000 BC and transitioned from hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers. The 2013 book Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia tell us that by 2000 BC they had mastered how to purify metals and create alloys for fabrication and “gold artifacts were shaped using hot and cold hammering techniques, without smelting,” thought by many, to a level of excellence beyond all other pre-Colombian cultures in the Americas. REF#005

The Muisca people produced great quantities of Tunjos, which were small golden votive figures. Generally found in lakes, rivers, waterfalls, caves and fields, Tunjos display anthropomorphic and zoomorphic forms and it is known they served three purposes; decoration in temples and shrines, ritual offerings at sacred lakes and rivers, and to accompany the dead to the afterlife. REF#006.


FIG#01: Tunjos on display in the Museo del OroBogotá.

My recent Facebook Live stream from the Museo del Oro (The Museum of Gold) in Bogotá featured golden masks, discs, items of jewellery and bizarre ritual and ceremonial artifacts. In the Webinar I will reveal the secrets of the ‘Muisca raft’, sometimes referred to as the ‘El Dorado Raft’, an intricate gold votive offering, recovered from deep within a cave in Pasca, Colombia in 1856.


Having gained an insight into how gold was crafted in pre-Colombian South America, on the Webinar, I will go in-depth discussing why so much gold ornamentation was created in the first place.


Across ancient South America gold was associated with the sun and male universal principals like power, strength and immortality. Conversely, silver and copper were associated with mortality, femininity and offered to moon goddesses. 

FIG#007: Left: A pectoral girdle forged in tumbaga by the Quimbaya culture of central Colombia; 300–1600 AD. Right: Golden conch sea snail shell. CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1536, Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada y Rivera, commanded an expedition into the interior of New Granada (modern Colombia) searching for the legendary lost city of gold, El Dorado. REF#008 In 1636, Bogotá chronicler Juan Rodríguez Freyle gave the El Dorado, its modern frame, originally however, El Hombre Dorado (Spanish for “the golden man”) was a Miuisca zipa (ruler). REF#009 

In the Webinar we will look at the El Dorado ritual and the Zipa’s initiation ceremony. After being covered with gold dust he jumped from a golden raft into the sacred Lake Guatavita, with vast tonnages of gold being thrown in after him. For this reason, drainage attempts at Guatavita began in the 1580s and continued right up to 1910 and in a single treasure recovery mission raiders went home with “6,000 cargas (donkey loads) for one mission,” a chronicler recorded. We will look at the results of several treasure recovery operations in Colombia.

FIG#008: Lake Guatavita is located in the Colombian Andes in the Cundinamarca department of Colombia, 35 miles (57 kilometres) north-east of Bogotá, capital of Colombia. CC BY 3.0

In pre-Colombian South America gold had no material value but was imbued with deep purifying, curative, balancing and creative powers. We will compare the Muisca’s ritual use of gold with comparative religions like ancient Chinese cultures who altered entire landscapes to affect the perceived flows of ‘yin and yang’ ("dark-bright", “negative-positive”) energies, and to "balance opposite or contrary, interconnected and interdependent forces in the natural world.”

Like in China, Muisca priests also attempted to control the telluric flows which they believed crossed their sacred agricultural territories. Gold was seen as being imbued with creation energy, and attempting to control natural environmental phenomena with ritualistic gold deposits and offerings was perceived as a matter of life and death. (Pedro 1602) Therefore, vast quantities of gold were deposited into sacred mountain-top caves, waterfalls, lakes, lagoons and temples - at important dates in agricultural, civic and ritual calendars. We will look at the spiritual powers associated with gold.


All spiritual and ritual functions in the Muisca confederacy were controlled by a shamanic priestly class known Xeques (astronomer-priests). Overseeing the establishment of agricultural, civic and ritual calendars they were considered to be conduits between the natural and supernatural worlds. We will look at a selection of gold artists which depicts these Xeques ‘transmuting' into zoomorphic and anthropomorphic forms, as seen in photograph FIG#009.

FIG#009: Shamans on display at the Museum of Gold in Bogotá CC BY-SA 3.0

The perceived spiritual energy of gold was so great that in the documented creation myths of ‘every’ ancient culture in South America, it was associated with the ‘creation of creator gods’, and with the male solar deities which came thereafter. We will look at the records of the 16th century Spanish friar and professor, Simón Pedro, who recorded cultural stories and creation myths directly from the indigenous people and golds place with these origin myths.


REF#001: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, Oxford University Press, UK, Jul 24, 2003.

REF#002: Guidon, Niède. (1986) Las Unidades Culturales de Sao Raimundo Nonato – Sudeste del Estado de Piaui-Brasil; New Evidence for the Pleistocene Peopling of the Americas: 157–171. Edited by Alan Bryan. Center for the Study of Early Man. University of Maine. Orono.


REF#004: Beukens, R.P., Pavlish, L.A., Hancock, R.G.V., Farquhar, R.M., Wilson, G.C., Julig, P.J. (1992). "Radiocarbon dating of copper-preserved organics". Radiocarbon. 34: 890–897.

REF#005: Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia. Susan Toby Evans, David L. Webster. Routledge, Sep 11, 2013.

REF#006: (in Spanish) Description and metallurgy of tunjos - Museo del Oro - Bogotá

REF#007: The Art of Precolumbian Gold: The Jan Mitchell Collection, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on Tumbaga.

REF#008: 2007 historian Francis, J. Michael wrote Invading Colombia: Spanish Accounts of the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada Expedition of Conquest. University Park: Penn State Press.

REF#009: (in Spanish) Biography Juan Rodríguez Freyle - Banco de la República.

REF#010: Religions of Mesoamerica: Cosmovision and Ceremonial Centers, by David Carrasco. HarperCollins, 1990.

REF#011: Paper by Christian Ardeleanu from San Jose State University entitled An Analysis of An Andean Cosmovisión: Nature, Culture, Ecology, and Cosmos Christian Ardeleanu San Jose State University


ASHLEY COWIE is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker exploring ancient cultures and kingdoms, science and psychology. Investigating myths, folklore and legends. Examining artifacts, symbols and architecture, Discovering and presenting unique stories from the people's history.