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Whoever possesses gold can acquire all that he desires in this world.

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Tales of one ritual captured Europe’s imagination like no other.

At its height, a Muisca leader was covered in gold dust and taken on a raft to the middle of the lake, where he and his servants threw piles of gold, emeralds and other jewels into the water.

Then, in 1910, a group of British speculators again tried to drain the crater and recovered some gold ornaments and pottery from the bottom of the lake.

For centuries it was the myth that transfixed fortune-hunters: El Dorado, the dazzling city made of gold, hidden in deepest South America.

Countless European bounty seekers lost their lives in search of this legendary place.

Others believed that El Dorado was not a city at all, but a man painted with powdered gold who had dived into Lake Guatavita, near the modern Colombian capital of Bogota, and whose priceless body lay waiting to be discovered. But as a new exhibition at the British Museum, opening today, shows, European explorers did find an ancient civilisation seemingly obsessed with gold and other precious metals, mined in the Andes.

This was a society with its own sophisticated religious, social and musical rites — but also one capable of extreme violence and addicted to the intoxicating coca leaf, the raw material of modern cocaine.‘Gold objects, including nose, lip and ear ornaments, diadems [ornamental headbands], pectorals [decorations worn on the chest] and pendants enabled a person’s physical transformation, together with paint, animal pelts and feathers.’ Delicately carved golden dippers — like pipettes — were used to carry the intoxicating powder from elaborate drug pouches to the mouth.

At other times they used gold snuff trays — like ornate mini-shovels — piled high with dried or crushed yopo seeds, which they then swallowed or sniffed.

A priest told one of the first Spanish colonials that, under the influence of yopo beans, he had ‘flown’ a vast distance to and from the distant village of Santa Marta in a single night.

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