The Treasure of the Inca:
When Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro captured Atahualpa, Emperor of the Inca, in 1532, they were shocked when Atahualpa offered to fill a large room half full with gold and twice over with silver as a ransom. They were even more shocked when Atahualpa delivered: gold and silver began arriving daily, brought by the Inca's subjects. Later, the sacking of cities such as Cuzco earned the greedy Spaniards even more gold. Where did this treasure come from and what became of it?
Gold and the Inca:
The Inca were fond of gold and silver and used it for ornaments and for decorating their temples and palaces as well as for personal jewelry. Many objects were made of solid gold: Emperor Atahualpa had a portable throne of 15 karat gold that reportedly weighed 183 pounds. The Inca were one tribe of many in the region before they began conquering and assimilating their neighbors: gold and silver may have been demanded as tribute from vassal cultures. The Inca also practiced basic mining, and as the Andes Mountains are rich in minerals, had accumulated a great deal of gold and silver by the time the Spaniards arrived. Most of it was in the form of jewelry, adornments and decorations and artifacts from various temples.
Emperor Atahualpa was captured by the Spanish in 1532 and agreed to fill a large room half full with gold and then twice over with silver in return for his freedom. Atahualpa fulfilled his end of the deal, but the Spanish, fearful of Atahualpa’s generals, murdered him anyway in 1533. By then a staggering fortune had been brought right to the feet of the greedy conquistadors. When it was melted down and counted, there were over 13,000 pounds of 22 karat gold and twice that much silver. The loot was divided among the original 160 conquistadors who had taken part in Atahualpa’s capture and ransom. The system for division was complicated, with different tiers for footmen, cavalrymen and officers, but those in the lowest tier still earned about 45 pounds of gold and twice that much silver: at a modern rate, the gold alone would be worth well over a half million dollars.
The Royal Fifth:
Twenty percent of all loot taken from conquests was reserved for the King of Spain: this was the "quinto real" or "Royal Fifth." The Pizarro brothers, mindful of the power and reach of the King, were meticulous about weighing and cataloging all treasure taken so that the crown got its share. In 1534 Francisco Pizarro sent his brother Hernando back to Spain (he didn't trust anyone else) with the royal fifth. Most of the gold and silver had been melted down, but a handful of the most beautiful pieces of Inca metalwork were sent along intact: these were displayed for a time in Spain before they, too were melted down. It was a sad cultural loss for humanity.
The Sacking of Cuzco:
In late 1533 Pizarro and his conquistadors entered the city of Cuzco, heart of the Inca Empire. They were greeted as liberators because they had killed Atahualpa, who had recently been at war with his brother Huascar over the Empire: Cuzco had supported Huáscar. The Spanish sacked the city mercilessly, searching all of the homes, temples and palaces for any gold and silver. They found at least as much loot as had been brought to them for the ransom of Atahualpa, although by this time there were more conquistadors to share in the spoils. Some fabulous works of art were found, such as twelve "extraordinarily realistic" life-sized sentries made of gold and silver, a statue of a woman made of solid gold which weighed 65 pounds and vases skillfully crafted of ceramic and gold. Unfortunately, all of these artistic treasures were melted down.
Spain's Newfound Wealth:
The Royal Fifth sent by Pizarro in 1534 was but the first drop in what would be a steady stream of South American gold flowing into Spain. In fact, the 20% tax on Pizarro’s ill-gotten gains would pale in comparison to the amount of gold and silver that would eventually make its way to Spain after South American mines began producing. The silver mine of Potosí in Bolivia alone produced 41,000 metric tons of silver during the colonial era. The gold and silver taken from the people and mines of South America was generally melted down and minted into coins, including the famous Spanish doubloon (a golden 32-real coin) and “pieces of eight” (a silver coin worth eight reales). This gold was used by the Spanish crown to fund the high costs of maintaining its empire.
The Legend of El Dorado:
The tale of the riches stolen from the Inca Empire soon blazed its way across Europe. Before long, desperate adventurers were on their way to South America, hoping to be part of the next expedition which would bring down a native empire rich with gold. A rumor began to spread of a land where the king covered himself in gold. This legend became known as El Dorado. Over the next two hundred years, dozens of expeditions with thousands of men searched for El Dorado in the steamy jungles, blistering deserts, sun-drenched plains and icy mountains of South America, enduring hunger, native attacks, disease and countless other hardships. Many of the men died without seeing so much as a single nugget of gold. El Dorado was but a golden illusion, driven by fevered dreams of Inca treasure.
The Lost Treasure of the Inca:
Some believe that the Spanish did not manage to get their greedy hands on all of the Inca treasure. Legends persist of lost hoards of gold, waiting to be found. One legend has it that there was a large shipment of gold and silver on its way to be part of the ransom of Atahualpa when word came that the Spanish had murdered him: the Inca general in charge of transporting the treasure hid it somewhere and it has yet to be found. Another legend claims that Inca General Rumiñahui took all the gold from the city of Quito and had it thrown into a lake so that the Spanish would never get it. Neither of these legends has much in the way of historical proof to back it up, but that doesn’t keep people from looking for these lost treasures or at least hoping that they’re still out there.
Inca Gold on Display:
Not all of the beautifully crafted golden artifacts of the Inca Empire found their way into the Spanish furnaces. Some pieces survived, and many of these relics have found their way into museums around the world. One of the best places to see original Inca goldwork is at the Museo Oro del Perú, or Peruvian Gold Museum (generally just called “the gold museum”), located in Lima. There you can see many dazzling examples of Inca gold, the last pieces of Atahualpa’s treasure.