Most of us never give the gold on our finger a second thought. When we look at it we may remember our wedding day, our honeymoon, or where we went on our first date. Most of us don’t look at our wedding ring and think: Buried Treasure, Fallen Empires, Teeth.
Gold has a special place in our culture, our monetary systems, our histories and our hearts. Whether recycled from our cell phones, a ton of cell-phone batteries, laundered proceeds from a daring robbery, or remnants of an Aztec temple, the gold on our finger almost certainly has a past. I certainly never imagined mine would take me deep into the Peruvian Amazon in search of a guy nicknamed “the cat”.
We arrived in the town of Puerto Maldonado on Sunday morning, after a 13-hour flight – but our journey was just beginning. We drove for 4 hours on some of the roughest dirt roads I’ve ever seen, crossed a river by boat and rode another hour through the jungle on motorcycles. Finally, we were there: Delta Uno – a small shantytown, deep in the Peruvian Amazon where hundreds of men seek their fortunes in the gold-rich mud.
Delta Uno is a classic gold rush town. The main street, nothing more than a muddy strip, is lined with dozens of makeshift wooden stalls with one word painted in giant letters on the wall: ORO. Gold.
We meet El Gato (the cat) in town. He has been mining here for over 20 years. He worked his way up from a day laborer, pocketing flecks of gold when his boss wasn’t looking, saving up his share of each day’s finds, finally gathering enough to buy his own machines and hire some workers of his own. He walks us through the town, showing us around.
A couple of small stores sell basic supplies – gas for running the motorcycles and engines used by the miners, food, the plastic tarps used for cover during the rainy season… But nearly every shack that isn’t buying gold is selling beer. Bars. The town has over a hundred of them. And every night they’re filled with men like El Gato, paying for beer, and sometimes company in chunks of gold from the day’s find. After a drink, El Gato takes us out to see his site.
On the outskirts of town, even deeper in the jungle, the sound of motors fills the night. Dozens of sites operate here around the clock – each processing over perhaps five tons of earth a day to yield a single ounce of gold. As inefficient as their methods may seem, these small scale, often illegal miners are often far more efficient per ounce then large-scale, industrial mines, where the average is closer to 30 tons of rock per ounce of gold.
Around the world millions of people like El Gato are flocking to towns like this, pushing into ever more remote regions on every continent. They’ve been using the same methods for years – since the California gold rush in 1849 – high-pressure hoses, sluices, mercury and panning all remain the most effective ways to get gold out of the ground and on to our fingers. But like the ‘49ers before them, most of these miners won’t strike it rich. They typically make barely enough to pay their workers, maintain their equipment, and send some money home to their families. But the promise of the next big find just around the bend is constant, so they keep on digging.
With gold prices soaring above $1000 an ounce this year – the highest they’ve ever been – it doesn’t seem that our hunger for gold is going away. In fact, it may be stronger than ever – more and more industrial, technological and even medical uses for gold are being found every year, and demand as jewelry and investment remain high around the world.
Standing in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon, knee deep in mud, I realized one thing remains certain – mankind’s obsession with gold remains as strong as ever.
Be sure to tune into Lost Gold of the Dark Ages tonight at 10P et/pt. Here, Executive Producer, Richard Belfield, talks about shooting reconstruction scenes of Saxon life: