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Metallurgy in pre-Columbian America

Further information: Metallurgy in pre-Columbian Metallurgy in Mesoamerica developed from contacts with
South America .
Metallurgy in pre-Columbian America is the extrac-

1 South America
See also: Mapuche silverwork
South American metal working seems to have developed
in the Andean region of modern Peru, Bolivia, Chile,
and Argentina with gold and copper being hammered and
shaped into intricate objects, particularly ornaments.[1][4]
Recent nds date the earliest gold work to 21551936
BCE.[1] and the earliest copper work to 14321132
BCE.[4] There were found in the context of a society undergoing social and economic changes but still very much
a small food producer and not quite sedentary yet. This
breaks away from the idea that this type of metal work developed in societies with enough food surplus to support
an elite. Rather than being a product of a hierarchical society, gold might have been meshed in the creation of it.
Further evidence for this type of metal work comes from
the sites at Waywaka, Chavn and Kotosh,[5] and it seems
to have been spread throughout Andean societies by the
Early horizon (1000200 BCE).
Unlike in other metallurgy traditions where metals gain
importance due to their widespread use in elds ranging from weaponry to everyday utensils, metals in South
America (and later in Central America) were mainly valued as adornments and objects representative of a high
status (though some more functional objects might have
been produced). It is during the Early horizon that advancements in metal working result in spectacular and
characteristically Andean gold objects made by the joining of smaller metal sheets, and also gold-silver alloy appears.

Sican tumi, or ceremonial knife, Peru, 8501500 CE

tion and purication of metals, as well as creating metal

alloys and fabrication with metal by Indigenous peoples of
the Americas prior to European contact in the late 15th
century. Indigenous Americans have been using native
metals from ancient times, with recent nds of gold artifacts in the Andean region dated to 21551936 BCE.[1]
and North American copper nds dated to approximately
5000 BCE.[2] The metal would have been found in nature without need for smelting techniques and shaped into
the desired form using heat and cold hammering techniques without chemically altering it by alloying it. To
date no one has found evidence that points to the use of
melting, smelting and casting in prehistoric eastern North
America.[3] In South America the case is quite dierent. Indigenous South Americans had full metallurgy
with smelting and various metals being purposely alloyed.

Two traditions seem to have developed alongside each

other one in northern Peru and Ecuador, and another in
the Altiplano region of southern Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
There is evidence for smelting of copper sulphide in the
Altiplano region around the Early horizon. Evidence
for this comes from copper slag recovered at several
sites,[6] with the ore itself possibly coming from the south
Chilean-Bolivian border. Extensive use of portable
smelting kilns in the vicinity of Puma Punku, Bolivia
and at three additional sites in Peru and Bolivia to manufacture, in situ, I beams as connectors to large stone
blocks during the construction process represent a seem1


ingly anomalous function for metal smelting. The reported chemical analysis of these metal pours is 95.15%
copper 2.05% arsenic, 1.70% nickel, .84% silicon and
.26% iron. The estimated date of these pours is between
8000 BCE500 CE.
Evidence for fully developed smelting however only appears with the Moche culture (northern coast, 200 BCE
600 CE).[7] The ores were being extracted at shallow deposits in the Andean foothills, whether by specialised
workers or slaves/prisoners is unclear. In any case the
ores are believed to have been smelted at nearby locations,
evidenced in the actual metal artifacts and from ceramic
vessels depicting the process, which is believed to have
been occurring in adobe brick furnaces with at least three
blow pipes to provide the air ow needed to reach the
high temperatures. The resulting ingots would then have
been moved to coastal centres where shaping of the object would occur in specialised workshops.[8] Both of the
workshops found and studied were located near administrative sections of the respective towns again indicative
of the high value placed upon metal.

igrees were in use. By 700800 CE, small metal sculptures were common and an extensive range of gold and
tumbago ornaments comprised the usual regalia of persons of high status in Panama and Costa Rica.[10]

3 Mesoamerica

The objects themselves were still mainly adornments,

now often being attached to beads. Some functional objects were fashioned but they were elaborately decorated
and often found within high status burial contexts. For
this reason, it is believed that they were still being used
more for symbolic purposes. The appearance of gold or
silver seems to have been important, with a high number
of gilded or silvered objects as well as the appearance of
Tumbaga, a copper/gold and sometimes also silver alloy.
Arsenic bronze [9] was also being smelted from sulphidic
ores, a practice either independently developed or learned
from the southern tradition.
This technology gradually spread north into Colombia,
Panama and Costa Rica, reaching Guatemala and Belize
by 800 CE.
It is really only with the Incas that metals gain a more utilitarian use. Nonetheless, they remained materials through
which to display wealth and status. The characteristic importance placed on colour, which had led to some of the
earlier developments, was still present (Sun/Moon association with gold/silver). Metals other than gold also had
an intrinsic value with the axe pieces being of particular
note in this regard. With the spread of metal tools being carried out by the Incas, it is thought possible that a
more Old World use of metals would have become more
common. In any case, as Bruhns notes, Bronze can be
seen as an expensive substitute for the equally ecient

Central America

Mixtec gold pendant representing a snailshell, ca. 9001520


Main article: Metallurgy in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Metallurgy only appears in Mesoamerica in 800 CE with
the best evidence from west Mexico. Much like in South
America, ne metals were seen as a material for the elite.
Metals special qualities of colour and resonance seemed
to have appealed most and then led to the particular technological developments seen in the region.[11]

Exchange of ideas and goods with peoples from the

Gold, copper and tumbaga objects started being pro- Ecuador and Colombia region (likely via a maritime
duced in Panama and Costa Rica between 300500 CE. route) seems to have fueled early interest and developOpen-molded casting with oxidation gilding and cast l- ment. Similar metal artefact types are found in West

Mexico and the two regions: copper rings, needles and
tweezers being fabricated in the same ways as in Ecuador
and also found in similar archaeological contexts. There
is also a multitude of bells found, but in this case they
were cast using the same lost-wax casting method as seen
in Colombia.[11] During this period, copper was being
used almost exclusively.
Continual contact kept the ow of ideas from that same
region and later, coinciding with the development of Andean long distance maritime trade, inuence from further south seems to have reached the region and led to a
second period (12001300 CE to the Spanish arrival).[11]
Hopewell copper falcon, ca. 200 BCE1 CE, Ohio[13]
By this time, copper alloys were being explored by West
Mexican metallurgists, partly because the dierent mechanical properties were needed to fashion specic artefacts, particularly axe-monies further evidence for contact with the Andean region. However, in general the new
properties such alloys introduced were developed to meet
regional needs, especially wirework bells, which at times
had such high tin content in the bronze that it was irrelevant for its mechanical properties but gave the bells a
golden colour.
The actual artifacts and then techniques were imported
from the south, but west Mexican metallurgists worked
ores from the abundant local deposits; the metal was not
being imported. Even when the technology spread from Plates from Malden, Etowah and Spiro
West into north-eastern, central and southern Mexico,
artifacts that can be traced back to West Mexican ores
are abundant, if not exclusive. It is not always clear if
the metal reached its nal destination as an ingot, an
ore or a nished artifact. Provenance studies on metal
artifacts from southern Mesoamerica cast with the lostwax technique and dissimilar to west Mexican artefacts
have shown that there might have been a second point of
emergence of metallurgy into Mesoamerica there since
no known source could be identied.[12]
The Aztecs did not initially adopt metal working, even
though they had acquired metal objects from other peoples. However, as conquest gained them metal working
regions, the technology started to spread. By the time
Mace shaped copper headdress ornaments from Moundville
of the Spanish conquest, a bronze-smelting technology
seemed to be nascent.
the scouring of copper bearing rocks. Once the ice retreated, these were readily available for use in a variety
of sizes.[15] Copper was shaped via cold hammering into
4 North America
objects from very early dates (Archaic period in the Great
Archaeological evidence has not revealed metal smelting Lakes region: 80001000 BCE). There is also evidence
or alloying of metals by pre-Columbian indigenous peo- of actual mining of copper veins (Old Copper
ples north of the Rio Grande; however, they did use native
copper extensively.[14]
Unlike its Southern counterpart, North American metAs widely accepted as this statement might be it should allurgy had a more utilitarian purpose from very early
not be considered synonymous with a lack of metal ob- on, shifting away from primarily attaching prestige to the
jects, as it points out native copper was abundant partic- metal artifacts (knives, shhooks, bracelets).
ularly in the Great Lakes region and overlooks the sim- Extraction would have been extremely dicult.
ple fact that there was really very little to be gained by Hammerstones may have been used to break o pieces
smelting...[15] The latest glacial period had resulted in small enough to be worked. This labor-intensive process


might have been eased by building a re on top of the group of copper plates carried along the Trail of Tears are
deposit, then quickly dousing the hot rock with water, regarded as some of the tribes most sacred items.[21]
creating small cracks. This process could be repeated to
create more small cracks.
The copper could then be cold-hammered into shape,
which would make it brittle, or hammered and heated in
an annealing process to avoid this. The nal object would
then have to be ground and sharpened using local sandstone. Numerous bars have also been found, possibly indicative of trade for which their shaping into a bar would
also serve as proof of quality.
Great Lake artifacts found in the Eastern Woodlands of
North America seem to indicate there were widespread
trading networks by 1000 BCE. Progressively the usage
of copper for tools decreases with more jewellery and
adornments being found. This is believed to be indicative of social changes to a more hierarchical society.[15]
However this Great Lake model as a unique source of
copper and of copper technologies remaining somewhat
static for over 6000 years has recently come into some
level of criticism, particularly since other deposits seem
to have been available to ancient North Americans, even
if a lot smaller.[16][17]
During the Mississippian period (8001600 CE, varying locally), elites at major political and religious centers throughout the midwestern and southeastern United
States used copper ornamentation as a sign of their status
by crafting the sacred material into representations connected with the Chiey Warrior cult of the Southeastern
Ceremonial Complex (S.E.C.C.).[18] This ornamentation
includes Mississippian copper plates, repoussd plates
of beaten copper now found as far aeld as Alabama,
Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and
Tennessee. Some of the more famous of the plates are of
raptorial birds and avian-themed dancing warriors. These
plates, such as the Rogan plates from Etowah, the Spiro
plates from the Spiro in Oklahoma, and the Wulng cache
from southeast Missouri, were instrumental in the development of the archaeological concept known as the
The only Mississippian culture site where a copper workshop has been located by archaeologists is Cahokia in
western Illinois.[19] Excavations of the copper workshops
at Mound 34 (a small mound located on the Ramey Plaza
east of Monks Mound[20] ) indicate copper was worked
there. Numerous copper fragments as well as ashes from
res were found in the area as well as the remains of three
tree stumps thought to have been used to hold anvil stones
used for beating out the attened sheets of copper.[19]
After the collapse of the Mississippian way of life in the
1500s with the advent of European colonization, copper
still retained a place in Native American religious life as
a special material. Copper was traditionally regarded as
sacred by many historic period Eastern tribes. Copper
nuggets are included in medicine bundles among Great
Lakes tribes. Among 19th century Muscogee Creeks, a

5 See also
Cape York meteorite
Copper Inuit
Mississippian copper plates
Native copper

6 Notes
[1] Mark Aldenderfer, Nathan M. Craig, Robert J. Speakman and Rachel Popelka-Filco (2008).
Fourthousand-year-old gold artifacts from the Lake Titicaca basin, southern Peru. PNAS 105: 50025005.
[2] 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: 890897.
[3] Martin, S.R. (1999). Wonderful Power: The Story of Ancient Copper Working in the Lake Superior Basin. Great
Lakes Books Series. Wayne State University Press. p.
[4] Scattolin, M. Cristina, M. Fabiana Bugliani, Leticia
Corts, Lucas Pereyra Domingorena y C. Marilin
Calo (2010). ;
C2%BA-1-2010/ Una mscara de cobre de 3000
Estudios arqueometalrgicos y comparaciones regionales.
Boletn del Museo Chileno de
Arte Precolombino, Santiago de Chile 15: 2546.
[5] Bruhns, K.O. (1994). Ancient South America. Cambridge
University Press.
[6] Keatinge, R.W. (1988).
Peruvian Prehistory: An
Overview of Pre-Inca and Inca Society. Cambridge University Press.
[7] G. Horz, M.K. (2000). The treasure of gold and silver artifacts from the Royal Tombs of Sipa n, Peru
a study on the Moche metalworking techniques. Materials Characterization 45: 391420. doi:10.1016/s10445803(00)00093-0.
[8] Lechtman, H. (1991). The Production of CopperArsenic Alloys in the Central Andes: Highland Ores and
Coastal Smelters? extquotedbl. Journal of Field Archaeology 18: 4376. doi:10.1179/009346991791548780.

[9] Lechtman, H. & Klein, S. (1999).

The Production of CopperArsenic Alloys (Arsenic Bronze)
by Cosmelting: Modern Experiment, Ancient Practice. Journal of Archaeological Science 26: 497526.
[10] Jerey Quiltes & John W Hoopes (2003). Gold and Power
in Ancient Columbia, Panama and Costa Rica. Harvard:
Dumhurton Oakes. pp. 220223.
[11] Hosler, D. (1988). Ancient West Mexican Metallurgy:
South and Central American Origins and West Mexican Transformations. American Anthropologist 90: 832
855. doi:10.1525/aa.1988.90.4.02a00040.
[12] Hosler, D. (1999). Recent insights into the metallurgical
technologies of ancient mesoamerica. JOM Journal of
the Minerals 51: 1114. doi:10.1007/s11837-999-00346.
[13] Falcon-shaped Cut-Out. Ohio Pix. (retrieved 12 July
[14] George Rapp Jr, Guy Gibbon & Kenneth Ames (1998).
Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America: an Encyclopedia. New York: Taylor & Francis. p. 26.
[15] Martin, S.R. (1999). Wonderful Power: The Story of Ancient Copper Working in the Lake Superior Basin. Great
Lakes Books Series. Wayne State University Press.
[16] Levine, M.A. (2007). Overcoming Disciplinary Solitude: The Archaeology and Geology of Native Copper
in Eastern North America. Geoarchaeology: An International Journal 22: 4966. doi:10.1002/gea.20146.
[17] Levine, M.A. (2007). Determining the Provenance of
native copper artifacts from Northeastern North America: evidence from instrumental neutron activation analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science 34: 572587.
[18] Robb, Matthew H. (March 2010). Mildred Lane Kemper
Art Museum-Spotlight Series March 2010. Saint Louis
Art Museum. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
[19] Pawlaczyk, George (2010-02-16). Copper men: Archaeologists uncover Stone Age copper workshop near
Monks Mound. (Signs of the Times).
[20] Cahokia Mounds Mound 34. Cahokia Mounds State
Historic Site.
[21] Brose, David S.; James A. Brown; David W. Penney
(1985). Ancient Art of the American Woodlands Indians.
New York: Harry N. Abrams. p. 149. ISBN 0-89558105-1.


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