June 5, 2021

New Research on the Old Copper Culture

Native Americans were among the first in the world to mine metal to make tools. The largest and purest copper in the world are around the Great Lakes of North America. Native Americans in the region began mining and producing tools 9,500 years ago, and 3000 years ago, they abruptly stopped making copper tools and only made smaller adornment items such as beads and bracelets.

The new research brings copper mining back to 9,500 years ago, which is 3,500 years earlier than thought. The researchers radio-carbon dated 53 ancient items,
from wood or cordage attached to spearpoints; others came from charcoal, wood, or bone found at mines and human burials. The oldest artifact was an 8500-year-old projectile point found in Wisconsin.

The new dates for the Old Copper Culture show that it emerged 9,500 years ago and peaked at 7000-5000 years ago. The oldest Middle East artifact found so far is a copper pendant dated to 8,700 years ago. The researchers found that stone and bone implements for arrowheads we’re just as efficient as copper, due to the fact that the pure copper of the Great Lakes is softer than copper elsewhere in the world.

Sediment cores, tree ring data, and other evidence suggest a sustained dry period struck the region around that time. That could have fueled social and ecological disruptions that made it hard to devote time and resources to making copper tools. Over time, copper may have become something of a luxury item, used to signal social status say the researchers.

The research was published in the journal Radiocarbon.

Science Magazine has the report.

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