Re: Pre-Columbian metal (Was: Olmecs and Africa ? No evidence.)

Mary Beth Williams (
4 Jul 1996 12:30:49 GMT

In <4rfka9$>
Matthusen) writes:
>Hi Eric,
>Mind if I throw in my two cites worth about the exploitation of metal
>in pre-contact North America?
>Rapp, G. Jr, E. Henrickson, J. Allert, 1990. Native Copper Sources
>Artifact Copper in pre-Columbian North America; in Lasca N.P and
>Donahue, J. eds, Archaeological Geology of North America, Geological
>Society of America, Centennial Special Volume 4, pp. 479-498.
>Vernon, W.W., 1990. New Archaeometallurgical Perspectives on the Old
>Copper Industry of North America; in Lasca N.P and Donahue, J. eds,
>Archaeological Geology of North America, Geological Society of
>Centennial Special Volume 4, pp. 499-512.
>Rapp et al. (1990) list 540 locations in North America (not including
>Mesoamerica) where native (i.e., elemental) copper sources were
>exploited. Vernon (1990) describes in more detail the Old Copper
>industry, a Late Archaic Indian manifestation that flourished in
>Wisconsin and Northern Michigan c. 5500 to 3000 BP. Copper tools were
>fabricated by hammering the native copper and occasionally annealing
>increase hardness. Tools found have included axes, awls, knives, and
>points. None of the artifacts reported indicates smelting was

I think its important, however, to temper <g> this discussion of
metalworking. *Smelting*, i.e., the reduction of metal such as iron at
high temperatures, i.e., in a furnace, was rarely used in the New World
until the mid-18th century. Attempts to set up blast furnaces failed
miserably, usually within only a few years of initial production
(Saltonstall, Braintree, Saugus all failed in the 17th century.)
However, bloomeries and small forges flourished in Colonial America.
For those not familiar with the bloomery process, ore is heated in a
*forge*, and then the impurities are hammered out, with the final
product, wrought, versus, smelted metal (termed *pig* iron when from a
furnace.) This is very different from *smelting*, where metal is
reduced to liquid form, the impurities removed (in iron, with the use
of flux) and then pored into molds or bars (the bars later worked in a
forge into *wrought* iron.) The artifacts listed above, axes, awls,
knives and points, would, even in Europe, not have shown evidence of
*smelting*, as purely *smelted* metal is too weak for tools, and
besides, is an impractical method for producing these tools. Kettles,
pots, dishes and cups on the other hand would easily show evidence of
*smelting*, as molten metal would have been pored into a mold.

Its important to note that although Indians obviously knew how to work
indigenous metals, they usually saved such metalwork for *decorative*
rather than functional items. Even when iron and copper articles were
introduced by Europeans, Indians first cut them up and formed such
metal into *ritual* versus *functional* items. This was not because
they were idiots -- Anyone familiar with iron production understands
both the energy and manpower even a small operation demands. The
benefits need to outweigh the costs, and for many indigenous groups,
stone, particularly flint, was far more versatile and less *costly*,
both in time and energy, for their needs. Only after Europeans
distrupted the trade relationships which provided many groups with
flint did metal then become more important, and then we also an
immediate increase in post-Contact metalworking by Indians (blacksmiths
tools are found in a number of 17th century Indian burials, including a
well documented one at RI1000.)

MB Williams
Dept. of Anthro., UMass-Amherst