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

August Matthusen (
4 Jul 1996 19:05:21 GMT

In <4rgdhp$>
Beth Williams) writes:
>In <4rfka9$>
>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
>>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
>high temperatures, i.e., in a furnace, was rarely used in the New
>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

Yes, this is similar to annealing of copper.

> 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.

Yes, the meatallurgic microscopic examination confirmed that no smelting
was involved. With native copper, smelting is often unnecessary, as it is
essentially pure to begin with rather than being found as an ore with
impurities which must be removed by smelting.

>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.

Apparently, I used the word "tools" too broadly. Vernon agrees with what
you write except for the awls, as he indicates that they have a distinct
advantage over bone or stone in that they will not break. Vernon states
"Ordinarily, the conservation of energy would be a factor in the production
of tools, or other implements, but in the case of the awl, a superior tool
justifies the extra energy just as reverence for the material and
ornamental considrations justify the production of nontechnomic items."
For the knives and points, Vernon indicates that even though some are found
in work-hardened condition and exhibit surface micro-wear, most were not
used as tools as microscopic examination of internal strain does not
demonstrate significant use as utilatarian tools.


August Matthusen