woensdag 11 november 2009

native metallurgy

Praeterea scitio, in Fundaribus, qui tractus est inter Mexicum, & Dariem, fodinas esse orichalci: quòd nullo igni, nullis Hispanicis atribus hactenus liquescere potuit.

Julius Caesar Scaliger (1557)

(Furtherore, in the foundries, it is known that there are deposits of a metal, which is mined between Mexico and Panama, that hitherto cannot be melted by fire nor by any Spanish techniques.)

This silver-like metal can be seen here. Although Europeans found it in South America between 1500 and 1550, they only learned to work with it in the late 18th century. Today it is more expansive than the gold and silver the Spaniards were looking for... They called it "little silver" because they couldn't melt it (+/- 1750 degrees celsius, versus iron 1540 degrees celsius); thus found it worthless... "plat-ina".

Platina was probably discovered by native Ecuadorians (of the so called La Tolita-Tumaco culture) around 700 BC. The Ecuadorian-Colombian border area remained the principal mining area until the arrival of the Spaniards.

Native Metallurgy: a world to discover
It is often assumed that American metallurgy before 1492 was somehow inferior to the metallurgy that was in use in the "Old World". One of the arguments is that the Amerindians lacked iron or bronze. The reasoning goes as follows: in Eurasia there was a Stone Age, a Copper Age, a Bronze Age, and an Iron Age. The Iron Age (which had started around 1500 BC) ended when the Roman Empire took over in Europe, around the time of Christ. In 1492, when Columbus entered the Americas, he was greeted by natives still living in the Stone Age. As a matter of fact, the superior European weapons, like the steel swords of Toledo, were one reason why the Spaniards conquered most of the American continent within 50 to 100 years. Today, remnants of the Stone Age Tribes that once inhabited America, can be found in the Amazonian rainforest.

Unfortunately, there is more than one error in this story.

Metallurgy in the "Old World"
People began woking metals in Eastern Europe, Anatolia (Turkey), the Caucasus, and Mesopotamia between 5000 and 4000 BC But it was in Mesopotamia that the Copper Age & Bronze age (+/- 3000 BC) really came to be. It was followed around 1500 BC by the Iron Age. The main problem with this story is that it only seems valid for the Middle East. Many places simple skipped an "Age". Most of Africa went directly from the "Stone Age" to the "Iron Age" between 1500BC and +/- AD 500. Also in East Asia, there wasn't really a Copper Age, and although bronze was (only) somewhat earlier than iron, bronze was mainly used for art (vessels, drums, etc) and in use long after the introduction of iron (mainly used for working tools). Another thing is that in Europe, the native Copper Age in the east collapsed around 3800, probably due to the scarcity of resources. It reapeared later, comming from the Middle East. By 2000 BC bronze from the British isles (with its huge tin mines) was very popular and spread over the continent. It was only when tin and copper (together bronze) became scarcer, that iron became popular. Gold and silver (both were, with copper, the first known metals) were never really used for making tools because they were to soft and scarce. They were however valued by most cultures and came into use as trade items (which in some cases evolved, just as copper did, in money).

Americas: Northern Traditions
Around the same time as in the "Old World", people in North America started to work with copper. This copper was extracted from the Great Lakes area. Eventually this tradition developed into the Old Copper Culture (from +/- 3500 BC).

From the Great Lakes area, copper (working) spread to the east, north, south, and west. A good website about the Old Copper Culture and copper working in North America is http://copperculture.homestead.com/.

The use of copper in North America remained important until and even after the arrival of the Europeans. The first Europeans, like the Italian Verrazzano (along the east coast in 1524) found out that "the indians" found copper much more interesting than iron. Since it was such a wanted item, Europeans started to trade their copper for American animal hides. This was the beginning of the later Fur Trade that dominated the North American continent between 1600 and 1750.

Copper Celts of the Mississippian Period (+/-800- 1550)

(Most famous) Mississippian copper profile

Mississippian copper mask

Another copper-working technology developed in southern Alaska, probably in the first half of the first millennium AD, and probably influenced by similar developments in eastern Siberia with which there was a lot of contact. This tradition spread south to the North American West Coast, to the Arctic, and to the east, where it met the eastern copper tradition.

West coast copper
19th century example of West Coast copper, used as money

Where west and east meet each other: copper spear heads from present day Canadian province Manitoba

Other metals
Although copper was the most popular metal, others were used too, like silver (Ontario) and iron. Iron came from three sources, all in the north: Siberia (from where it arrived in Alaska around AD 500), the Canadian and Greenlandic arctic, and via Greenland with the Scandinavians (Vikings) from Europe. And it had two forms: meteoric iron (mainly from Greenland were a huge meteorite provided plenty of material), and "terrestal" iron. Another source form pre-Columbian iron in North America was "drift iron" which arrived directly (due to storms; direct contact is possible but not proven yet) from East Asia at the North American West Coast.

Hopewell (eastern US, 100BC- AD 500) earspool made of copper and silver that came from present-day Ontario

Iron from the West Coast (modern replica)

"Drift Coins" from China became part of Tlingit style (West Coast) armor.

Meteoric iron spear from the Greenland meteorite                  

another example of meteoric iron (knife)

South American traditions

oldest American gold so far (2000bc)

In South America, metal working (first gold, later copper) started about 4000 years ago in the central Andes, in Bolivia and Peru. Around a thousand years later, people started to work with gold and copper in Colombia and Ecuador. In Colombia a new technique was developed which resulted in the creation of Tumbaga, an alloy of gold (and sometimes a bit of silver) and copper. It makes copper harder (almost as hard as bronze or iron) but also easier to smelt (at aprox. 900 degrees celsius, +/- 200 degrees lower than gold or copper). Casting and the so called "cire perdue method" (in English known nas "lost wax method") became extremely popular. From Colombia this new tradition spread northwards into Central America, and eastwards towards the Carribean and Amazonia. The older southern Andean tradition spread further southwards, to Argentina and Chile (+/- 500 BC). The Colombian tradition reached Mexico around AD 600 from the south. But it probably also reached western Mexico by sea, via the Pacific. Scholars are sure the southeren (Peruvian) tradition indeed did so around AD1200 when mettalurgy reached western Mexico from northern Peru and Ecuador. How this was done however isn't entirely clear, but likely due to the huge sailed Ecuadorian balsa rafts landing at the Mexican coast.

At around AD500, people around Lake Titicaca (but also in Ecuador), probably part of the Tiwanaku state, introduced arsenic to their mettalurgy and the use of arsenical bronze spread with Tiwanaku and the Wari (in Peru) empire to the south and north. The use of tin bronze started some 500 years later but both bronzes apearently never made it farther north than southern Colombia because of the lack of arsenicum and tin farther north. The trade over seas between the Andes and Mexico however, again brought these southern traditions (AD 1200) towards Mesoamerica where people first just copied the Andeans, and later created their own bronze items.

above: arsenic bronze from Peruvian northcoast.
right: tin bronze axe from northwestern Argentina

left: Mayan bronze celts
right: Argentinian bronze plate

Other metals, like zinc, nickel (in bronzes), and meteoric iron were also used in the Andes, but where less important. The exact role of platinum (see above) is not clear. It was often used with gold (gold being the "mother metal", often in a 70-30% relationship), but there are also items that contain more than 50% of this metal that is so difficult to melt (also interesting is that - usually - the more platinum was used, the more iron an item contained, sometimes up to 5% or more).

Left: Gold & Platinum ring (Ecuador)
Right: Meteroric iron hammer from Colombia

The Tumbaga (the gold-copper alloy) is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of this story because it was so widely used. When Columbus landed in the Carribean the Taino called in Guanín and made it clear that they didn't know how to make it but imported it from the mainland in the south. People in Panama used the same word and in the Guyana's and Amazonia, it was often called by it's Carrib name, Caracoli (Karakoli). It was considered a very special and powerful item, and there were aproximatly three important centers outside the Andean word.

One of them was at the banks of the Rio Negro in Brasil and gave rise to the legend of El Dorado. The Manoa kingdom was said to posses and make thousands of gold items. It drove early (and later!) European explores mad, especially because they were looking for "pure" gold, which of course wasn't what the Amazonians were making. Tumbaga, guanín, caracoli... The Spaniards and other Europeans called it "fake" or "low" gold, and they kept on looking for the REAL gold man, somewhere hiding in the forrest.

Casted Tumbaga from Colombia (left) and Panama (right)

Although the ancient Mexicans (Mesoamericans) got their metallurgy very late from their southeren neighbours (around AD 600), that doesn't mean they should be left out of this story. First of all, although there isn't any evidence they melted it, the Olmecs (from 1300 BC onwards) used enourmous amounts of iron ore. This was imported from the modern Mexican state of Guerrero and a lot of it was used to make mirrors, just like the Romans did in Europe a thousand years later. There is also some evidence these ancient Mexicans knew about the magnatism of iron and used it as a compass (again, a thousand years earlier than people in the "Old World", the Chinese, who are often credited for this invention.). One of the reasons why metallurgy came that late to Mesoamerica is probably the status of jade(ite). This mineral was mined in Guatemala and had an enourmous prestige amoung Mesoamericans (since Olmec times), just like tumbaga, gold and silver had in the south. Jadeite is very hard (harder than iron or "normal" steel), yet Mesoamericans knew how to work and carve it into various objects.

World famous Jade(ite) mask of Mayan lord Pacal (Palenque)       Jadeite toucan from Costa Rica

When South American metals arrived, Mesoamericans developed their own rich traditions that after a while also started to expand. This is how Mesoamerican (and indirectly South American) metallurgy came into the area of the northen tradition. Through trade, the North American southwest got (amoung other things) copper bells from Mexico while "Southwesterner's" exported (again, amoung other things) turquoise.


Mixtec (Oaxaca, Mexico) metalwork

It is not (yet) known however if the two distinctive traditions (north & south) really "touched" each other; and if so, where. Until now the evidence isn't that strong, but that's also because there hasn't been that much research. Perhaps someone will pick it up some day.

Mexican copper bells from present day Arizona         South American gold found in Florida 

1 opmerking:

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