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No. 90: Nov-Dec 1993

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Missing: 500,000 tons of copper

Grooved maul used by ancient miners
A grooved maul used by ancient miners of Michigan copper ore. (S. Braker)
For some 1800 years, beginning abruptly about 3000 BC, some industrious peoples mined ore equivalent to 500,000 tons of copper from Michigan's Isle Royale and Keweenaw Peninsula. Who were these mysterious miners, and what happened to all all that copper? It certainly hasn't been found in the relics of North American Indians. And where was the ore smelted? About all the unidentified miners left behind are some of the crude tools they used to pound out chunks of ore from their pit mines (5000 pit mines on Isle Royale alone). Outside of some cairns and slabrock ruins, there is little to help pin down these miners. Mainstream archeologists attribute all these immense labors to a North American "Copper Culture" -- certainly not to copper-hungry visitors from foreign shores. Admittedly, many copper artifacts have been dug up from North American mounds, but only a tiny fraction of the metal the Michigan mines must have yielded.

Curiously, North American Indian mounds have contained copper sheets made in the shape of an animal hide. Called "reels," their function, if any, is unknown. The reels do, however, resemble oddly shaped copper ingots common in European Bronze Age com merce. Their peculiar shape earned these ingots the name "oxhydes." They have been found in Bronze Age shipwrecks, and are even said to be portrayed in wall paintings in Egyptian tombs. The standardized hide-like shape, with its four convenient handles, was useful in carrying and stacking the heavy ingots. Could the reels from the North American mounds have been copied from the oxhydes? It is tempting to speculate (as we are wont to do) that the Copper Culture miners were actually Europeans, or perhaps Native Americans employed or enslaved by Europeans -- an omen of future, more devastating invasions! (Sodders, Betty; "Who Mined American Copper 5,000 Years Ago?" Ancient American, 1:28, September/October 1993.)

Comment. The Ancient American is a new, off-mainstream archeological serial. It will be interesting to gauge its impact on prevailing paradigms!

Reference. Our handbook Ancient Man contains several detailed reports on ancient North American copper mining. This book is described here.

From Science Frontiers #90, NOV-DEC 1993. 1993-2000 William R. Corliss