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America’s Forgotten Copper Complex

America’s Forgotten Copper Complex

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The Stone Age Stigma of Native Americans

Native Americans have suffered many unfortunate and unjust stigmas over the years. Some myths about Native American culture and civilization are so prevalent that even well-read individuals discover that they have been harboring some misconceptions. One common misunderstanding is the assumption that Native Americans failed to emerge from the Stone Age before contact with Europeans, particularly in North America.

Native American coppersmithing in North America produced small tools and accessories until European colonization. Still, the Stone Age stereotype of Native America persists, and many remain blissfully unaware of the triumphant artifacts produced during the Old Copper Complex of the Archaic Age.

Many might recall that South American civilizations worked with gold and silver, which is what tempted the conquistadors. Some might also remember that Mesoamerica, a North American region, had gold and silversmithing traditions similar to those of their South American counterparts. Still, this is as far as most people’s understanding of Native American metallurgy usually goes. Some archaeologists believed Indigenous cultures north of the Rio Grande River did not have metallurgical traditions before European colonization. Despite this broadly held belief, archeological evidence stating the contrary is abundant.

The “Old Copper Complex” of North America’s Great Lakes region tends to go strangely overlooked in American History. However, recent studies have revealed that Native American copperworking has much more profound and richer roots than previously thought. The Sub-Arctic tribes of present-day Canada and the U.S. worked with copper to make tools, weapons, and jewelry as far back as 6,500–7,500 BC. This new evidence places Native American coppersmiths on par, and even ahead, of their ancient counterparts in the Middle East. Furthermore, Native American artisans grew their craft and kept the tradition strong until 1,500–1,000 BC. Then, rather abruptly, the booming copper industry mysteriously fades from the archaeological record

The reason for the Old Copper Complex’s rise, long endurance, and sudden demise is undocumented and, therefore, a mystery. Over the twentieth century, it was the subject of educated speculation. The issue has been given more direct attention in the more recent years of the early twenty-first century. The best explanations seem to have more to do with the changing North American environment than any other factor.

The Archaic Age: An Era of Adaptation

Around 13,500 years ago, the Ice Age reached a decisive end in the Holocene era. What followed was a period of rapid deglaciation as the climate warmed across the globe. This process occurred far too quickly for many species to handle, especially in North America. The result was a widespread extinction of many animals that the continent’s human population counted on for food. Paleo Indians, the name given to Native Americans of that age, scrambled to figure out new ways of life in the face of dramatic climate change. Most did not survive this transition, and having the correct tools made all the difference for those who endured.

Technological developments were crucial to Holocene survival. Weapons like Folsom spearheads, arrowheads, and the atlatl  played critical roles in Native American survival in the changing environment. Thus, after a broad decline, Native America experienced a massive rebound from 9,500 to 1,200 BC. Once again, people spread far and wide across a freshly thawed continent in an era known as the “Archaic Age.”

 To thrive in this warmer world, Archaic Indians adapted specifically and meticulously to their various local climates and ecosystems. It was also a time of cultural refinement in which regional identities began to form. The resulting cultures were distinguishable by the methods with which the people hunted and gathered environment. In this context of adapting to the immediate world around oneself, North America’s “Old Copper Complex” came about.

An Embarrassment of Riches

The region of the Great Lakes was geologically devoid of flint, chert, and other minerals of choice for stone-age artisans. There was, however, something just as good or even better to be found. Glacial activity had formed rich copper deposits in the Great Lakes area. The Keweenaw Peninsula of Lake Superior contains the largest supply of naturally forming copper found anywhere in the world. Copper deposits require smelting to separate impurities from the desired alloys. However, Keweenaw copper is exceptional because the ore was refined naturally. The geological term for copper that forms in such a naturally unpolluted state is “native copper.”

The rare and abundant specimens of immaculate copper found near the Great Lakes did not need modification and were ready for immediate use. To make it even better, the same glacial activity that formed the copper also brought it to the surface, thus eliminating any need to dig tunnels and undertake the risky process of shaft mining. Once the deglaciation process exposed the copper, the Archaic peoples of the Great Lakes found an embarrassment of riches millions of years in the making right at their fingertips. They wasted no time in putting it to good use.

Mining the Copper

As early as 6,500 BC, Keweenaw’s ripe supply of native copper was mined and crafted into tools and weapons around the Great Lakes. The mining mostly seems to have taken place within a radius of 120 miles. Archeological sites such as Keweenaw and Ontonagon on the mainland and Isle Royale are noteworthy as the oldest and busiest copper pits ever discovered.

If the miners were lucky, they might find loose “Float Copper” nuggets near the surface. The miners would move the free-floating specimens to the crafting site. There needed to be enough workforce, as these hunks of metal came in various sizes, weighing anywhere from ounces to tons. One of the largest ever recorded, the “Ontonagon Boulder,” weighs 3,708 lbs (1,682 kg).

The precious metal is often found in “outcrops,” which are great veins running through segments of exposed bedrock. Prospectors can usually spot these relatively easily in areas prone to erosion, such as river banks or steep slopes like hillsides and mountain ridges. In situations like these, the Archaic miners got creative.

Sadly, indigenous accounts must remember the exact methods used to harvest the metal. Scholars can, however, make some educated guesses based on techniques known to have been used elsewhere in the world by other civilizations at similar stages of their development. The indigenous people dug the copper vein out of the surrounding soil and then beaten clean until a sizeable protrusion was exposed. Thousands of grooved hammerstones have been gathered by archeologists near known prehistoric mining sites, leaving little doubt about the central role of the simple stone tools in the mining process. Evidence shows that the native people used adders, shovels, axes, and gads (a crude ancestor of the drill that can also function as a wedge).

Once a suitably sized piece of copper was exposed, a process known as thermally induced shattering, also called “heating and quenching,” likely served to sever fragments of copper from the exposed vein. Thermally-induced shattering involved piling fuel for a fire near the trench or outcrop and then burning it to heat and soften the copper. After a long burn, the fragments were doused with cold water. The drastic temperature change would cause a temporary weakness in the softened metal to make a clean break possible.

These simple methods were enough to get the job done. The sheer amount of effort required would still have been immense. No comprehensive study has ever attempted to calculate the amount of copper mined throughout the Archaic Era. Still, loose estimates ventured by researchers in the 1950s and 60s weigh in at 1.5 billion pounds, which is particularly impressive when one considers that this was all done without wheeled carts or wagons and no beasts of burden to bear the weight. Therefore, historians conclude that a sizeable pool of healthy workforce would have been necessary to expose and harvest the copper and move it to where artisans would turn it into something desirable.

Crafting the Copper

In its naturally pure state, the native copper of the Keweenaw Peninsula was ready to be fashioned. Because copper is a relatively soft alloy, smelting was unnecessary. Archaic artisans could primarily shape the alloy like any other piece of stone or bone through methods they were already familiar with. One additional step that set Archaic coppersmithing apart from working with other minerals was the application of a bit of heat to soften the copper even further temporarily. This process is known as “cold forging” since even though the copper is heated, it never grows hot enough to liquefy. Once the copper was shaped and cooled, it was ready to begin a new life as a functional object.

As with the mining process, little more than simple heating and beating (with a bit of grinding) was a perfectly suitable method to shape and fashion copper weapons and tools. Regardless of the methods used, though, an array of copper objects was produced by Great Lakes coppersmiths.

The most active period of the “Old Copper Complex” seems to have been from 4,000 – 1,000 BC. Copper goods were incredibly abundant in the region of modern-day Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and even Minnesota. Due to the amount of copper goods in this region, it is not uncommon for modern-day residents of the area to have private collections of artifacts they have discovered outdoors.

You can find an impressive public exhibition of such artifacts in Wisconsin at the Milwaukee Public Museum. The relics come in various shapes and sizes and range from functional to cosmetic in their purposes. Copper artifacts from the Great Lakes have also been found hundreds of miles from their origin. Some were discovered as far east as the Atlantic coasts of New York and as far south as Alabama, along the Gulf of Mexico.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

The creation of weapons and tools was the initial focus of the Great Lakes coppersmiths. Some instruments could function as both, while others were more for crafting than combat. Whatever the intended purpose, though, Archaic coppersmiths honed their craft over generations to produce various tools for many purposes.

Archaeologists have discovered big knife blades ranging from 4 to 32 centimeters in length. Presumably, these blades had haft handles made from wood or bone. Researchers assume they were primarily used for food preparation, although self-defense was likely an option.

Projectile points for spearheads and atlatl dart tips came in at least seven styles. Some of the more basic styles like the “rat tail,” “lanceolate,” and “socketed-tang” points were quite common. Other varieties like the “flat-stemmed fishtail,” “conical socket,” “sawtooth,” and “spatula/barbed-base points” seem to have been rarer. Still, one might surmise that such variety implies a trend of specialization growing around the Great Lakes—some of these styles for weapons of war. Still, the paleo Indians used most of these weapons for hunting specific varieties of woodland animals.

Archaic Indian copper artifacts, 3000 BC-1000 BC, exhibited in the Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.

Harpoon points were so distinct in their design as to warrant a separate categorization from spears and darts. The native people created at least three styles of harpoons to catch larger fish and other sizeable aquatic prey.

Small, finely crafted pieces such as awls and curled fishhooks served better to catch the smaller fish. Many such details are still regularly dug out of the soil in the area by amateur scavengers and professional archeologists alike. This abundance, along with the variety of specialized styles and sizes, speaks to how large a role fishing played in the lives of the Archaic peoples of the Great Lakes.

Blades forged for crafting tools, especially those intended for woodworking, have also been frequently unearthed. Most are recognizable in their intended purposes, such as chisels, celts, axe/hatchet heads, pikes, and wedges. Some other common artifacts, such as the “socketed spuds” and “banner stones,” remain a bit more of an enigma. As with the other artifacts, these tools were copious in number and available in various sizes and styles. The number of artifacts found here suggests a growing specialization in Archaic craftsmanship and hunting.

Archaic copperwork was not strictly utilitarian; it also served cosmetic purposes. Beginning in the later Archaic era, copper accessories such as beaded necklaces, bracelets, and pendants grew in popularity after copper tools had been around for some time. Copper adornments were not merely for the living either. Grave goods, particularly for women and children, were also in high demand. Archaeologists exhumed some of the best examples of ceremonial copper décor made from copper at Wisconsin’s Oconto (ca. 4,000-2,000 BC) and Osceola (ca. 5,500-2,500 BC) sites. Michigan’s Riverside site (ca. 1000-400 BC) has also yielded some excellent examples of copper grave goods.

Changing Commodities and a Return to Stone

Archeological evidence demonstrates that copper tools were the name of the game for roughly 4,000 – 6,000 years. After this, their use ended rather abruptly around 1,500 – 1,000 BC. America’s prehistoric copper mining industry also seems to have died out around the same time. This sudden cessation has bewildered scholars for generations. What is perhaps most baffling, though, is that the abandonment occurred in favor of a return to stone tools. This perceived technological reversion is the precise opposite of what happened in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In other continents, copperworking leads to more complex metallurgy, such as experimentation with bronze and Iron. America is, therefore, alone in what mid-twentieth century archeologist Lewis R. Binford dubbed “technomic devolution.”

Binford and his peers needed help understanding the step backward at the end of the Archaic Age. They hypothesized that copper tools, while more challenging to make, would still have been longer-lasting and more durable than their stone counterparts Recent experiments conducted by archaeologist Michelle Bebber of Kent State University have shed some light on this.

Bebber and her team went to great lengths to replicate Archaic Coppersmiths’ sources, techniques, and products. The archaeologists tested the copper replicas against near duplicates of stone blades with consideration for initial sharpness, final sharpness, and overall durability. The result revealed that stone and copper knives had comparable initial edges. Still, the copper blades prevailed in terms of sharpness and longevity. Even so, the copper proved heavier and more challenging to produce and generally softer. So, while copper tools have proven to be a better investment in the long run, acquiring time and energy up front may have been its undoing.

If this analysis is accurate, then the abandonment of copper and the reversion to Stone Age technology in tools and weapons was an informed choice of cost-benefit research. In more trying times, it was likely a better use of time and energy to craft a stone tool that was as good quickly. Also, the labor in preparing the heavier tools was exorbitant. In that case, the mining process could have been more strenuous, if not more so.

Why were the tools used for thousands of years suddenly no longer worth the time and energy ca. 1,500-1,000 BC? Once again, it was a matter of people adapting to their specific environment.

David Pompeani of Kansas State University addressed this by examining the sediment cores and tree rings across the region and found that a very hot and dry period began around 5,000 BC and continued to grow more intense throughout the Archaic Age. Drought-like conditions would have almost certainly resulted by the time of the Later Archaic and placed a tremendous ecological strain on the region. With resources becoming less fruitful, physical stress on people likely led to social issues. Leadership may also be reconsidered, even leading to drastic societal restructuring.

Copper smithing as a craft did not entirely die out. Still, its focus shifted to creating more miniature, and in many cases more superficial, products. Copper fishhooks and awls remained in production as more comprehensive tools faded from use, the sole exception to the economic devolution. Fashion accessories, on the other hand, became far more abundant. As with fishhooks and awls, smaller pieces of metal would suffice to make the beads and other minuscule components required to make items of personal ornamentation. Coppersmiths, therefore, trended towards recycling, reforging, and repurposing copper from pre-existing pieces and conceivably smaller nuggets of floating copper.

The popularity of copper adornments may have resulted from the development of a class system. The theory is that more complex societies did go on to develop in the region. The subsequent Adena (fl. 500-100 BC) and Hopewell (fl. 100- 500 AD) cultures had a social hierarchy in their communities. Those of a higher station in society often demonstrate their position through clothing and jewelry. If copper were a more labor-intensive mineral to craft in the Late Archaic, it would be rarer and more expensive. It polished up nicely, making it a prime candidate to signify wealth and power.

More complex societies also tend to have more elaborate rituals, hence the rise of burial gifts, particularly for members of the upper classes. Archeologist Thomas Pleger’s comparison of the Oconto and Riverside burial sites has found evidence of a shift in social structure in the region during the Late Archaic that predates the rise of the Adena. Pleger notes that the older site, Oconto (ca. 4,000-2,000 BC), has a more equal distribution of grave goods (including copper pieces) than the younger Riverside site (ca. 1000-400 BC). This community may be a missing link between the egalitarian Archaic societies of the Great Lakes and the subsequent, more hierarchical societies of the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian People

The technomic devolution of the Late Archaic certainly did not help this perception, even if it made sense given the circumstances. Some scholars have referred to it as an “accident of history,” noting that North America’s step backward from copper was at the point where civilizations in Eurasia moved forward. The lack of experimentation with smelting seems to be the missing link in Native Americans’ metallurgical journey. To Archaic Indians, copper was simply another variety of stone to be worked as such. Perhaps, in this sense, the gift of such an abundance of native copper could be seen as a stumbling block.

Had the Archaic peoples of North America joined the rest of the world in transitioning from copper to bronze? Then, eventually, to Iron, history would have looked very different. We will never know what might have been. What is certain is that none of this resulted from Native Americans lacking capability.

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