Susan R. Martin

FAQs about ancient copper

Who were the ancient miners? Where did they come from? Did they belong to a particular tribe?

Archaeological evidence from around the Lake Superior basin confirms that the miners were the ancestors of the region's native American people. These people were the first inhabitants of the region, and have been residents of the Upper Great Lakes for many many centuries. We don't really know what names they gave themselves, but it is likely that they spoke variants of northern Algonkian languages, so in general archaeologists refer to them as ancestors of northern Algonkian peoples. This includes groups that today are called Anishnabe (Chippewa or Ojibwa) Odawa (Ottawa), and others.

How did they accomplish the mining? Was it difficult to mine copper from bedrock?

The people bashed the basalt rock containing the veins of copper with hammers prepared of harder rock (granite, gabbro, and other types) to free up the copper. It takes a lot of human energy to break copper free from bedrock, but nature helps a little if the copper is exposed to the forces of erosion. Hammers, sticks, and wedges were used to free the copper slowly from the bedrock. In some places, the rock may have been prepared for mining by building a hot fire against it, which in some cases makes the rock more brittle and a bit easier to break up. In other places, gravel deposits in rivers and streams were searched for useful nuggets of copper.

What did they do with the copper they mined?

They made many different types of tools and ornaments.

How much copper did they mine?

Archaeologists don't know. There's really no way to estimate how much copper they actually found. In some places they probably moved a lot of bedrock without finding great quantities of useful metal. The later miners did this too. Mining is a high-risk venture, and doesn't always yield what one would hope.

How long ago did they start mining copper? When did they cease mining copper?

Right now the dates for the artifacts are better established than the dates for the mines. The oldest radiocarbon date known so far on a finely-made native copper tool is about 6700 years. This tool was found at South Fowl Lake, Minnesota. Clearly, the technique of working copper was discovered and highly developed earlier than this, because the tool is so carefully crafted. At Isle Royale, ancient pits were dated to about 4400 years ago.

Did anyone from other continents come to North America to mine or trade copper?

Not until the seventeenth century AD. The only people from other continents who were interested in mining were the French and the British during the expansion of their colonial empires. This process reached the Upper Great Lakes in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. There were never, so far as is known, any earlier European or Old World explorations related to copper.

Did the copper miners produce designs or inscriptions?

Yes. They inscribed some of the copper tools and many other objects they produced with designs and motifs that had special and secret meanings to them. Some of these motifs also appeared in the rock art of the region.

Some people argue that native Americans were not aware of the mines or of mining, and that the mining was done by a lost tribe of unknown people. Is this true?

No. There is no evidence of any lost tribe. Copper materials are found in association with native sites and artifacts throughout the Upper Great Lakes. There are many early accounts of Europeans who depended on native people to show them where the copper was. However, in general many of the native people did not want the Europeans to occupy their lands, and were reluctant to show the places where the copper was for fear the newcomers would take it. Time proved them right about this. After the Treaty of LaPointe (1842-3), the Lake Superior basin was the scene of the first American mineral rush, which pushed many native peoples away from their original lands.

Did the miners have any uncanny special abilities to locate the buried copper?

No. They, like other miners in other places, were very observant and knowledgeable about their own lands. They possessed long oral traditions about all aspects of their world, including information about the sources of important raw materials such as stone, copper, and other resources.

Where can I find more information about the ancient miners of the Lake Superior basin?

You can read more in detail in my recent book, Wonderful Power: The Story of Ancient Copper Working in the Lake Superior Basin, 1999, Wayne State University Press, Detroit MI, 1-800-WSU-READ.

Department of Social Sciences, Michigan Technological University Houghton, MI 49931
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