a world trade in 3000 BC?
economy between 2000 and 1000 BC stood and fell with copper, used
for the creation of bronze. At the same time, large quantities
of copper were mined in America, though no-one seems to know who
was using it. A question of a world economy, and supply and demand?
Bronze Age is a period in Western European history typified by
the usage of… bronze. The Bronze Age may be a term used
daily in schools across the world, but there is one major issue
that is seldom debated: where did the required components, tin
and copper, originate from?
Indeed, though it is undoubtedly the case that Europe had a “Bronze
Age”, archaeologists have accepted that much more copper
was used than what they have been able to attribute to European
mines. So where did an extremely large part of the copper come
from? The answer, as bizarre as it may sound, could be America.
It is known that during the European Bronze Age, large quantities
of copper were mined in North America. However, no-one is able
to answer as to what became of the copper that was mined there.
If we were to add the two problems together, do we have the solution?
Of course, the answer for the accepted scientific dogma is “no”,
as it argues that there were no transoceanic contacts in the Bronze
Age, and hence copper could not have been traded from the New
to the Old World. But perhaps there is sufficient scientific evidence
available that will alter the assumptions of the scientists.
chief ingredient for bronze is copper. The era around 3000 BC
saw more than 500,000 tons of copper being mined in the so-called
Upper Peninsula, in the American state of Michigan. The largest
mine was on Isle Royale, an island in Lake Superior, near the
Canadian border. Here, there are thousands of prehistoric copper
pits, dug thousands of years ago by ancient peoples unknown. The
Minong Belt on Isle Royale has a distance of one and three quarter
miles in length and is nearly four hundred feet wide. The copper
pits range ten tot thirty feet deep with connecting tunnels; one
archaeologist estimated that their digging would take the equivalent
of 10,000 men working for 1000 years.
After two centuries of speculation, no-one has ever satisfactorily
explained where the world’s purist copper might have gone.
Extraction from Isle Royal began in 5300 BC, with some even claiming
that it began as early as 6000 BC. Evidence for smelting is known
to exist from “only” 4000 BC onwards.
The exact size of the mined ore is perhaps never going to be exactly
determined, but what is known, is that ca. 1200 BC, all mining
activity was halted. But around 1000 AD, mining was restarted
and lasted until 1320 AD. During this period, a moderate 2000
tons were removed.
North America, not even 1% has been recovered. Some individual
pieces weigh 34,000 pounds, which equals the weight of all bronze
or copper artefacts found in the United States. Other stones,
such as the Ontonagon Boulder, weigh 3700 pounds. One 5720 pound
mass found near McCargo’s Cove was raised part way to the
surface on cribbing in the same way others were found in other
mines. The ancients were raising it, yet somehow, some of these
huge stones were abandoned mid-task.
Octave DuTemple, one of the first archaeologists to investigate
the site, stated that the miners left their tools behind, as if
they had thought that the following morning, they would return
to their quarry and continue their work.
These miners were experienced labourers. The mines were efficiently
run, producing large quantities of ore that could be quickly transported
to the surface. Between 1000 and 12,000 ton of material was removed
from one mine, resulting in approximately fifty tons of copper.
Their technique was basic, but efficient: they created large fires
on the veins of the copper ore, heating the stone, then to poor
water on top of it. This cracked the rock and with the aide of
stone tools, the copper was removed from the rock.
About 5000 mines have been discovered,
in an area that is roughly 200 kilometres long and five to ten
kilometres wide. The area mined on Isle Royale measures sixty
to eight kilometres. If all mines were placed in one consecutive
row, it would measure eight kilometres, eight metres wide and
ten metres deep.
Every mine that was opened in the past 200 years, showed some
previous, prehistoric mining activity. This included mines where
the copper ore did not protrude to the surface – showing
evidence of the advanced knowledge which allowed the prehistoric
miners to identify subterranean ores. It also worked the other
way around, for sites that showed evidence of ancient mining,
were in modern times considered to be good omens, as they were
often the best sites to find copper – lots of copper.
How the miners knew which stones contained copper is a mystery.
They obviously did, but where they learned, is not known. As it
is not known who was responsible for the activity. Furthermore,
if there were no transoceanic contacts, is it not highly remarkable
that both continents, completely independent from each other,
at the same moment in time, began to mine and use copper and tin,
used it to create bronze, yet in America, did nothing “sensible”
with it – apart from some artefacts that have been recovered?
The Menomonie Indians of north
Wisconsin possess a legend that speaks about the ancient mines.
They described the mines as being worked by “light skinned
men”, who were able to identify the mines by throwing magical
stones on the ground, which made the ores that contained copper
ring like a bell.
This practice closely resembles a similar practice that was used
in Europe during the Bronze Age. Bronze with a high concentration
of tin indeed resonates when a stone is thrown against it. The
legend might have confused the start of the process with the result
of the process. Even so, S.A. Barnett, the first archaeologist
who studied Aztalan, a site near the mines, believed that the
miners originated from Europe. His conclusion was largely based
on the type of tools that had been used, tools which were not
used by the local people.
is clear that with a vast workforce – possibly as many as
10,000 people – some must have died. It is also likely that
at least some labourers came with families. In short, there must
have been a number of dead people, but where are the burials?
The answer: nowhere. Where the dead were taken is another good
question, as there is no evidence of cremation or burial near
any of the sites or the Upper Peninsula in general. The only thing
that was left behind, were their tools – millions of tools.
And this suggests that the workforce, though not necessarily from
Europe, was most likely not local either.
But that it could very well be Europe, was given a boost when
in 1922, William A. Ferguson discovered a harbour on the north
coast of Isle Royale. Ships could load and unload, aided by a
pier that measured 500 metres in length. This suggests that the
type of ships that anchored here, were large ships – and
that there were many. The most likely explanation as to the purpose
of this harbour was that they formed the point where the copper
was loaded… to be transported to other regions. The presence
of the harbour further shows that the people working the mines
were not local, as the local Indians only used small canoes.
It is likely that the mines were
only worked in the summer, with the workforce moving further south
during the winter months – or returning home across the
ocean. This could explain the absence of buildings: people living
here in the winter, need buildings in order to survive, but that
is not necessarily so during the summer months. As there are no
such buildings, it suggests no-one lived here. Equally important
is the fact that there are no signs of copper melting factories,
required for their future use. This means that the copper was
used elsewhere, as copper required further handling for it to
Could we find out where they went in the winter months? Though
Europe is a possibility, it is also unlikely. Their most likely
habitat was probably Aztalan and Rock Lake, where some years ago,
buildings and a temple were discovered just below the water surface.
These sites are a mere fifty kilometres south of the “snowline”,
which makes them ideal places to settle down for the winter. Their
winter residence and summer work site were actually connected
with each other via rivers.
It is also around Rock Lake that many graves have been discovered.
No less than 70 funerary hills containing the cremated remains
of thousands of individuals have been discovered there. One of
the better preserved graves contains the body of a man with a
hammer; a similar hammer was discovered at Isle Royale.
nugget at Minong mine
is the problem of the copper trade fully answered with the discovery
of their remains around Rock Lake? Or does it still leave room
for a European component to this story?
The problem is that though Rock Lake seemed to house the workforce,
nowhere is there any evidence that they, or other people nearby,
used the copper. So the problem of where the copper went remains.
Furthermore, the copper was definitely worthy of a transoceanic
voyage. The copper around Lake Superior was the best and most
important copper found in the world. In the period of 1000 to
1400 BC, the copper was exported to the Mexican Toltecs –
and perhaps even other civilisations further south. But who were
the “buyers” several millennia earlier?
mining started in 3000 BC, with already a high standard of extraction.
Thousands of workmen were organised to work efficiently with tools
that could move three tons of ore at one time. They also were
able to dig up to a depth of twenty metres, without any problems.
Where did this knowledge originate from? North America has no
clear source for this culture. When we look to the problem on
a global scale, there are only a handful of possible cultures
that possessed such advanced knowledge at that time, cultures
such as the Indus and the Egyptian civilisation.
The most likely candidate, however, remains Bronze Age Europe.
What is remarkable, is that Bronze Age Europe ended in 1200 BC,
which coincides with the end of the mining activities in America.
Coincidence? The mining technique in America is also identical
to those used on the British Isles, where the other component,
tin, originated from. Together with Spain, the British Isles were
the main sources of tin.
Still, it is intriguing to note that recently, a tin mine was
discovered at Isle Royale – mines which the native Indians
did not even know existed. This shows that Isle Royale thus provided
the miners both with copper and tin. The only piece of “hard
evidence” so far uncovered is statue discovered in ca. 1660
by a missionary, Allouez, who travelled through the region and
stumbled upon a 30 cm copper statue, depicting a man with a beard
– the native Indians do not have beards.
this needs to be added one important observation. Western Europe
in the Bronze Age was largely driven by the sea – the areas
that were most populated and the furthest developed were all coastal,
with many, such as the Orkneys, strangely off the beaten track
– yet perfectly situated if there was transoceanic contact
at that time.
In the traditional understanding, the Orkneys form an output,
which somehow makes it difficult to explain their advanced culture
and economy that allowed them to build their monuments. But in
the “new understanding”, the Orkneys formed a vital
post for transoceanic travel, bringing in travellers who were
no doubt willing to “spend” in the Orkneys, making
the Orkneys a cornerstone of the world economy.
More and more scientists are agreeing that Bronze Age Europe was
indeed a maritime system. Is it that impossible to suggest that
travellers who sailed from Spain to Scotland would not have been
able to cross to America? Some might argue that the waters of
the ocean were far rougher than those coastal waters, but anymore
merely has to travel around Cornwall – where the ships had
to pass to take tin – will know the seas there are extremely
Would it be impossible to assume that a world economy of copper
and tin existed in 3000 BC? For those who believe that the answer
is that this is impossible – note how dangerous it might
be to expel such a possibility out of hand…
article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine 5.5 (September-October
1999) and has been updated once since.