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Research & Thoughts

A "Copper Conundrum" Solved

Response to David Malakoff article in American Archaeology, Spring 2021, that the magazine editor refused to print to correct the fallacies contained there.


The pre-contact copper industry is the Americas' oldest metal industry. Unlike what many scholars believe, it did not disappear, but it's true that it did change and evolve, in part as a response to the growing trade network.


I'm from Wisconsin and well aware of Bill Reardon's two radiocarbon dated points dating to 6500 BCE. The oldest copper industry may well date back to the Late Paleo period, if the late Dr. Jack Steinbring's research on the I-K point is validated. There was also a very early awl dated in Illinois to around 7,000 BCE. Float copper was their first source of copper, and it would make more sense for the Illinois people to have started working copper found on the ground, left behind by the glaciers, before anyone farther north.


Float copper was used first, before mining, left laying on the ground for anyone to pick up. Malakoff failed to mention this.


"When humans learn to do something, they usually keep doing it." This comment is not logical. Humans experiment, they adapt, they are continually striving to make something better.


In the article was a discuss of whether copper made a better tool than stone, to see if maybe that's why it was abandoned. But what they fail to recognize is that copper can be re-made into something else. If a point breaks, you can repair it, unlike with stone. Copper is a recyclable and malleable material, unlike stone.


Personally, I think the technology for creating copper tools delighted them and they continued to experiment throughout the centuries. This would be the reason that some designs are found in more numbers than others. If you were to look at the Wittry typology (I keep it updated at my website) you would see the variety of copper tools and ornaments is amazing. They did not stagnate in this industry, nor are the artifacts produced of inferior designs that were tossed.


Instead, copper tools were often handed down through the centuries. We find some with hash marks, indicating ownership, or, as some think, how many generations of ownership it had. One is even shown with has marks, without note, in the article.


So copper tooling did not disappear. I had this argument with a state archaeologist here in Wisconsin who also said tooling stopped between the Hopewell and the Mississippian periods. But the CAMD demonstrated that this is simply not true. The points created changed, such as those found in numbers at the Riverside site in Michigan. Then points got small when the bow and arrow came into the region as early as 500 CE.


It is nice to see the article attempt to validate the age of the Oconto copper burial artifacts. I was curator at that museum for three years, and continually suggested that the oldest could be valid as well as the dates of not so old pieces, because the site could have had longevity, being used over thousands of years.


More efficient forms did replace less efficient ones. I see no reason to believe otherwise. The conical point was used for a very long time, for hunting and fishing. The common celt form was used in a number of different ways, depending on size. The true celt form went south while the crescent form stayed more northerly, and eventually, the celt form took on some crescent features down in Mexico. These people evolved their copper use as needed, and continued to use forms where they worked for them.


I do agree that by the Late Archaic, with mining well underway, certain groups likely gained control of the mines as part of a trade network. The Hopewells were big miners, if we believe some of that data that was uncovered around Lake Superior. They created, as noted in the article, many wonderfully intricate copper pieces. Beads became valuable in the Late Archaic, and remained that way. Ear spools that were full copper for the Hopewell became copper-covered in the Mississippian, indicating the growing scarcity of copper.


Once float copper was used up, mining was the only way to get copper, and if you don't have control of the mines around Lake Superior, you needed another source; they found one in the Appalachians, which wasn't quite as pure. They might have had a harder time working it. But mining around Lake Superior didn't stop until they got out all the workable pieces with the technology they had.


I am working on a series of copper resource manuals to make the CAMD available to the public. I was glad to see this article because I feel the copper industry in the Americas has long been neglected, which was why I started the CAMD after leaving the Oconto Copper Burial Museum.


But fallacies are still being spread about the pre-contact copper industry.

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