May 22, 2011

Oldest mine in America

The oldest known mine in America was, it seems, a iron oxide mine from Chile, dated to as early as 12,000 years ago. 

The mine in Taltal, in today's Northern Chile, was used first between 12,000 and 10,500 years ago and then again since 4300 years ago. More than 500 hammerstones dating to the first use of the mine reveal an unusual interest for such an early exploitation. 

Source: Science Daily. (Paper to be published in Current Anthropology next month).

The mine was previously mentioned, in greater extent, here.


Update (May 26): in the comments' section it was mentioned that another, no so old, quarry is known to have existed in Virginia, where the first inhabitants extracted red jasper. The site is dated to c. 10 Ka BP and you can read about it here and (if you have a Science subscription) also here.

11 comments:

  1. I wonder how researchers distinguish between a mine and a quarry? A 12,000-year-old red ocher mine seems a rare and impressive thing, but there must be scores or even hundreds of quarry sites throughout the Americas of comparable age.

    For instance, there is a site near Culpeper, Virginia, estimated to be about 11,500 years old, where Paleo Indians mined a jasper seam for 500 years or so. Not to detract from the accomplishments of the ancient inhabitants of Chile, of course, but what does an ocher mine suggest that a jasper quarry does not?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I understand that a quarry is for stone and a mine for minerals.

    But it doesn't really matter because it's the same: it implies digging in the ground beyond mere surface extraction.

    In Europe for example there is no known mine/quarry so early in time, they begin by the Chalcolithic Age, since c. 3500 BCE onwards.

    I can't access El Mercurio original article anymore but I remember open air galleries and lots of hammers emphasizing the idea of organized large-scale mining.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yes, I think that is correct. The Science Daily article describes the site as a 40-meter trench, which I suppose does indeed imply an open-air gallery. The difference between that site and the one here seems to be scale, with the trench here in Virginia being roughly one-quarter the size of the one in Chile.

    I am a bit curious how much "social cooperation" either of these sites actually required and whether extracting ocher would necessarily require more cooperation than extracting jasper.

    Virginia Highlander
    [Had to post using my livejournal ID, since this stupid thing wouldn't let me use my Google Account, for reasons that pass human understanding.]

    ReplyDelete
  4. Maybe the terms are kinda slippery but the Chilean mine does look very much a mine to me, with many people (for a forager economy) context exploiting the site for many many generations. I can only imagine that the miners' food came from the sea (the cold waters of that area are surely good for fishing)

    I don't know the details about the Virginian one and it would seem like supportive rather than contradicting the Chilean one in any case: it seems to indicate that Native Americans had so early a keen interest in minerals of likely ritual use.

    For me what is impressive is that there are organize efforts of that kind so early anywhere without an agricultural context. I know nothing like that in Europe, really. Later, flintstone mines (dug underground) become a feature... but that is a lot later only - and notice the pragmatic purpose rather than ritual one of these works (flintstone was their "iron": it was for weapons and tools, not specifically ritual purposes).

    ReplyDelete
  5. Again, I am curious just how much organization would be required to extract red ocher. Distributed over the earliest period of use, the article implies that on average less than half of a cubic meter of stone was removed from this trench each year. How many hands would that require, given the technology used and site conditions? I do not know, but to me it seems premature to speak of some relatively high degree of organization without a defensible answer.

    That the site was exploited across multiple generations is not particularly surprising. If this is a uniquely rich deposit, then I should expect no less. Also note that, even assuming that they have found only one tenth of the total hammerstones used, 500 is hardly a large number, given the length of time the site remained in use, and does not necessarily imply a large number of individuals simultaneously engaged in mining at any given point in time.

    I did not intend for the quarry site in Virginia to somehow contradict the findings in Chile. My point was that Paleolithic mining of just this sort is attested at another site, albeit on a smaller scale, and that there may be other such sites throughout the Americas awaiting discovery.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "... the article implies that on average less than half of a cubic meter of stone was removed from this trench each year. How many hands would that require, given the technology used and site conditions?"

    It depends how they worked. They did not have "modern" steel pickaxes, so 1/2 m³ surely means several work journeys.

    But you make a good point anyhow.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "I did not intend for the quarry site in Virginia to somehow contradict the findings in Chile. My point was that Paleolithic mining of just this sort is attested at another site, albeit on a smaller scale, and that there may be other such sites throughout the Americas awaiting discovery".

    Sure. You are right and it's a good point.

    Would you have an informative link on the Virginia site, it'd be a good addition to the entry.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm glad that you asked for a link, as it seems that I lied: the site is not quite as old as I thought and is in fact Early Archaic, not Paleo-Indian:

    Brook Run Site

    Brook Run (USA): Early Archaic Quarry Site in Virginia

    Geoarchaeology of the Brook Run site (44CU122): an Early Archaic jasper quarry in Virginia, USA

    Road project yields ancient quarry

    I originally learned of the site here, where it is incorrectly associated with Paleo-Indians:

    Paleo-Indians in Virginia

    As you may know, the roughly North-American equivalent of the Old-World Mesolithic is called the "Archaic" and is divided into at least three periods: the Early, Middle, and Late Archaic. Since the exact time period varies from region to region, somewhat, the subject is complicated and I do not claim expertise.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'd not say "lied" but "was wrong". Lying implies intent of deceit, what is not the case.

    Also the quarry is quite old anyhow.

    I'll add one or two of the links as update, thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'd not say "lied" but "was wrong". Lying implies intent of deceit, what is not the case.

    Also the quarry is quite old anyhow.

    I'll add one or two of the links as update, thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Indeed, Early Archaic is still quite old.

    ReplyDelete

Please, be reasonably respectful when making comments. I do not tolerate in particular sexism, racism nor homophobia. Personal attacks, manipulation and trolling are also very much unwelcome here.The author reserves the right to delete any abusive comment.

Preliminary comment moderation is... ON (sorry, too many trolls).