Thursday, March 31, 2011

Metallurgy in pre-Columbian America – Part II

According to archaeologists, there is no question that metallurgy in the Andean area of South America was far superior to anything found elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere and rivaled that of the Old World.

Also, that Andean metallurgy began long before other regions of the Americas. About two to three thousand years after it began in the Andean area, metallurgy was beginning in Central America. These cultures were highly advanced in the art. But in the eastern United States area, metallurgy never reached such sophistication, remaining much as it was found when the Europeans settled North America.

Similar metal artifact types to those of the Andean area are found in West Mexico and the two regions: copper rings, needles and tweezers being fabricated in the same ways as in Ecuador and also found in similar archaeological contexts. There is also a multitude of bells found, but in this case they were cast using the same lost-wax casting method as seen in South America. During this period, copper was being used almost exclusively.

In North American (north of Mexico) indigenous cultures did not smelt, melt, or alloy metals. Instead, they relied on the less technical approach due to the relative abundance of native copper. Their works were mostly utilitarian from very early on, and not concentrating on the prestige attached to the metal artifacts such as in South America and later, Central America. Their works were mostly of knives, fishhooks, and bracelets. In Etowah, a Mississippian culture site in Georgia, there were copper headdresses. In the Great Lakes region, hammer stones were used to break off pieces of copper small enough to be worked. Such a labor intensive process might have been eased by building a fire on top of the deposit, then quickly dousing the hot rock with water, creating small cracks, then repeated to create more small cracks.

The copper could then be cold-hammered into shape, which would make it brittle, or hammered and heated in an annealing process to avoid this. The final object would then have to be ground and sharpened using local sandstone. Numerous bars have also been found, possibly indicative of trade for which their shaping into a bar would also serve as proof of quality.

Great Lake artifacts found in the Eastern Woodlands of North America seem to indicate there were widespread trading networks by 1000 B.C. Progressively the usage of copper for tools decreases with more jewelery and adornments being found. This is believed to be indicative of social changes to a more hierarchical society. However this Great Lake model as a unique source of copper and of copper technologies remaining somewhat static for over 6000 years has recently come into some level of criticism, particularly since other deposits seem to have been available to ancient North Americans, even if a lot smaller.

The point is, however, that the metallurgy abilities of the Great Lakes region were far inferior to those of South America, and later Central America. There are numerous examples cited by archaeologists to show that the Andean area metallurgy heavily influenced and was directly connected to that of Mexico. The actual artifacts and then techniques were imported from the south, but west Mexican metallurgists worked ores from the abundant local deposits. Even when the technology spread from West into northeastern, central and southern Mexico, artifacts that can be traced back to West Mexican ores are abundant, if not exclusive, though it is not clear if the metal reached its final destination as an ingot, an ore or a finished artifact.

Provenance studies on metal artifacts from southern Mesoamerica cast with the lost-wax technique and dissimilar to west Mexican artifacts have shown that there might have been a second point of emergence of metallurgy into Mesoamerica there since no known source could be identified. However, the Aztecs did not initially adopt metal working (even if they had acquired metal objects), until shortly before the Conquest.

Thus it can be seen that metallurgy in the Great Lakes area was 1) begun long after that of South America, and 2) never reached a technology level anywhere near or as advanced as that of the Andean area.

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