Monday, January 7, 2019

Metallurgy in the Americas – Part I

It should be noted that when it comes to metallurgy, which is defined today as “the art and science of extracting metals form their ores and modifying the metals for use,” and in the 1828 dictionary as “the art of working metals, comprehending the whole process of separating them from other matters in the ore, smelting, refining and parting them,” is mentioned numerous times in the scriptural record. It is found among both the Jaredites around 2000 BC (Ether 10:23) and the Nephites as early as 570 BC (2 Nephi 5:15; Jarom 1:8). However, it has not been found historically in Mesomaerican before about 900AD, and other than copper metals, not found at all in North America until the colonial period.  In fact, even today, in all the Americas (North, Central, and South America), the Andes represent the largest source of mineral wealth, and is considered the birthplace of New World metallurgy.
Ceremonial gold tumi (knife) in ancient Peru

It is also known that metallurgical exploitation of these resources in South America occurred for millennia prior to colonial contact, as testified by numerous artifacts of gold, silver, and bronze. In fact, before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1532 AD, indigenous South Americans smelted silver ores, hammered gold sheets, and annealed copper alloy sheets, independently of technologies that, by then, were highly developed in the Old World. Yet, despite this extensive known history, very little is known about the development of metallurgical techniques through time.
    What we do know about ancient Andean metallurgy comes primarily from three sources—collection and analysis of artifacts, historical and ethnographical, and archaeometry (the application of scientific techniques to the analysis of archaeological materials, to assist in dating the materials). 
    Unfortunately, the first of these sources has been compromised in many ways due to looting of archaeological sites, which is pervasive and as a result the archaeological record is incomplete at these sites and region. Thus the archaeologist often works with either a small fraction of the original material, or with artifacts that have been removed from their original context. Moreover, according to Scientific American, the oldest continuously published science magazine in the U.S., looters frequently “restored” looted artifacts, severely limiting what information can be drawn from their appearance (Izumi Shimada and Joann Griffin, “Precious Metal Objects of the Middle Sicán,” Scientific American, vol.15, no.4, 2005, pp80-89).
    The second of these sources of information comes from historical and ethnographical data collected at the time of conquest. According to H.N. Lectman of M.I.T., during the occupation, Spanish conquistadors and other chroniclers documented the looting of Inca palaces and exploitation of Inca mines (Heather Nan Lechtman, “A metallurgical site survey in the Peruvian Andes," Journal of Field Archaeology, vol.3, Boston, 1976, pp1-42).

The numerous so-called cultures that preceded the Inca 

However, as useful as these archives are, they tell us little about those peoples who preceded the Inca. In this regard, it should be noted that one of the major methods archaeologists and anthropologist, and therefore historians, determine different people, which they call cultures, is primarily a change in design and artisan work of pottery as well as method or design of construction. While many of these “cultures” overlap, it is still unknown if there really were different people or just different or developing ways of making pottery and building over the years—which may well be the development of a single people over time.
According to the methods of archaeology, these seven ceramic pieces would be assigned to different cultures if found a millennia from now; however, they were made by contemporary artisans, several in the same local vicinity 

In addition, the Spanish were primarily concerned with the acquisition of gold and to a lesser extent silver, they were, for the most part, not concerned with future records, though they kept records of their spoils sent to Spain. As a result, they make little mention of copper and copper alloys, even though these represent the foundation of Andean metallurgy. Thus, Lechtman’s 43-year fieldwork in her specialty of prehistoric Andean metallurgy, has demonstrated that the Andean zone of South America was the locus of what became, over time, a pan-Andean set of metallurgical technologies that developed first in the Andes and later was transmitted to societies farther north. The Andean culture area was one of the primary zones for the development of sophisticated metallurgical practice in the ancient world, and her current research involves investigation of the range of unusual bronze alloys Andean peoples designed long before the establishment of the Inca state. 
    The third source is archaeometry, which is the application of scientific methods applied to archaeological sites or artifacts. In the Andes, according to Lectman, the most common archaeometric analysis employed is a compositional chemical analysis. Recently, scientists have utilized geochemical analysis of lake sediments to track atmospheric pollution from smelting. This method was used to establish the onset of smelting at the town of Potosí in the highlands of southern Bolivia along the eastern shore of Lake Titicaca, an independent record of the timing and intensity of smelting for the region of Tiwanaku, creating a major Pre-Inca silver industry (Mark B. Abbott and Alexander P. Wolfe, “Intensive pre-Incan metallurgy recorded by lake sediments from the Bolivian Andes,” Science, vol.301, Iss.5641, 2003, pp1893-1895).
    However, all of this research cannot answer the simple question of which early culture specifically was smelting or how it was used or valued by ancient South Americans, and is restricted to regions, which contain continuous sedimentary environments suitable for analysis (i.e., lakes, swamps, bogs, etc.) Despite the limitations of each of these methods, by studying them in concert, it has become apparent that indigenous South Americans possessed extensive knowledge in acquiring metals from various ores and also in combining and working metals into elaborate artifacts.
    What is known is that nonferrous (other than iron or steel) metal ores have been smelted in South America for approximately 2,500 years (about 500 BC—which coincides with the statement: “And it came to pass that they became exceedingly rich, both the Lamanites and the Nephites; and they did have an exceeding plenty of gold, and of silver, and of all manner of precious metals, both in the land south and in the land north,” meaning the north and south divisions of the Land Southward, or Peru).
    This earliest evidence to date for smelting activity in southern South America comes in the form of copper slag from the Wankarani site in the highlands of Bolivia, which Carlos Ponce Sangines, the godfather of Bolivian Archaeology, and expert on Tiwanaku, believed the Wankarani Culture, which existed to the north and northeast of Lake Poopo, between 1500 BC and 400 AD, with “hammered foils and filded copper preserved in contexts dating to 1400 to 1100 BC,” and copper pieces dated from 1200 to 1000 BC (Herbert S. Klein, “A Concise History of Bolivia,” Cambridge University Press, 2003). 
A large copper slag heap. Such slag heaps are not difficult to find, since they tend to cover a large area where copper (iron, and other metals) mining has taken place 

According to Mary Van Buren and Barbara H. Mills, typically, all that is left of the waste or by-product of smelting is the slag or scoria, and is all that is left for the archaeologist to find as an indication of metallurgical activity (“Huayrachinas and Tocochimbos: Traditional Smelting Technology of the Southern Andes,” Latin American Antiquity, vol.16, Iss.1, Socieity for American Archaeology, 2005). As a result, very little research has been conducted on the metallurgy at Wankarani and to date little is known about what type of metal artifacts were being produced and how the control of metal resources was governed. 
(See the next post, “Metallurgy in the Americas – Part II,” for more on this subject and how Andean South America is the only area in the Americas that shows metallurgy, in addition to just copper, being practiced at a time of both the Jaredites and the Nephites)
[Vase artisans: Lucie Rie; Daderot; Gmcbjames (2); Queensland Museum]


  1. This issue, of itself, eliminates every other model.

    It would not eliminate all the other models if the evidence of very ancient and well developed metallurgy was not so clearly evident in the Andes.

    But the Book of Mormon is clear that the Jaredites had gold and silver even before the Nephites came around 600 BC. And the Book of Mormon is clear that the Nephites continually migrated to the North, including on the ships of Hagoth. It just does not make sense that the model the farthest South, with extreme evidence of metallurgy would not be a Book of Mormon land.

    "Having all manner of fruit, and of grain, and of silks, and of fine linen, and of GOLD , and of SILVER, and of precious things; --Ether 9:17

  2. I've found that particularly those who love the North American model don't care about facts. Facts are meaningless to them. If they think Joseph Smith or any other GA says it was here then it was here in North America. That model in particular is completely outside of scripture but you can't convince those who believe it of that.

  3. "Don't bother me with facts, my mind is made up" :)