History of mining: Mining the Americas in deep time – by John Sandlos (Canadian Mining Journal – May 4, 2023)


If you ask the average person in the street when they think the history of mining begins in the Americas, they might pinpoint the throng of the forty-niners who migrated to California in search of gold (bequeathing a name to San Francisco’s NFL team). Or perhaps they would recall the mad dash northward to the Klondike in 1898, made famous in the fiction of Jack London, the poetry of Robert Service, the popular history of Pierre Berton, and even a classic film by Charlie Chaplin.

Some might go as far back as the large-scale precious metal mines that brought the Spanish to Central America in the 16th century. But almost nobody would acknowledge that mining in the Americas originated thousands of years ago as a critical cultural and economic activity of Indigenous People.

Mining on this continent has extremely deep historical roots. The oldest known mine in present-day Canada is a quartzite quarry on Manitoulin Island, dating back approximately 10,000 years. In Labrador, Indigenous People of the Maritime Archaic cultures quarried for silica-based chert, developing extensive regional trade networks for this valuable tool-making material.

Indigenous People in the Lake Superior region mined native (i.e., mostly pure) copper as far back as 6,000 years ago, stripping overburden, digging trenches and tunnels, and heating the mined material so it could be shaped into practical and ceremonial objects. Over time, Indigenous miners developed vast copper trade networks as craft workers in the distant cultural groups such as the Mississippi Valley mound building cultures (800 to 1600 CE) mastered the art of molding copper sheets over wooden carvings to produce startlingly intricate artwork.

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