Front and back view of the 3,000 year old mask.

3,000-Year-Old Copper Mask Found in Argentina Challenges Ideas of South American Metalwork Development

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Archaeologists that recently discovered an ancient, rectangular copper mask in the southern Andes in Argentina claim the discovery challenges the dominant theory that South American metalworking originated in Peru. According to their estimations, the mask is about 3,000 years old and thus it is considered to be one of the oldest human-made metal objects in the history of South America.

3,000-Year-Old Mask Discovered

The mask was spotted in a site where adults and children were buried and dates back to approximately 1000 BC, as scientists recorded in a study describing the find, according to reports by Live Science . The rainy weather helped a lot in the unearthing of the metal mask, as well as the collection of human skeletons in a tomb near the village of La Quebrada, in northwestern Argentina. According to the scientists, fourteen bodies were found in the burial area, with the bones being collected together and the mask placed on top of one corner of the pile. Nearby, a second burial area held a single occupant. The bones most likely belong to a young child approximately eight to twelve years old, whose bones date also to about 3,000 years ago.

The mask was carefully designed, with fine holes marking the position of its eyes, nose and mouth, while other small, circular openings near the edges are thought to have been threaded to secure it to a face or an object. The mask is about 7 inches long and almost 6 inches wide. Foreign bodies (impurities) in the copper are lower than one percent and researchers suggest that for the creation of the mask, someone would have hammered the metal flat while it was cold and then reheated it.

Bordo Marcial tomb contained the remains of 14 humans plus the mask placed on top (mask position is indicated by white dotted line)

Bordo Marcial tomb contained the remains of 14 humans plus the mask placed on top (mask position is indicated by white dotted line) (Credit: Leticia Inés Cortés/María Cristina Scattolin/Antiquity )

The Mask Could Alter Ideas of South American History

Sources of copper ore have been found within 45 miles of the location where the mask was unearthed, indicating that the recently found artifact was most likely created locally. That makes archaeologists speculate that metalworking could have appeared in Argentina at the same time that it was emerging in Peru.

As Live Science reports , according to a study published in February 2008 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gold objects estimated to be nearly 4,000 years old were discovered in southern Peru almost a decade ago. Additionally, bronze artifacts dating to 1000 AD have previously been found in the Peruvian Andes, even though it has not been clear for archaeologists if the objects were created in the location they were uncovered, or it was trade between different cultures that brought them there. However, evidence of local metalworking in Peru still lingers in trace metals found in local sediments, dating to pre-Incan times, according to Live Science’s reports from 2007 .

The archaeological site of Bordo Marcial in the La Quebrada locality, north-west Argentina, southern Andes.

The archaeological site of Bordo Marcial in the La Quebrada locality, north-west Argentina, southern Andes. (Credit: Leticia Inés Cortés/María Cristina Scattolin/Antiquity )

The age of the mask as well as other objects found at the site, leaves no doubt that the ancient people who inhabited the Argentinian regions of the Andes were working with copper – turning it into artifacts, among other things –  way earlier than the archaeological circles originally thought, as the study authors suggest. "Proof of copper smelting and annealing [a process of cooling metal slowly to make it stronger] further highlights the northwest Argentinian valleys and northern Chile as early centers in the production of copper. This data is essential to any narrative that seeks to understand the emergence of Andean metallurgy," the researchers are writing as Live Science reports .

Ultimately, details of the found objects were re-published online June 5 in the journal Antiquity, since they had already been published for the first time back in 2010 in the journal Boletín del Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino.

Top image: Front and back view of the 3,000 year old mask. (Credit: Leticia Inés Cortés/María Cristina Scattolin/Antiquity )

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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