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The Copper Age: When Metallurgy Came to Rule the World

The Copper Age: When Metallurgy Came to Rule the World

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The so-called Chalcolithic - or the Copper Age - is one of the great eras of cultural development, fitting into the main framework of man’s crucial steps towards civilization. This period introduced copper into the metalworking industry, ushering the world into a wholly new phase, and paving the way towards the use of bronze. As such, it is a crucial period in the timeline of the history of mankind as the use of copper opened up new options and changed the course for the future.

From Stone to Copper Age: Secrets of the Earth Revealed

In many ways, the Copper Age is seen as a transitional period between the Stone and the Bronze ages . Many scholars today place the Copper Age within the Neolithic period, while some classify it as part of the broader Stone Age as use of copper was not truly widespread everywhere. Of course, it needs to be understood that these periods lasted for thousands of years, and that it took a long time for certain cultures and civilizations to understand the nature of smelting ores to achieve metals.

For a time, copper was all the craze in the world. In an era when stone tools reached their highest advance stage, such a big change and a new material was equal to absolute wonder. Copper - although unrefined and malleable - was tough, strong, and much more versatile than stone. Great for use in weapons and tools, copper gave a much needed edge to those tribes and cultural groups that mastered its creation process.

So, with the rise of the copper age, new cultures were formed, and new forms of prestige appeared. Economy was emphasized too, with evidence of long trade routes. Moreover, it can be safely said that there was a greater emphasis on the warrior culture, especially in Europe. In archaeology, the first signs of massacres, battles, and warrior burials begin appearing with the rise of the Copper and Bronze Ages.

The Copper Age did not begin at the same time all around the world. In many places this was an isolated process, appearing at roughly the same time in various corners of the globe. Nevertheless, a certain timeframe can be agreed upon, in that the Copper Age lasted from roughly mid-5th millennium BC, all the way to the late 4th, early 3rd millennium BC. At that time, people discovered that by adding tin to copper, a stronger and more durable metal could be created; Bronze. From that point on, the Bronze Age begins.

With the coming of the Copper Age came a more sedentary lifestyle. The Copper Age walled settlement of Los Millares on the Iberian Peninsula is an emblematic example of a Chalcolithic culture. (Jose Mª Yuste / CC BY-SA 4.0)

With the coming of the Copper Age came a more sedentary lifestyle. The Copper Age walled settlement of Los Millares on the Iberian Peninsula is an emblematic example of a Chalcolithic culture. (Jose Mª Yuste / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Chalcolithic Era in Europe

The Copper Age was instrumental in the history of Europe and the development of the cultures emerging during this era. When it was in its bloom, Europe was still mainly inhabited by the so-called Proto, or Old Europeans - the native cultures that dwelt there before the arrival of the Indo-European speakers. That latter event occurred at the very end of the Copper Age, and ushered the shift onto the Bronze Age proper.

For many decades, scholars agreed that the Copper Age in Europe began around 3500 BC and lasted up to 1700 BC. However, new archeological discoveries point to a much earlier date for copper smelting. A very important archeological site in modern day Serbia has shed some new light on the matter. It shows clear evidence of developed copper smelting and pushes the widely accepted date back 800 years.

Another discovery in the Serbian town of Prokuplje yielded a copper axe find and furnaces for smelting. The site, known as Pločnik, belongs to the crucial Vinča civilization that dominated the region. Dated to 5,500 BC, it pushes the conventional dating by over five centuries. Either way, the use of copper spread out through Europe and copper tools soon became a sign of prestige and dominance.

Cultures that could not smelt or mine copper themselves, relied on trading with those who could. This gave rise to regional centers and first large walled settlements, which were often centered on large copper ore mines. Some of the iconic copper age cultures in Europe are the Villanovan culture , and the Los Millares on the Iberian Peninsula, the Mondsee and Michelsberg Cultures in Central Europe, and, of course, the Vinča in the Balkans.

One of the most important glimpses into the Copper Age life in Europe is without a doubt the archeological discovery of Ötzi the Iceman . This chalcolithic mummy was discovered high in the Alps, meticulously preserved by the icy conditions. His remains were dated with accuracy to 3300 BC, while his belongings were key to provide a glimpse into that bygone era. By his side was also a copper axe, made by the Mondsee Culture group. The copper belonging to this group was known as Mondsee Copper, and was a mix of arsenic and copper. This implies that the Mondsee group was the first to emulate the innovations in smelting appearing in the Vinča civilization.

Experts claim that the copper for Ötzi the Iceman’s ax originally came from central Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

Experts claim that the copper for Ötzi the Iceman’s ax originally came from central Italy. ( South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology )

The Spread of the Copper Age

Little attention was devoted specifically to the Copper Age by the archeologists of the early 20th century and it was often bundled in with the broader Neolithic. However, the arrival of copper was a major event, providing immense cultural, economic, and socio-political developments in the ancient world. Expanding on the innovation that appeared in the late Stone Age, the Copper Age was the needed shift towards a different future.

Maritime trading expanded and Mediterranean influence can be observed in many areas of Europe. Also, the number of villages grew rapidly, as did the emphasis on centralized rule and labor classifications. Decorated and shaped pottery too became a distinct characteristic of this era. Today, the period of the Copper Age is classed in three distinct phases: Early, Middle, and Late Chalcolithic.

Some of the earliest evidence of copper smelting can be found in the so-called Fertile Crescent , in the near east, the region of the famed cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia. Also, the earliest traces of metallurgy on the whole can be found here, specifically at the Yarim Tepe site in modern day Iraq, which is dated to the Late Neolithic period. Smelting of copper at this site can be dated around 6000 BC, while clear evidence of copper mining in Southern Israel is dated to between 7000 to 5000 BC.

Archeology was instrumental in piecing together the puzzle of the shift from stone tools to copper in the Near East. A clear evidence is a gradual shift towards less worked stone, until it was completely phased out. Some scholars rely on this as evidence of the loss of specialized crafts for stone working, a direct result of widespread copper tools use. Of course, as copper was reserved for weapons and high class tools, this often meant that stone tools were never fully out of use and remained the staple of the poor classes for the most basic tools.

In South Asia, the use of copper is most characteristic for the famed Indus Valley Civilization. For this region, the use of copper has been classed into the broader South Asian Stone Age. Some of the earliest evidence of copper use here was discovered in the archeological site of Bhirrana, which is identified as the earliest site of the Indus Civilization. There, copper arrowheads and bangles (rigid bracelets) were discovered.

Further to the west, in modern day Pakistan, copper tools were discovered and dated to between 7000 and 3300 BC. In the Pakistani province of Balochistan, archeologists found a remarkable cache of 12 copper blades. These were very thin, and most likely used as tools in the manufacture of pottery. These were dated to roughly 3000 to 2500 BC. Pottery was very important in the Copper Age Indus Valley, and extensive trading networks existed, reaching all the way to northern Iran. Of course, it wasn’t just pottery that spread along these routes - it was the use of copper too.

Stylized bird made out of copper by the people of the Hopewell Culture over 2,000 years ago. (National Parks Service)

Stylized bird made out of copper by the people of the Hopewell Culture over 2,000 years ago. ( National Parks Service )

The Complex Trade Networks of the Americas

In South and North America, the use of copper, and the changes associated with it, appeared at various stages and in totally different timeframes. For example, metallurgy in Mesoamerica prior to the discovery by Columbus emerged quite late in history, around 600 to 800 AD. In South America there was an independent invention of copper and later bronze by the civilizations of the Andes. This later spread - although slowly - through maritime trade towards the Mesoamerican peoples.

In North America , there is plenty of evidence of a well-developed copper industry amongst the so-called Old Copper Complex. This is centered on the Upper Great Lakes region in present day states of Wisconsin and Michigan. Here, the native tribes mined copper ore and fashioned it into tools and weapons. However, some scholars argue that the natives didn’t in fact smelt the ore, but cold forged it into shape (made tools without use of extreme heat).

Some of these North American copper items were dated to between 4000 and 1000 BC, and are amongst the oldest in the world. There is also evidence of trade routes, where copper was sent from the Great Lakes region elsewhere across the continent. The Appalachian Mountains were also a major source of copper, exploited by the tribes dwelling there.

One major copper trade route existed along the Eastern Woodlands, emerging around 3000 BC, and surviving well into the AD era. It is known that the Cahokia Mound Building cultures relied on copper imported from the Great Lakes region. Still, several discoveries point to the fact that some natives actually utilized the copper mineral called native copper, which can be worked into a desired shape without smelting. Elsewhere, scholars discovered certain traces of smelting and casting copper amongst the Hopewell Culture peoples , dated to between 100 BC to 500 AD.

In East Asia, copper objects appear very early in history, around 5000 BC, albeit on a smaller scale. One of the major related sites is known as Jiangzhai, located in modern China. It was one of the major settlements of the era, characteristic for the Yangshao Culture, and it is also the location where the earliest copper items in China were discovered. Still, this industry was very localized and underdeveloped. However, with the migrations of the peoples of the Afanasievo culture of Siberia into the western Mongolia, copper metallurgy became more widespread in East Asia by the late 4th millennium BC. From then on, metallurgy became instrumental in the development of the Ancient Chinese civilization.

A Step into the Future: Change in the Copper Age

In numerous ways, the introduction of metallurgy in the Copper Age was the instrumental change in human history. The appearance of copper and its clear worth was a major shift in the lifestyle of world's first civilizations and cultural groups, ushering them into a new, radically different age. Before that, flint stone tools were widely available and used by all.

However, copper was hard to come by, required the secrets of smelting, and was much tougher and deadlier. As such, it arose as a luxury good at first, prompting the need for trading networks, mass labor, mining, and refined metallurgy. And with the use of copper ore smelting, the path to bronze and later iron was a certainty.

With all these social and economic changes that came in the Copper Age, the people gradually became even more sedentary. The old nomadic hunter gatherer lifestyles of the early Stone Age were phased out, and walled villages and cities became widespread. Copper was the way of the future, because he who held the monopoly of over copper, held all the real power.

Top image: The Copper Age brought with it enormous social and economic changes throughout the world. Source: Minakryn Ruslan

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Henrikson, E. 1991. “Chalcolithic Era” in Encyclopedia Iranica . Available at: https://iranicaonline.org/articles/chalcolithic-era-in-persia

Pearce, M. 2019. “The ‘Copper Age’—A History of the Concept” in Journal of World Prehistory . Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10963-019-09134-z#citeas

Đorđević, N. 2020. “How Vinča culture changed the way we think about the Stone Age” in Emerging Europe . Available at: https://emerging-europe.com/after-hours/how-vinca-culture-changed-the-way-we-think-about-the-stone-age/

Comments

T1bbst3r's picture

Supposed to learn that Incas had bronze. was looking at Inca weapons on Google images, some very practice designs including a type of poleaxe although the mace, spiked club and mace on a rope struck me as a bit odd, that is, until I started looking at the African weaponry.......

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