An Ancient Mine with Links to the Search for Life on Mars: Rio Tinto Reopens
The Rio Tinto mine in Spain is set to re-open after being closed in 2001 due to declines in production, EMED Mining announced to Australian Mining . Reportedly one of the oldest mines in the world, with evidence of the first mining taking place in 3000 BC, Rio Tinto mine has also been a useful site for astrobiology researchers.
The Rio Tinto mine is named after the river it is located on in Huelva, Andalucía, Spain. Archaeologists have found artifacts in the area which suggest that Rio Tinto has been exploited for mining since the Chalcolithic or Copper Age (Early Bronze Age) 3000 BC. The Early Bronze Age inhabitants of Rio Tinto took advantage of the abundant supply of copper in the area. The Tartessos/Tartessians, a culture from the semi-mythical wealthy Tartessos harbor city (believed to be Huelva), are thought to have been the first to mine the site.
Bronze Age artifacts, Rio Tinto area, Huelva, Spain ( Museo Minero de Riotinto )
As Rio Tinto is part of the Iberian Pyrite Belt , the area has been found to be rich in copper, tin and lead in large quantities, silver and gold in plenty, and even iron to a lesser extent. This richness in minerals helped subsequent cultures to greatly increase their financial wealth over the years.
Therefore, the Tartessos were followed by the Phoenicians (2800 - 2600 BC), Greeks (2600 - 2000 BC), Romans (2000 - 1800 BC), Visigoths (1600 - 1300 BC), and Moors (1300 - 500 BC) in mining the variety of ore found at the site of Rio Tinto.
Nevertheless, the Romans are the most well-known culture to have benefitted from the mining of Rio Tinto. It is said that the silver mined there paid all of the wages of the Roman Empire's soldiers and provided the funds necessary for Emperor Claudius' invasion of Britain in 43 AD. The Roman miners are believed to have extracted more than two million tons of silver ore from Rio Tinto. They also left behind 16 million tons of rubble, which can still be seen today.
Roman settlement of Cortalago, Huelva, Spain ( Perez Macias )
Not only was Rio Tinto an important mining site in ancient times, but it was also the headquarters of one of the biggest mining companies, Rio Tinto , at the end of the 19th Century.
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Rio Tinto has not only caught the attention of miner's however. It is also a site for tourists, who visit the area to witness the beauty of the landscape, which has been described as a "surreal, almost lunar landscape ." This description, along with the prevalence and types of minerals in the area, probably brought Rio Tinto into the view of NASA and others interested in astrobiology as well.
Rio Tinto joined the Endurance Crater and the White Sands as locations of interest to Spain's Centro de Astrobiologia in their search for areas similar to life on early earth - 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, due to its chemistry and mineralogy of the environment. The extreme environment is believed to be partly due to mining pollution, but also because of "the presence of chemolithotrophic organisms, such as iron-oxidizing bacteria and sulfur-oxidizing bacteria".
When NASA began their search for life on Mars, they also looked to Rio Tinto and the large number of microbes living there in the acidic conditions. Core samples from Rio Tinto are believed to be similar to those of Mars' subsurface and also the biological context has been related to the search for sulfur-based life in space. Thus, it has been hypothesized that Rio Tinto and the extremophiles living in its waters can contribute to the search for extraterrestrial life.
The river of Rio Tinto has red waters, which provide its name and are filled with extremophiles - organisms that live in extreme environments. Rio Tinto, Huelva, Spain ( Wikimedia Commons )
That hypothesis was somewhat shaken by Dr. Andrew Knoll of Harvard University in a NASA report in 2005, when he stated that "the organisms at Rio Tinto are descended from populations that live in less acidic and stressful habitats" than the conditions on Mars.
One can hope that the re-opening of the ancient mine by EMED Mining in 2016 will not damage its links to its ancient past or its future scientific possibilities.
Featured image: Rio Tinto, Huelva, Spain ( Conoce Huelva.com )