Copper Culture in North America is Older than We Thought
The “copper culture” lived near the Great Lakes and was among the world’s first peoples to forge metals. Discover why their culture moved on and how its discovery debunks racial stereotypes.
When I was in Grade 4, we learned a song from our music teacher. It went like this:
“Where we walk to school each day,
Indian children used to play,
All about our native land,
Where the shops and houses stand.”
Teachers thought they were being progressive by sharing this song about indigenous children with us. Contemporary readers will realize that it’s wrong on so many levels.
First of all, the indigenous peoples of Canada aren’t Indian. They don’t even resemble people from the South Asian subcontinent.
Indigenous People of Canada Aren’t Indian
Telling us how indigenous children “used to play” suggests that they’re somehow extinct now. Do they no longer play? “ Our native land?” How did all the White kids in my class get to be natives?
It doesn’t get any better in the rest of the verses. It mentions the lack of churches and steeples as though aboriginal people waited patiently for missionaries to enlighten them spiritually.
It concludes by noting what a different place our country is today. This, of course, is due to the benefits of urban development imposed on the land by European settlers.
Children’s Poet Annette Wynne Meant Well
I’m sure that children’s poet Annette Wynne meant well when she published those words for schoolchildren back in 1919. Her poems were a product of their time, and so was she. I wonder if residential schools taught indigenous children that song?
It was all part of a story society told us about aboriginal people. They lived in the stone age when far more advanced Europeans arrived and brought civilization to our country. Oh, and by the way, their culture is gone now.
Last week, the journal Science published a discovery that refutes the notion that our First Nations were stuck in the stone age. Instead, it shows that Native Americans were among the first people in the world to mine metal and forge it into tools.
Among First People in the World to Mine Metal
Our family cottage is on the Anishnabe (Ojibwa) traditional territory, and they have several reserves in the area. I feel an affinity to this First Nation living around the Great Lakes. They’ve welcomed me to their gatherings several times, and I’ve done business with some of their merchants and artisans.
The Great Lakes basin contains the best copper deposits in the world. So, it comes as no surprise (at least it shouldn’t) that the people who lived there knew all about copper. Archaeologists have discovered artifacts from an ancient society that they call the Copper Culture.
Professor David Pompeani of Kansas State University is a geologist studying ancient mining. As he explains, local people “who have buckets of copper artifacts tucked away in their basements” have known about the Copper Culture for generations.
“Buckets of Copper Artifacts Tucked Away in Their Basements”
The Copper Culture also left the traces of thousands of copper mines behind. Professor Pompeani has been studying these artifacts for the last decade. He’s learned that some of these mines date back 9,500 years.
Mysteriously, the Copper Culture seems to have faded out about 5,400 years ago. “The history is just so peculiar,” Professor Pompeani told the journal Science.
Professor Pompeani recently published a new study in the journal Radiocarbon that took a fresh look at 53 carbon dating samples done in earlier research. You can’t carbon date metal, but you can date objects like spear shafts and cordage attaching their points.
Copper Culture Goes Back Nearly 10,000 Years
The team also looked at wood, charcoal and bone found in the ancient mines or burial sites. From those specimens and samples of soil sediment, the team concluded that the Copper Culture goes back nearly 10,000 years.
One imposing piece of evidence is an 8,500-year-old cone-shaped, solid copper spear-point. All of this evidence combined suggests that the Copper Culture was in the mining business even before ancient peoples in the Middle East.
Commenting on the findings, archaeologist Michelle Bebber of Kent State University agreed “that hunter-gatherers [were] highly Innovative.” She added that indigenous cultures “regularly experiment with novel materials.”
Why Did the Copper Culture Fade Out?
Why did the Copper Culture fade out? There seem to be two reasons. Professor Bebber found that the copper tools weren’t much better than well-crafted stone ones, taking the labour cost into account.
Great Lakes copper is exceptionally pure, but that means that it’s also soft. Professor Bebber tested copies of stone and copper artifacts and found minimal advantage in using the metal ones.
For his part, Professor Pompeani’s sediment samples show that the climate became arid when the artifacts stop turning up in the record. It seems that the indigenous peoples had to gradually change their way of life, including their Copper Culture.
Technology Was Preserved Where It Had a Real Advantage
The main exception to this was that they continued to make awls out of copper for a very long time after that. It appears that the technology was preserved but only used where it had a real advantage.
So, why did my schoolbooks tell me that Canada’s indigenous people lived in the stone age? Colonialism seems to have created a backward, primitive “Indian” stereotype being enlightened by the “civilized,” advanced European peoples, especially the French and English.
This wasn’t about history. It was about imposing values. It was to marginalize a culture that our governments had deliberately kept “out of sight and out of mind.” That included a young girl in our school who was adopted as part of the Sixties Scoop.
Institutions Continue to Show Systemic Racism
This process still goes on today. Although most Canadians I know agree that our First nations got a “raw deal” and still do, institutions continue to show systemic racism in their processes.
Recently, an all-White jury acquitted a farmer who shot an indigenous youth at close range with a handgun. Even a manslaughter charge didn’t stick.
An independent review found that the Thunder Bay Police Service operates with systemic racism at the institutional level. An inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women found that police negligence amounted to cultural genocide.
The Indian residential school system’s stated goal was to “take the Indian out of the child.” Teaching that song to us white kids was also part of that ethnic cleansing process.
“Take the Indian Out of the Child”
The original keepers of this territory weren’t “primitive” or “backward” or “stone-age savages.” They were part of humanity.
Like all of us, they were and are endowed with awe-inspiring creativity and adaptability. The best proof of that is that indigenous cultures endure despite a determined national effort to wipe them out.
Writing in the Hamilton Spectator, Beverly Sabourin and Peter Andre Globensky point to our governments’ lip service to the indigenous issues. They call for a two-pronged strategy to hold them accountable.
Strategy to Hold Governments Accountable
They want to see our governments track their progress in implementing their promises to aboriginal communities. Then they want that progress publicly reported to parliament annually.
That way, we’d all discover what’s really going on with our indigenous neighbours instead of remaining oblivious to their plight as we occupy their traditional territories.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Ancient Native Americans were among the world’s first coppersmiths
ON THE TIMING OF THE OLD COPPER COMPLEX IN NORTH AMERICA: A COMPARISON OF RADIOCARBON DATES FROM DIFFERENT ARCHAEOLOGICAL CONTEXTS
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I’m a freelance writer and commercial blogger delivering content services to selective business to business marketing clients. I have extensive experience in content creation, technical writing and training, working as a consultant and later in management roles with many of Canada’s most successful organizations. Specialties: Content Marketing, Social Media, Technical Writing, Training and Development View all posts by David Morton Rintoul