Prehistory

The earliest substantiated and dated evidence of metalworking was processing of copper in Wisconsin, near Lake Michigan. Copper was hammered until brittle then heated so it could be worked some more. This technology is dated to about 4000-5000 BC. The Egyptians are thought to have been one of the first civilizations to work gold. Not all metal required fire to obtain it or work it. Isaac Asimov speculated that gold was the "first metal." His reasoning is that gold by its chemistry is found in nature as nuggets of pure gold. In other words, gold, as rare as it is, is always found in nature as the metal that it is. There are a few other metals that sometimes occur natively, and as a result of meteors. Almost all other metals are found in ores, a mineral bearing rock, that require heat or some other process to liberate the metal. Another feature of gold is that it is workable as it is found, meaning that no technology beyond eyes to find a nugget and a hammer and an anvil to work the metal is needed. Stone hammer and stone anvil will suffice for technology. This is the result of gold's properties of malleability and ductility. The earliest tools were stone, bone, wood, and sinew. They sufficed to work gold. At some unknown point the connection between heat and the liberation of metals from rock became clear, rocks rich in copper, tin, and lead came into demand. These ores were mined wherever they were recognized. Remnants of such ancient mines have been found all over what is today the Middle East. Metalworking was being carried out by the South Asian inhabitants of Mehrgarh between 70003300 BCE. The end of the beginning of metalworking occurs sometime around 6000 BCE when copper smelting became common in the Middle East. The ancients knew of seven metals. Here they are arranged in order of their oxidation potential: Iron +0.44, Tin +0.14 Lead +0.13 Copper ?0.34 Mercury ?0.79 ilver ?0.80 Gold ?1.50 The oxidation potential is important because it is one indicator of how tightly bound to the ore the metal is likely to be. As can be seen, iron is significantly higher than the other six metals while gold is dramatically lower than the six above it. Gold's low oxidation is one of the main reasons that gold is found in nuggets. These nuggets are relatively pure gold and are workable as they are found. Copper ore, being relatively abundant, and tin ore became the next important players in the story of metalworking. Using heat to smelt copper from ore, a great deal of copper was produced. It was used for both jewelry and simple tools. However, copper by itself was too soft for tools requiring edges and stiffness. At some point tin was added into the molten copper and bronze was born. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Bronze was an important advance because it had the edge-durability and stiffness that pure copper lacked. Until the advent of iron, bronze was the most advanced metal for tools and weapons in common use (see Bronze Age for more detail). Looking beyond the Middle East, these same advances and materials were being discovered and used the world around. China and Britain jumped into the use of bronze with little time being devoted to copper. Japan began the use of bronze and iron almost simultaneously. In the Americas things were different. Although the peoples of the Americas knew of metals, it wasn't until the arrival of Europeans that metal for tools and weapons took off. Jewelry and art were the principal uses of metals in the Americas prior to European influence. Around the date 2700 BCE, production of bronze was common in locales where the necessary materials could be assembled for smelting, heating, and working the metal. Iron was beginning to be smelted. Iron began its emergence as an important metal for tools and weapons. The Iron Age was dawning.