Copper Mining in Ancient America

Primitive or Industrial?

Among the greatest mysteries of the past is also one of the least known. Although archaeologists have been familiar with prehistoric copper mining at the Great Lakes since the mid-nineteenth century, they have always been reluctant to publicly discuss this enigma, because it suggests overseas’ impact on ancient America, thereby contradicting their unswerving belief in Christopher Columbus as the sole discoverer of our continent. They are unable to account for 223,215 or more tons of copper excavated from five thousand pit-mines, mostly at Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, beginning around 7,500 years ago.

For the previous fifty centuries, paleo-Indian tribes of nomadic hunter-gatherers, who followed migrating animal herds but possessed little in the way of material culture, had sparsely inhabited the area. They occasionally picked up pieces of “float copper” left behind by retreating glaciers and annealed, or cold-hammered, these chunks into shiny trinkets with which to adorn themselves. Then, around 5556 BC, an ambitious mining enterprise of truly industrial proportions opened with great suddenness along the Lake Superior shores of northeastern Wisconsin, thereafter spreading throughout the region, where the world’s purest high-grade copper may be found.

To William P.F. Ferguson, an early and still-respected authority on North America’s ancient mining, “the work is of a colossal nature, and amounted to the turning over of the whole formation to its depth and moving many cubic acres—it would not be seriously extravagant to say cubic miles—of rock.”

The diggings extended over 150 miles on the Lake Superior coast through three Michigan counties. Some 5,000 ancient mines have been identified at the Great Lakes. If combined into a straight line, they would form a five-mile-long trench 20 feet wide and 60 feet deep. But such an excavation would result from all known pits. Until his death in 2009, a leading authority on the subject, Fred Rydholm, pointed out that nineteenth century farming and urban development obliterated most of the state’s prehistoric mines, which originally numbered at least twice as many. Each one yielded 1,200 tons of ore for 55 tons of copper each.

According to James P. Scherz, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), who applied his surveying and civil engineering skills to archaeo-astronomy, “the magnitude of this prehistoric enterprise becomes more comprehensible” when put into modern perspective. “For example, if a railroad car of the type used in the 1800s carried about fifty tons of copper, then the number of railroad cars required to haul the prehistoric excavations would have been a quarter-of-a-million tons, for fifty tons per car, equaling five thousand railroad cars filled with copper nuggets. Unlike trainloads of modern ore, which may contain two percent or four percent metal, these five thousand railroad cars carried essentially pure copper.

“If there were one hundred railroad cars per trainload, they would equal fifty trainloads of copper nuggets. Given the average length of a railroad car at twenty-five feet, each train is twenty-five-by-one-hundred feet, equaling twenty-five hundred feet, about one-half mile long. If all fifty trains were parked on a track, end-to-end, their combined length would be twenty-five miles of railroad cars, with each car carrying about fifty tons of nuggets. If the Michigan copper was removed over a two thousand-year period, then in each year, on the average, there had to have been the equivalent of two railroad cars freighting one hundred tons worth of copper each summer.”

To achieve such prodigious yields, the ancient miners employed techniques that enabled them to work with speed and efficiency, because severe winters in this part of the world limited their mining season from late May to early September. They created intense fires atop a copper-bearing vein, heated the rock to very high temperatures, then doused it with water. The rock fractured and stone tools were employed to extract the copper. Deep in the pits, a vinegar mixture was used to speed spalling (breaking the rock into layers) and reduce smoke.

How such temperatures were applied is part of the enigma. The bottom of a fire sitting on a rock face is its coolest part. Even especially hot cane fires would take a long time to sufficiently heat the vein for spalling, if at all, and require more cane than feasibly applicable. How the prehistoric miners directed concentrated, acetylene temperatures to the ground is a disturbing question modern science is unable to answer.

No less mysterious is how they knew the precise, subterranean position, before digging, of every copper vein. Sometimes these veins are visible, because they extrude the surface of the earth. Most of them, however, are more deeply buried and impossible to otherwise locate. Not until the advent of modern magnetometers have mining engineers been able to pinpoint the underground presence of various metals, and even state-of-the-art detectors cannot invariably distinguish copper from other metals. Yet, Michigan’s prehistoric excavators were spot-on with every, single one of the plus-five thousand pits they sank directly into the buried copper veins. What kind of technology could they have possessed that enabled them to find underground sources of copper unerringly duplicated in more than five thousand mines?

Other examples of that technology still survive. Masses of copper rock weighing many tons were dug out and raised on well-made crib-work, stone, and timber platforms used to lift ponderous material to the surface. These cribs were usually made of shaped tree trunks organized to resemble a log cabin that could be raised by a series of levers and wedges. An example of the massive proportions mined in ancient Michigan was the so-called Ontonagon Boulder. Removed to the Smithsonian Institution around the turn of the nineteenth century, it weighs five tons. A six-ton copper mass was discovered in situ on one of the raised cribs, where it appears to have been abandoned. Partially trimmed of its spurs and projecting points, it was ten feet long, three feet wide, and two feet thick.

Incredibly, thousands of tools used by the ancient miners have been collected. As long ago as 1840, ten wagonloads of their stone hammers were taken from a single location near Rockland, Michigan. Those in McCargo Cove, on the north shore of Lake Superior’s Isle Royale, amounted to one thousand tons. Nor were these hammers crudely manufactured.

“In examining the tools that have been recovered,” according to Roy W. Drier, a mid-twentieth century expert on Michigan’s ancient copper miners, “one is involuntarily amazed at the perfection of workmanship and at their identity of form with the tools made for like purposes and used in the present day, the prototypes of the implements of our present civilization. The sockets of the spears, chisels, arrowheads, knives and fleshers are, in nearly all instances, formed as symmetrically and perfectly as could be done by the best smith of the present day, with all the improved aids of his art.”

The mines themselves were not simple holes in the ground but outfitted with modern-like irrigation techniques to flush out debris and fill via substantial trenches, some as long as 500 feet. Many of the pits were sunk 60 feet down through solid granite.

Who could have been responsible for such a tremendous enterprise so much in technological contrast to a few paleo-Indians concerned with only several pounds of float copper? Extracting perhaps as much as half a million tons of copper required an organized labor force in the tens of thousands of men. “But even if these estimates were in error by fifty percent or more,” stated Professor Scherz, “the conclusions are essentially the same—watercraft, and not the backs of natives, must have been used to move the ancient copper nuggets … It is hard to imagine this amount of copper being carried on the backs of Indians over trails or even over portages each summer for two millennia.” Indeed, copper removed from Isle Royale, where a lion’s share of the mining took place, would have required something more than a birch-bark canoe for transporting over 13 miles of open water to the nearest landfall on the shores of Minnesota. In any case, Scherz has thus begun to identify the origins of Michigan’s ancient copper barons.

To fine-tune their identification, we need to know what transpired elsewhere in North America when mining began around the Great Lakes, during the mid-sixth millennium BC. Just then, a new ethnic group referred to now as the Red Paint People—for their use of red ochre in mortuary and other ceremonial contexts—abruptly appeared on the Eastern Seaboard.

From Newfoundland’s Port au Choix, archaeologists retrieved barbed and toggled harpoons, leisters—spear-like implements with three or more prongs for stabbing fish—swordfish bones, stone plummets for surveying, and the polished effigies of whales. Not only were such items never encountered elsewhere throughout pre-Columbian North America, but also they clearly belonged to sailors who ventured far from shore for deep-sea fishing, unlike the landlubberly Indians. The first discovery of a Red Paint settlement—utterly unlike anything associated with local Native Americans—was made at Nulliak Cove, on the coast of Labrador, where twenty-six, multi-room stone foundations spread over 300 feet.

Nearby, the Red Paints erected several upright, sharp-pointed monoliths. Eskimo refer to these standing stones as anook-shits, or “travel markers,” capable of being observed from some distance out at sea for purposes of triangulating relative positions for navigating the coastline—an identical function performed by megaliths near the shores of Brittany, such as Locmariaquer’s Grand Menhir Brisé.

In 1876, years before modern rediscovery of the Red Paint People, Randall Mitchell, a clerk at Igloolik, in coastal northern Canada, was told by local Eskimo that their ancestors were not responsible for the anook-shits, which were raised in the distant past by fair-haired giants—the Toonikdoak—from across the sea. Some of the standing stones at Nulliak Cove have squared notches cut into them to frame solar alignments, likewise incorporated in many Neolithic sites throughout Western Europe.

“At Borango Fjord and Varanger Fjord, in Norway,” writes American anthropologist, Dr. Gunnar Thompson, “archaeologists uncovered remains of a sixth-millennium-BC [Western European] culture [the Maglemosian] having red ochre burials, polished slate tools, polished stone gouges, elbow-handled choppers, soapstone plummets, bird effigy combs, barbed harpoons, and inscribed bones. The similarity of these artifacts to New England specimens, particularly the use of red ochre, establishes that America’s Red Paint People and Scandinavia’s Ancient Maritime Hunters [known to archaeologists as the Red Ochre People] had a common heritage.”

Littoral graves there characteristically feature red ochre, such as the Maglemose site’s 19 burials near Vedbæk, on the coast of Danish Zealand, facing Sweden, and dated to more than 7,000 years before present. Found among them was a leister identical to its transatlantic counterpart from Port au Choix, mentioned above.

The Labrador settlement at Nulliak Cove also features a small monolith, about two feet tall, deliberately placed at the village center, and unlike anything found anywhere else in the world, save among the Laplanders of Finnmark, in extreme northeastern Norway, where shamans still use precisely the same kind of rudely shaped stones as altars. A prominent Norwegian anthropologist of the mid-twentieth century, Gutornt G. Jessing, observed, “Nowhere on the globe are there to be found remains as closely related as those of the Norway and the coast of Maine.”

Virtually identical bone combs and carvings produced by North America’s Maritime Archaic and Western Europe’s Stone Age societies self-evidently resulted from a shared cultural impetus. A carving from Maine appears to depict a lunar representation of some kind. Inside its vertical rectangle are two diagonals bisected below mid-point by a horizontal line. At top-left, where the upper diagonal rises into the corner, a circle represents the Moon, as suggested by thirteen smaller circles running along the rectangle’s left side from top to bottom: thirteen phases of the Moon make up one lunar month of twenty-eight days. Lunar calendars were particularly associated with seamanship in Stone Age Europe.

Perhaps Nulliak Cove’s most obvious connection to megalith building on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean is a burial mound with a rectangular entrance formed by a pair of monoliths crossed at the top by a horizontal lintel. It is virtually a mirror image of Brittany’s Merchant’s Table, the Table des Marchand, at Locmariaquer. That the Red Paint People built stone burial mounds no different than those raised along the shores of Western Europe, but not by inland Native Americans, indicates a fundamental overseas connection.

“Massing evidence argues they were one folk,” wrote George Read Murray in the premiere issue (July/August 1993) of Ancient American magazine. “The cultures shared a spectrum of traits, including long-occupied settlements along the Atlantic from which they sailed to fish the deep ocean. Another signature of their sameness is the three-story middens, trash-heaps treasured by archaeologists. The middens’ fills are mostly bones of deep-sea game: whales, porpoises, sharks, and seals. The middens’ mass tells much. They show Red Paint and Red Ochre folks were skilled sailors, fishers, boat-builders, and sail-weavers. The heaps suggest these folks cultivated at least sail fiber, likely hemp, and harvested lumber for boat-hulls.”

The credibility of these comparisons is confirmed by their shared chronology. The oldest known physical evidence for North America’s Maritime Archaic is likewise the most northerly site of its kind: a burial cairn —a man-made pile of stones from the Irish Gaelic carn—at Labrador’s L’Anse Amour, dated to circa 5500 BC. It compares with a contemporaneous burial mound of discarded mollusk shells on Téviec, an island near the Quiberon Peninsula, in Brittany.

Our Eastern Seaboard’s Red Paint People left behind abundant evidence of their preference for copper, which has been found at many of their burial sites in the form of rich grave goods. Their wide use of that metal, plus their contemporaneous appearance at the Atlantic mouth of the St. Lawrence River, allowing them direct access to the Great Lakes, with the start of Michigan’s copper enterprise, identifies the Red Paint People as the Upper Peninsula’s prehistoric miners.

But where specifically in Western Europe did they come from? And why did they leave 7500 years ago? Just before then, Earth’s mean sea level had been almost fifty feet lower than present, because some glaciers still locked up sufficient water from the end of the last ice age. Coastlines everywhere were extended and great tracks of dry land appeared where today ocean waves roll. Between England and the European continent lay a large, low-lying island referred to as Doggerland, and described in my article for 2012’s November/December issue of Atlantis Rising (#96).

Doggerland was occupied by a Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age people, in cultural transition from the paleolithic cave artists of Lascaux and Troi Freres to the Neolithic inventors of agriculture. In addition to many hundreds of Doggerland artifacts attesting to the inhabitants’ sea-faring capabilities are numerous pins, tools, spearheads and arrowheads and other objects fashioned from copper.

The last of the post-ice age glaciers began to melt during the mid-sixth millennium BC, significantly raising sea levels and steadily flooding Doggerland in something climatologists call the Holocene Climatic Optimum, when temperatures reached several degrees Celsius higher than today. The Doggerlanders were forced to leave but found welcome on neither the neighboring European continent nor in England. There was only so much game available at the time for hunter-gathering natives, who would have regarded any large influx of newcomers as endangering local food supplies. The only available refuge was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Doggerlanders’ proposed arrival on North America’s Eastern Seaboard coincides with the Holocene Climatic Optimum, which we know raised sea levels sufficiently to sink the North Sea landmass situated between Britain and Denmark. That event occurred just when the Red Paint People, with all their cultural correspondences to Western Europe’s Mesolithic Red Ochre People, established themselves at the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. Simultaneous with their sudden florescence in what is now Labrador and Newfoundland was the unprecedented excavation of copper in the Great Lakes Region during our continent’s Early Archaic Period.

These associations in comparative chronology and archaeology trace middle stone age Europeans from inundated Doggerland to North America, where they were still remembered by Eskimo as the Toonikdoak and known to us as New England’s Red Paint People and the ancient copper miners of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

By Frank Joseph