Man Becomes Metal-Conscious

In the New Stone Age men first learned to live peaceably together in pastoral and agricultural communities, from which fixed settlements arose, long before they became metal-conscious. They practiced agriculture, had numerous domestic implements and were skillful potters, artists and artisans in bone and certainly also in wood, when somewhere they became attracted by the shining particles of free gold in shallow riverbeds. They seem to have quickly discovered that this remarkable stone, as they regarded it, could be beaten into thin plates and even fashioned into pins; and perhaps these discoveries started an inquisitive search which led them to find, first the curious lumps of native copper, although it was probably always scarce, and then the much more abundant bright green 'stone' malachite and its close blue associate azurite. Both these copper carbonates not only catch the eye but are also easily detachable from the ground. No doubt men also learned early to distinguish "fool's gold"* the bright yellow iron pyrites and the very similar yellow copper ore, copper pyrite* from the true gold with which they may excusably have mistaken it at first. Our knowledge of Man's earliest interest in metals in the dawn of prehistory will never be more than hypothetical, but it can be asserted more confidently that, so far as copper is concerned, these events occurred during the Fifth Millenium B.C.; hence Man's knowledge of copper must date back for at least six thousand years.

During that period, two great rivers, the Euphrates and the Nile, each nourished a considerable civilization near its mouth. The former was probably of greater antiquity, since it was responsible among other things for developing the art of brick manufacture which was originally unknown in Egypt. There were two kingdoms on the lower Nile, Upper and Lower Egypt. In general terms the date of the early Sumerian civilization, which clustered around Ur and other cities, can be set at 3500 to 4000 B.C., and Pre-Dynastic Egypt covered the same period or possibly a little later. King Menes, from whose reign all Egyptian chronology* is taken, conquered Lower Egypt and welded the two parts of the Nile people into one nation, around 3200 B.C.

A whole series of other but less important centers of early civilization in the Near and Middle East has been unearthed by archaeologists during recent decades, but they are certainly younger and their dates extremely hypothetical.

Two other major centers of mankind lay farther afield, in Hindustan and China. With immense populations and abundant agricultural resources, these civilizations also have their origins in the distant past; but the Chinese records cannot be definitely dated earlier than the Third Millenium B.C., and the civilization of India probably first began to flourish during that period. Neither appears to have derived much from the Sumerians or Egyptians, since geographical barriers, particularly in the case of China, precluded any interchange of culture.

It is against this historical background that one must try to unravel the earliest history of copper.

* In this publication, the chronology at present adopted by the British Museum is followed.