** economics -- American gold and silver

Pre-Colombian Gold and Silver

Figure 1.--This detail from a Riverra mural shows Aneri-Indian craftsmen working with gold. The important Amer-Indian civilizations, orimarily in South America, developed sophisticated metalurgical ntecnologies. Still they remained basically a stone-age people because all that technology was never put to signiicant use. Metals were mostly used for religious art and for personal adornment by the elite.

Amer-Indian peoples were basically a stone age people. The lack of metal weapons was one reason the Spamish comnquistadores were so suceesful against huge Amer-Indian armies. Strangely the had developed metalurgy technologies. This was primarily accomplished in South America by Andean and related coastal people. This process may have begun very early, beginning with gold work (about 2000 BC). Copper work followed later (about 1300 BC). These two metals have about the same vmelting point (1064-84° C). The difference being that gold is not an active metal and thus cam be vfound in nature. Copper is an active metal and thus technologies had to be developed to refine the metal. We are not sure when the first silver work began. Silver has a very low melting point (961° C), but like copper is an active metal and thus methods to refine these metals had to be developed. Researchers have found eviudence of work with lead and tin. Iron with its high melting point (about 1500° C) was beyond the reach of Amer-Indan craftsmen who did not have bellows. There is evidence of work with platinum in Ecuador. Much of the mtalurgical development appears to have occurred in wht is now southern Peru. Gradually this knowledge spread thr0ughout the Andean region (1000-200 BC). Metslurgical technology was also gradually acquired by Meso-American people to the north, although not until muvch lter.. Ecuadorean marine traders are believed to have played an important role. For some reason, Amer-Indian metalurgy was never used to any significant degree to fashion useful tools and weapons. The metals were primarily used to fashion religious art or personl adornment for the elite. South American civilizations had developed sophisticated technologies for the extraction, purification, and alloying of metals and metal crafting. Smelting was limited because the lack of bellows. Many alloys were developed. In fact the Soanish complained about the impurity of Inca gold. {Lechtman, p.56.] This was not brcause the Inca metalurgists were unskilled, but because they created alloys to enhnce the color characterustics of the gold. There is evuidence of gold and silver alloys a millenium before the Inca. Amnd the Imca metalurgists were so skilled that the surface of the finished product was pure gold or silver. Putity was not an issue for the Inca that it was for the Spnish. For the Inca and other Aneri-Indiuan cultures, color was very important. And copper helped to deepen the color. For the Inca it was color tha was important, not purity. The Inca were the inheitors of a long history of technologicazl devlopment. It as, however, coastal peoople that were especially gifted, particularly the Chimu and Moche--both coastal civilizations. After conquering these people, their craftmbn were bought to Cuzco. The result of all this work was a considerable quatity of gold and silver which proved to be a powerful enducement to conquest. What the Amer-Indian people had mined and refined, however, was a small fration of what the Spanish would find still unmined after the conquest--especially silver. Important silver deposits were found in Mexico, places likev Taxco. The greatest silver fimd was Potosi--virtuslly a silver mountain -- Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain). The city was founded as a mining town (1545). Potosí produced unheard of wealth for the Spanish. The nativeminers were conscripted and worked in often horific cinditions. The population came to exceed 200,000 people. It became the major supply of silver for the Spanish Empire. The influx of silver into Europe helped stimulate the economy. It also helped finance trade with China at a time that Europeans had little offer the Chimnes for the luxury goods they craved like porcelin and silk. The Potosí silver was trans ported by llama and mule train to the Pacific coast. From there it was shipped moth west and north. Shipments west went to the Philippines nd then on to China. Shipments north went to Panama City, and carried by mule train across the isthmus of Panama to Nombre de Dios or Portobelo on the Caribbean coadt. Then the annual Spanish treasure fleets arried it accross gthe Atlantic to Spain. Herev it was vulberable to attack by privateers. The English Sea Dogs were the most famous. Such attacks were part of the reason for the Spanish Armada (1588).


Lechtman, Heather. "Pre-Colombian surface metalurgy," Scientific Amnerican Vol. 250, No. 6 (June 1984), pp. 56-63.


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Created: 3:36 AM 1/10/2021
Last updated: 3:36 AM 1/10/2021