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Map showing metallurgy in the Americas

Metallurgy in the Americas

The earliest evidence for metalworking in the Americas can be traced back to around 2000 BC in the Peruvian Andes. From there it gradually spread northward to Ecuador, Colombia and Central America.

Silver, copper, tin and platinum were all exploited in the Andes, but gold was especially prized for its durability and associations. with the sun. Long before European contact, native American goldsmiths had independently discovered all the principal techniques of gold working, including hammering, casting and gilding.

Gold was first recovered from placer deposits (granules and nuggets found in the sands and gravels of rivers). Its natural malleability lent itself to being hammered into thin sheets and plaques. Casting techniques were in widespread use by the first millennium AD and feature prominently in the varied regional traditions of Colombia. Continuous experimentation also led to the development of different alloys notably tumbaga, a blend of gold and copper which was less brittle than pure copper and had a lower melting point than pure gold.

Gold had a profound symbolic significance in Amerindian beliefs and the surface of many objects, used as body ornaments or in ritual ceremonies, was enhanced or enriched. Sixteenth-century Spanish chroniclers record their fascination with the profusion of gold jewellery worn by indigenous chiefs and priests. Much of this gold was forcibly obtained or looted from graves to be melted down and taken back to Spain to be used as coinage.

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