Pre-Incan Metalworking (ca. 1000-1200 AD)

By: The Scribe on Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Metals from lake mud in the central Peruvian Andes have revealed what appears to be the first evidence for metallurgy during the pre-Colonial period. Previously, bronze artifacts from the pre-Colonial period have only been found dating after the fall of the Huari civilization, predecessors of the Incas, around 1000 AD. However, archaeologists have been uncertain as to how or when metallurgy developed among these people, and were willing to consider that perhaps these artifacts were obtained by trade from coastal village sites.

By measuring the concentrations of copper, zinc, lead, silver, titanium and several other minerals in sediment samples from Laguna Pirhuacocha, scientists were struck at the extremely high levels of concentration that must have come from pollutants in furnace smoke. For example, a rise in zinc and copper levels as compared to the concentration of lead suggest an increase in copper smelting, while the rise of other minerals suggest silver smithing.

Chemical analysis can allow scientists to determine exactly when these pollutants were deposited in the lake bed, and the earliest evidence for metalworking in the region now falls between 1000 and 1200 AD – a significant amount of time before the Inca appeared in the area. It is also intriguing that this metalworking technology seemed to increase and develop just after the fall of the enormous Huari civilization.

However, history dictates that it was during a wide-spread drought around 1000 AD that the Huari civilization collapsed, as well as the neighboring Tiwanaku empire in the Peruvian Andes. Not only was water scarce and crops destroyed, but the water level in Lake Titicaca dropped at least 20 feet. Questions still remain about where the metallurgical technology came to get here in the first place, but it seems that after the collapse of the empires, the ideas and the information was quickly dispersed in the region.

After 1450 AD, the villages who practiced metallurgy shifted their production focus from copper to silver – indeed, this shift is traceable to a period of Incan control, when Inca rulers imposed a tax that was required to be paid in silver. After all, silver held a position of high honor in many Incan religious ceremonial practices.

Scientists have also gathered samples from a number of additional sites in the region, in hopes that they will be able to reconstruct a history of metallurgy in pre-Colonial Peru.

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