Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has been known as “copper country” for hundreds of years.
More specifically, the peninsula’s northwest corner, Copper Harbor, Ontonagon and Eagle Harbor, all part of the Keweenaw Peninsula, at one time were bustling areas of copper mining.
But did you know copper was first mined in our state thousands of years before the birth of Christ? Before the Egyptian pyramids? Before Stonehenge?
Scientists believe copper was first mined in the Upper Peninsula between 3,000-7,000 years ago, or about 5,000-1,200 B.C. During that time, it is estimated 1.5 billion pounds of copper was mined by an unknown civilization.
These people left behind no burial grounds, no dwellings, no pottery or cave drawings. What they did leave behind was thousands of copper producing pits and thousands of crude hammering stones to work the pits. They would alternately use fire and cold water to break copper bearing rock into smaller pieces and then extract the metal with hammer stones.
Because copper is a malleable metal, it was easily shaped and durable. It would be turned into tools, arrows and spearheads, as well as jewelry.
But most of the estimated 1.5 billion pounds of copper mined by these ancient people is no longer in the Upper Peninsula. Where did it go? How was it transported? The pure copper of the Lake Superior region has been found in prehistoric cultures throughout North and South America.
“This is the controversial area of the copper story,” said Luke Clyburn of the Noble Odyssey Foundation, which released its latest documentary, “America’s Ancient Industry” on copper mining in the U.P. “The amount of effort that it took to mine, to be able to travel to Isle Royle, to travel to Keweenaw, there had to be an economic payback.
“It was an industry,” Clyburn continued. “These people were looking at how to exchange it, maybe not for money, but for a commodity that they needed.”
Some experts estimate it would have required 10,000 men 1,000 years to mine the 1.5 billion pounds of copper and develop the extensive operations carried on throughout the region. Others say those numbers are high.
Regardless of the numbers, what often goes unnoticed or forgotten is that these ancient, unknown peoples had far more intelligence than they are given credit for.
“Were they just hunters and gatherers? I don’t think so. I think these people were pretty smart,” Clyburn said. “They knew how to make tools, and they shipped these materials wherever they could and exchange it for commodities that would make it worth their effort.
“They could travel and get back home again. That took a pretty high level of sophistication and navigation. All of that industry created some pretty sharp people.”
Schoolchildren are taught Christopher Columbus discovered America. But that is the Anglo-Saxon history. This region has a rich history developed long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. It’s just that so much of it remains a mystery.
“There was clearly a lot of connection with other continents. Maybe it was exploration, maybe it was in search for food, maybe it was an expedition for copper,” Clyburn said. “People traveled back and forth long before what we see in history.”
To purchase Clyburn’s full “America’s Ancient Industry” documentary, go to www.nobleodyssey.org or call Clyburn at 248-666-9359. A $25 donation is to the foundation is required.