Ancient Copper Mining in the Upper Peninsula

Lamsa pauses and looks around. “They say there are 5,000 mine pits between here and Copper Harbor,” he says. “But I’d say there’s 5,000 right around here.” He looks at his watch. “Well, I gotta go,” he says, and he heads back through the forest to the Lions Club lunch.

So I had stood where the ancients had stood. I had hefted their hammerstones, held their spear tips. But I still wondered—what are the odds they were from a distant land, like China or, as some fervently believe, Mesopotamia?

I called Dr. Susan Martin. “What I say when people bring that up is show me the garbage,” she said. “People from Mesopotamia would have had the same problem any other ancient people would have had, getting rid of garbage.” And no stuff from Mesopotamia, or China for that matter, has been found. “What stuff we have found is entirely in keeping with the consistent development of native cultures in North America.”

So who were they? “We’re talking about a 7,000 year history here,” she says. “There were many, many cultural groups over a long, long history.” But all of them, she believes, were what we would today call native peoples. In her mind they were transients, scattered tribes who hunted, fished, dug copper, found berries—not a well organized, hierarchical workforce that built some sort of copper empire that has somehow vanished. The reason more evidence of their civilization hasn’t been found is that they were transient; their things not made of stone and metal decayed. Their bones scattered, rotted, eaten. What about another rumor I’d heard while on my ancient miner journey, that Keweenaw copper artifacts had been found in Egyptian tombs and deep into South America? “It’s very difficult to say without qualification that a piece of copper is from the Keweenaw,” Martin says, although researchers are still trying to analyze trace elements within Keweenaw copper so that one day we might be able to truly test an individual artifact and know where it came from. Other complications would still exist, though, because the glaciers broke off chunks of copper and moved them hundreds of miles. That rumor will probably take years to prove or disprove.

Who knows why people become intrigued with earlier humankind, but for Martin, the interest came early. “Even as a kid I was absolutely fascinated with the past. I think of the past as part of now. It’s right here with us, under our feet, by the side of the road. There’s not a real distance there.” That comes closest to explaining what I felt standing on the ridge while looking at the mine. Suddenly 7,000 years didn’t seem like so much, but when I began the journey, 7,000 years sounded impossible. Apologies for doubting you, Fred.

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse.

Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    Its good yeah need to do it for a ccr kinda hard but with this much info i can work with it

  • Anonymous

    copper is cool lol. i wonder how ancient miners found copper