January 31, 2008
Anthropologists have discovered the earliest known iron mine in South America, in the Andes mountains of southern Peru. The mine was begun about 2000 years ago by the Nasca people, according to Kevin Vaughn, of Purdue University. During its 1,400 years of operation, workers removed some 3,700 metric tons of earth by hand to get at the mine’s hematite ore. The Nasca apparently didn’t exhaust the vein, either, as the ancient mine now sits opposite a modern-day one.
Beginning in 2004, Vaughn discovered shards of pottery with distinct colors and designs at the site, allowing him to place the age within a century. He later used radiocarbon dating to get more precise dates, then gave the artifacts to the museum of the National Cultural Institute in Ica, Peru.
Curiously – or perhaps refreshingly – the Nasca were disinclined to make weapons out of the iron they mined. Instead, they used the ore to make bright glazes, dyes, and paints for decorating items such as their fanciful pottery (above, a Nasca killer whale, or orca).
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