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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

Bronze Age Part II: The Case of the Missing Copper

By Jeff Danner Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:53 am

“. . . For the Ocean that was at that time navigable; for in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say ‘the Pillars of Heracles’ [Straits of Gibraltar] there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together; and it was possible for travelers of that time to cross from it to the other islands and from the islands to the whole of the continent over against them which encompasses the veritable ocean … .” Plato, 400 BC
 
Here are the facts.  During the Bronze Age, 3500 to 1000 BC, five thousand copper mines were excavated on the south shore of Lake Superior.  Millions of pounds of copper were extracted.  Only a miniscule fraction of this copper can be accounted for among the artifacts of Native Americans.
 
So where did all of this copper go?  Increasing evidence suggests that it went to Europe.  Sound crazy?  Bear with me a bit.
 
Last week, in Bronze Age Part I: Intelligence versus Accumulated Knowledge, I reviewed the massive trade in bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, at exactly the same time as these mines were being excavated around Lake Superior, and the extent of the Minoan trading empire which ranged from the Indian Ocean to the Orkney Islands north of Scotland.  (If you did not read last week’s column, the Minoan Empire was centered on Crete and Santorini in the Mediterranean Sea during the Bronze Age)
 
Is it possible that the Minoans continued in their travels and crossed the Atlantic?  In a word, yes.  The north Atlantic crossing from the Orkneys to Canada was made in 1000 AD by the Vikings.  It’s tempting to think that the Minoans, having existed two to four thousand years earlier than the Vikings, would have had more primitive ships and a less advanced knowledge of the science of navigation.  But you would be wrong.
 
Recovery of Minoan sailing vessels shows that they were larger and more seaworthy than Viking ships.  More importantly, the Minoans were in close contact with the Babylonian Empire which gave them access to very detailed and accurate star charts, allowing for accurate navigation at sea. The Vikings did not have comparable navigational resources.  Thus, the proposition that the Minoans could have made the North Atlantic crossing is quite reasonable.
 
In his recent book, The Lost Empire of Atlantis, Gavin Menzies presents a very strong case that the Minoans were responsible for the extraction and export of the missing copper.  The most compelling evidence from his book is listed below.
 

  • The tools used for mining in both European mines known to be Minoan and the Lake Superior mines are identical.
  • The pottery and utensils found in the Lake Superior mines are identical to those used in the Minoan civilization on Crete.
  • The mines in Lake Superior are the only known Bronze Age mines to contain copper with a purity exceeding 99%.  Many European artifacts from this time period contain copper of this purity.
  • The mining of copper in Lake Superior ended abruptly and coincidently with the fall of the Minoan empire.

 
The last and best piece of evidence deserves a bit longer explanation.  The descendants of the Minoans on Crete as well as the current populations in European and Middle Eastern countries where the Minoans were known to have significant interactions (yes the double entendre was intended) have a genetic marker on their mitochondrial DNA known as haplogroup X.  The overlay of the geographic distribution of haplogroup X and the known Minoan trading empire is nearly exact, providing strong evidence that the Minoans were the source of this genetic material. 
 
In surveying the globe for other populations which have haplogroup X, the Ojibwa and Chippewa tribes in the vicinity of Lake Superior were found to have this marker.  Further, but studying the extent of mutations within the haplogroup, it is possible to determine that the introduction of this genetic material into the local Native American populations occurred contemporaneously with the copper mining.  The immense amount of labor involved in extracting all of this copper would have involved employing local Native Americans.  The close contact between Minoan men and Native American women, not surprisingly, appears to have resulted in the mixing of genetic material.
 
Historically, Plato was quite close to the Minoans.  As he refers to in the quote at the top of the page, he knew that the Atlantic Ocean was beyond the Straits of Gibraltar and that a continent-sized land mass existed on the other side.  It appears that the Ancient Greeks knew of the seafaring exploits of the Minoans and that this knowledge was misplaced during ensuring dark ages.
 
So, other than it being a great chance to share a potential answer to a great historical mystery with you, why am I reviewing the Bronze Age with you in Common Science®?
I expect in coming decades that the technical and cultural sophistication of the Bronze Age will gain prominence in our history books and force us to change our narrative of the development of human civilization.  The key feature of our history is not steady unrelenting progress, but rather a boom-and-bust cycle of cultural flowering followed by descent into confusion and darkness.  Our current cultural flowering has been largely uninterrupted since approximately 1200 AD.  Is it soon time for another bust?
 
Have .a comment or question on this column?  Log in below or send me an e-mail at commonscience@chapelboro.com.   Furthermore, if you have a science question or a science dispute at the dinner table that needs a tie-breaking vote, send me an e-mail and I’ll see if I can help you out.

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