Historic Mineral Prospecting: A North American Perspective

Elizabeth Wilson
Fall 2002

GO 336 Mineralogy        Emporia State University

Introduction   A Historic Timeline   Present Prospecting    Conclusion

(Click images for larger view)


Long before the development of writing, humans recognized such distinct mineral properties such as hardness, cohesiveness, and color (Rapp and Hill, 1998; 113). In fact, mineral prospecting has been a part of human culture for thousands of years. Focusing on North America alone, evidence has suggested man to have occupied this land for nearly 12,000 years. The archaeological record has yielded evidence to suggest man's use of chalcedony, hematite, and other raw materials. Given this record, it is evident that people were selective in their choice of mineral usage.

Minerals have always been valuable to mankind. From the Paleo-Indians to modern man, we have prospected minerals for survival methods, aesthetic purposes, and economic trade. Humans found that the hardness and cohesiveness of quartz was valuable in toolmaking and the brilliant colors of minerals, such as hematite, were useful in cave paintings. Following a timeline, from a prehistoric age, we'll see how our North American ancestors have utilized and prospected selected minerals.

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A Historic Timeline

15,000 Years Ago      The Würm Glaciation

Theories center on the notion that during the Würm glaciation, approximately 15,000 years ago, sea levels had receded such that a land bridge existed between Siberia and Alaska (Stearns, 2001). By way of this land bridge, presumably North America was first colonized. Some archaeologists suggest human occupation as far back as 40,000 years ago; however radiocarbon dates prove human existence in North America at 12,000 years ago, upon which ice sheets retreated due to a warming and moister climate. The warm climate created an ice-free corridor in which our ancient ancestors would descend (Stearns, 2001).


Image taken from
Florida Museum of Natural History

Chert is a general term used to define rock primarily composed of quartz. In North America, chert projectile points have been discovered from this early period. They exhibit sharp, conchoidal fracture, thus providing a good survival tool. Mammoths, mastodons, and other large game animals provided the only subsistence for the early inhabitants as the climate of the Würm glaciation was too harsh for plant subsistence. Thus, quartz was the first mineral of choice as an adaptation to the environment and the beginnings of mineral prospecting.

12,000 Years Ago      Paleo-Indians

Approximately 12,000 years ago, the first true inhabitants of North America arrived. This is evidenced in Clovis, New Mexico from which the term "Clovis" is derived to describe the projectile points characteristic of this time period. The large game hunters and gatherers are whom archaeologists refer to as the Paleo-Indians. “The term Paleo-Indian refers to late Pleistocene Native Americans, people ancestral to modern Native Americans but living at a time remote from our own and in an environment unfamiliar to us today” (Cordell, 1997; 67). As glaciers receded, these individuals appeared to become more nomadic, moving more frequently following animal migrations. Artifacts discovered at various kill sites include Clovis projectile points manufactured from chalcedony, obsidian, chert, and ivory. Such materials are significant such that they are indicators of what and where these individuals were mineral prospecting for effective survival tools. Chalcedony, shown below, makes up a large percentage of Clovis artifacts during the Paleo-Indian period.


Image taken from
Mineralogical Research Co.

The chalcedony projectile points have been sourced to Knife River chalcedony from North Dakota. This location indicates the great distance our early ancestors had traveled since their colonization of North America.

Chalcedony Clovis Projectile Point

Image taken from
Upper Midwest Rock Art Research Association

Meanwhile, as the Paleo-Indians are hunting mammoths, mastodons, and bison, the human population in North America is significantly increasing. Crop agriculture has not yet been developed, thus hunting and gathering is the primary source of subsistence. Gradually the sustaining environment for large game animals is changing while they are increasingly hunted and killed. This transition of population, subsistence, and environment emerges a new development of culture, which we refer to as the Archaic period.

5500 B.C.      Archaic People

The Archaic period dates at approximately 5500 BC and marks a stage of development from the end of the Pleistocene to the development and adoption of agriculture (Cordell, 1997; 102). Bison continue to thrive as they can maintain a population in the new, warmer environment, unlike the other large game animals. Archaic peoples obtain cultivated crops from those that had been domesticated far into Mesoamerica. Thus, there is an increased dependence on plant foods, which lead to the making of additional tools. Beyond the usage of minerals for tool making as described above, Archaic people prospected minerals for other purposes. Archaic burial sites in North America reveal ornaments made of galena, a brilliant silvery mineral.

Image taken from
Dartmouth College

Galena has been reported from more than two hundred prehistoric Archaic sites in eastern North America (Rapp and Hill, 1998; 120). Of these sites, galena recovered was associated with burials in over half of the sites. Galena sources are numerous in places such as the Appalachian region and northeastern Oklahoma.

2200 B.C.      Late Archaic

Late Archaic, approximately 2200 BC, was characteristic of an increase and stabilization of population and cultures as the climate was more moderate compared to that of previous periods. It is evident that for nearly 12,000 years individuals have undeniably made social and technological adaptations to a fluctuating climate of the surrounding environment. Late Archaic indicates an increase use of minerals from distant sources, such as copper, hematite, and selenite suggesting increased mineral prospecting and supporting the notion of a developing culture.


Image taken from
Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum: Bisbee Mineral Hall

Copper artifacts first appear during the Late Archaic although some archaeologists argue that copper mining began earlier and developed over time. Native copper was available in the form of nuggets outcropping at the surface in the Great Lakes region (Rapp and Hill, 1998; 142). Given there was no technology available to chisel large quantities, it is presumed Archaic societies would hammer pieces of copper to be used for tools, ornaments, and decoration.


Image taken from
Bob's Rock Shop

Selenite, a variety of gypsum, is a common mineral found in Mammoth Cave of Kentucky. Late Archaic individuals are presumed to have traveled miles to collect selenite, which was likely to be valued for their medicinal properties or ceremonial uses.

1000 B.C.      End of Late Archaic to Historic Cultures

After the late Archaic, people continue to collect minerals for tool making, ceremonial practices, cave paintings, and medicinal purposes. It is clear that mineral usage is widespread throughout North America during our prehistory and carries over into historic periods. Hematite, shown below, is a good example of this transition.

Image taken from
History of Vesuvius Furnace

Hematite, a red iron oxide, first appears during the late Archaic. Our early ancestors discovery of the red powdered form is often associated with burial rituals and rock art.

Hematite Rock Art

Image taken from
Rock Art in Arkansas

In various rock shelters throughout Arkansas, hematite mineral pigments have been found. Such evidence would suggest that native people would have ground the mineral for the manufacture of paints used to color petroglyphs. As one travels to the American Southwest, hematite pigments collected from local rock formations form the paint for red-on-buff AD 1150 Hohokam pottery.

Hohokam Red-on-Buff Pottery

Image taken from
Ceramics: Deserts Farmers at the River's Edge

Another prized mineral of the Southwest was turquoise.


Image taken from
The Celtic Connection and

Turquoise is found extensively in Chaco Canyon during the 10th century. The source area is not native to Chaco Canyon, thus the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) were prospecting distances where the mineral is found in the veins of weathered volcanic rocks. Heating and quenching the bedrock was used to free the turquoise to process the unique mineral into beads, ornaments, and jewelry for economic trade.

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Present Prospecting

Present prospecting technology has evolved tremendously since our Paleo-Indian ancestors, however our reasons behind prospecting have remained fairly constant. Technological methods such as electronic sounding devices, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have revolutionized mineral prospecting, creating a greater supply for a higher demand of essential minerals such as iron. Geophysical prospecting, such as magnetic susceptibility and electromagnetic induction, the analysis of satellite imagery, aerial photographs, and computer modeling with the application of GIS has been added to geophysical data to improve the efficiency of present prospecting. Alternatively, like our ancient ancestors, modern prospecting also includes direct observation of geologic structures and associated minerals, topographic features, and outcrops or stream channels.

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As stated previously, prospecting technology has evolved, however our reasons behind prospecting have remained fairly constant. Minerals are used and needed in our daily activities and for our well being. From the Paleo-Indians to our present prospectors, minerals in North America have and will forever will be part in survival methods, aesthetic purposes, and economic trade.

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Cordell, L. 1997. Archaeology of the southwest. Academic Press, San Diego.

Rapp Jr. G.R. and C.L. Hill 1998. Geoarchaeology: The Earth-science approach to archaeological interpretation. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Stearns, P.N. 2001. Encyclopedia of World History: The first settlement of the Americas (15,000 years ago) http://aol.bartleby.com/67/28.html. Retrieved on September 29, 2002.

Online Mineral References

Mineralogical Research Co., Chalcedony, http://www.minresco.com/special/spec3.htm. Retrieved on 19 November, 2002.

Upper Midwest Rock Art, Chalcedony Clovis Projectile Point, http://www.tcinternet.net/users/cbailey/lithic2.html. Retrieved on 19 November, 2002.

Florida Museum of Natural History, Chert, http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/natsci/vertpaleo/aucilla/arpp60.htm. Retrieved on 19 November, 2002.

Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum: Bisbee Mineral Hall, Copper, http://www.bisbeemuseum.org/mineral_hall2.htm. Retrieved on 19 November, 2002.

Dartmouth College, Galena, http://www.dartmouth.edu/~rpsmith/Heavy_Metals.html. Retrieved on 19 November, 2002.

Lake Vesuvius, Hematite, http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/wayne/vesuvius_docs/vesuvius_furnace_history.html. Retrieved on 19 November, 2002.

Arkansas Archaeological Survey, Hematite Rock Art, http://rockart.uark.edu/. Retrieved on 19 November, 2002.

City of Phoenix, Hohokam Red-on-Buff Pottery, http://www.ci.phoenix.az.us/PUEBLO/dfceramc.html. Retrieved on 19 November, 2002.

Bob's Rock Shop, Selenite, http://www.rockhounds.com/rockshop/keller2.html. Retrieved on 19 November, 2002.

The Celtic Connection, Turquoise, http://www.wicca.com/celtic/stones/images/turquoise.jpg. Retrieved on 19 November, 2002.

***** All copyright images have been linked to their source and listed as a reference. *****

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This webpage was designed for GO336 Mineralogy
Instructor: Susie Aber of Emporia State University Earth Science Department.
For questions or comments contact Elizabeth Wilson. Created on October 17, 2002.
Copyright 2002 Elizabeth Wilson. All rights reserved.