Columbus's Failing Mining Colony Pilfered Its Supplies, Study Says

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The research team hypothesizes that the miners brought the European ore with them to help determine the silver and gold content of ore unearthed at La Isabela.

After three years with little to show for the effort, however, it became clear to the miners that La Isabela was not going to succeed. Columbus was recalled to Spain to explain why his efforts had failed.

Meanwhile, the miners began smelting their own ore supplies—but without much luck.

The process yielded "very tiny amounts of silver," said David Killick, a study co-author. "They must have been truly desperate to try this."

The fact that the miners resorted to such steps meant that they had few options left, he added.

"The people who had been induced to come out to La Isabela had been promised big sources of gold and silver," Killick said. "They were minor noblemen in Spain, and they expected to make their fortunes. They didn't find it."

After the colony failed, some of the miners hiked across Hispaniola to Spain's new colony, Santo Domingo. Others faded into the mountains and became bandits.

The discovery, Killick added, shows that archaeologists and scientists can team up to make "new and surprising finds" that can rewrite what is known even about well-documented history.

"In conclusion," the study authors write, "what seemed at first to be evidence of the earliest European mining and processing of precious metals in the New World appears, on further inspection, to be poignant testimony to the disillusionment and desperation of settlers who had embarked on the second expedition in the hope of making their fortunes."

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