Ancient Iron Ore Mine Discovered in Peruvian Andes

Kelly Hearn in Buenos Aires, Argentina
for National Geographic News
February 11, 2008
A 2,000-year-old mine has been discovered high in mountains in Peru. The find offers proof that an ancient people in the Andes mined hematite iron ore centuries before the Inca Empire, archaeologists say.

The mine was used to tap a vein of hematite, or ochre—the first such mine found in South America that predates the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, experts note.

The discovery, reported by a U.S. archaeologist, was made in southern Peru in the region once inhabited by the ancient Nasca (often spelled "Nazca") culture.

The rare find adds to a slim body of evidence about New World mining practices, said Kevin J. Vaughn, an anthropologist at Purdue University who reported the find.

"Because mining is an extractive industry, it tends to destroy archaeological evidence," he said.

"There is very little evidence of this type of mine. It demonstrates that iron ores were important to ancient Andean civilizations."

The discovery sheds light specifically on how hematite was used by the Nasca, who flourished along the Pacific coast from about 100 B.C. to around A.D. 600.

The culture is known for etching giant drawings in the Nasca desert, as well as making textiles, designing irrigation systems, and creating colorful pottery adorned with images of plants, animals, and complex religious symbols.

Some evidence suggests that ancient Andeans smelted metals like copper to make "prestige goods" for the elite classes, but this was not the case for the ochre mined at the newfound site, Vaughn explained.

"Our hypothesis is that the Nasca people used the red-pigmented mineral primarily for ceramic paints," Vaughn said.

"Nasca artisans could have also used the hematite to paint textiles or adobe walls, or even use it as body paint."

Vaughn's team is currently comparing the hematite from the mine to hematite pigment found on pottery samples, he added.

Rare Artifacts

The mine, dubbed Mina Primavera, was found by itinerant modern-day miners in the Ingenio Valley of the Andes mountains in southern Peru.

Its shaft is a hand-dug cave covering an area of some 700 cubic meters (24,720 cubic feet).

The mine produced some 3,710 metric tons (8,179,066 pounds) of ore over about 1,400 years of use, according to the researchers.

The site also rendered artifacts—such as beads, corncobs, stone tools, pottery shards, and textiles—that have allowed Vaughn's team link the mine to the Nasca.

Most of the artifacts date to the first few centuries A.D.

A paper describing the excavation appeared in the Journal of the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society.

Donald Proulx, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, called the study "a major step forward in our understanding of the nature of Nasca ceramic production.

"Vaughn and his colleagues are really the first to systematically look for the sources of clay and pigments used for Nasca pottery," he said.

"The discovery of the mine is extremely important, not only for showing us one of the major sources for the pigments, but also for demonstrating from the associated artifacts that the miners were members of the Nasca culture."

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