Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Gold in Pre-Columbian South America

To your left is a modern day example of the excellent work still coming out of Colombia in gold and emeralds brought to you by T.L.E. International.

South American, pre-Columbian gold placers made it possible to produce incredibly intricate gold objects created and formed by many cultures in the region. Placer mining was done by ground sluicing, and diverting streams using stone riffles that could be built during dry seasons. Material was dug from dry riverbeds, stockpiled and "washed" through the stone riffles during the flooding season trapping the concentrates in the stone riffles. The gold was then separated from the concentrates by hand using a large cone shaped wooden pan called a "batea" by the Spaniards who found the natives using them much later.

The Waywakans of the south central Andes Mountains are accredited with being first to mine and work gold, with gold artifacts found and dated at around 1500 B.C. Annealing was devised to hammer the metal into thin sheets to use for breastplates, masks, and many other types of large objects. Considering they used stone tools to work the gold, the ability they had to make intricate adornments is, at the least, amazing.

Etching, casting, and embossing were developed by Peruvians around 200 B.C., as well as alloying and the use of mercury in gilding. Colombians perfected working with gold, refining, alloying, casting, gilding, and all other aspects of gold work. Tumbaga was their special alloy of copper and gold. It was strong, easily worked, had a low melting point, and casted very well. Its reddish color was pleasing and the surface was easily washed with acid to reveal a beautiful yellow color. As gold was not a status of wealth, but religion, some villages sacrificed gold to their deities by throwing it into nearby deep lakes.

By the time Christopher Columbus reached the New World, gold had been worked in South America for some 3,000 years. The natives of San Salvador were wearing simple crude gold ornaments made of gold from Hispaniola when he arrived there. When he reached Central America, he named the area "Costa Rica", or Rich Coast, due to the finely crafted gold the natives wore. As all know, the Spanish went on to steal all the gold they could find from the natives in South America, looting even graves in their thirst for the yellow metal.

Today, South American governments do all they can to preserve the pieces that remain. More of the intricate gold is found every year in lost and forgotten burial sites and other hiding places. Several museums in South America hold thousands of these pieces as a testament to the skills of these artisans of long ago.

For more information on gold and prospecting spend a few minutes with Hooked on Gold
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