Copper has been around for far more decades, lifetimes, and centuries than most of us can comprehend – ten and a half thousand years, by most estimates. Of course, it wasn’t copper in its recognisable reddish-golden form that naturally existed so long ago. The discovery, mining, smelting, and processing of copper is a very labour-intensive process that has evolved over the years. In turn, this has influenced copper’s value, and expanded its uses.
Let’s take a walk through the centuries-long history that brought us the metal we all rely on today, by exploring five things that you probably didn’t know about copper’s past.
1.The world’s most ancient civilisations used copper
The oldest-known copper ornament is a pendant, discovered in modern-day Northern Iraq. It once hung from some or other wealthy man or woman’s neck almost a whole 11,000 years ago. Several objects made from copper, copper-tin alloys, and bronze that date back to around 5,000 years ago have also been discovered in Egypt and the ancient cities of Sumer, in today’s Southern Iraq.
Copper was once a metal that was heavy with symbolism too. In ancient Roman and Greek mythology, copper was linked to the protection of Venus and Aphrodite, the goddesses of – among other things – love, beauty and pleasure. This association stemmed from copper’s natural beauty, as well as the metal’s connection to the Greek island Cyprus (thought to be sacred), where some believe copper in fact originated.
It was the Egyptians who saw copper’s utility and used the metal to build entire water supply systems, centuries before most of the world had even conceived of indoor plumbing.
When in 1994 archaeologists unearthed the remnants of a 4,500-year-old Egyptian funerary pyramid complex just south of the Nile River, they found a sophisticated copper drainage system. It was designed for draining water that Egyptians would carry into the temple to bathe statues of King Sahure as part of the daily rituals performed in the king’s resting place.
Incredibly, the copper piping still stood strong, surrounded by the crumbling ruins. No wonder it remains one of the world’s most used plumbing materials.
The Egyptians used copper to build entire water supply systems, centuries before most of the world had even conceived of indoor plumbing.
2.The Bronze Age could easily have been called the Copper Age
Deep in the bowels of the earth, copper – the 29th chemical element in the periodic table – has always been found mostly in the form of compounds. Some of the more common compounds are copper ores like chalcopyrite (СuFeS2) and chalkosine (Cu2S), named after “chalkos”, by which the Byzantines knew copper. The metal’s Latin name has always been Cuprum, represented by “Cu”.
For ancient civilisations, mining copper wasn’t a luxury – it was a necessity. During almost five millennia the material was used in every possible way; it the only metal that humans knew. But despite its very early and widespread use, copper is also among the world’s most scarcely found metals.
People first learned how to obtain copper by heating the ore to the metal’s melting point. The skeleton of a man assumed to be one of the first-known miners and smelters of copper was found in the glaciers of the Austrian-Italian Alps, with an axe made of 99.7% pure metal beside him. He is believed to have lived in around 3200 BCE.
The ancient Egyptians (some of the earliest coppersmiths) discovered that it was easier to cast copper when a small amount of tin was added to it, thereby creating bronze alloys. Bronze was the very first copper alloy, and kick-started an age in which bronze weapons, tools and jewellery replaced their Stone Age predecessors.
The Bronze Age came to an end quite suddenly in around 1200 BCE, along with the interruption of international trade routes and the general downfall of the ancient world. The diminishing of the world’s supply of tin ushered in the Iron Age, simply because iron was readily available. These early trade interruptions necessitated improved economy in the use of copper and its alloys. Ever since then, copper has been a metal known for its efficiency and limitless reusability.
3.The Industrial revolution was also a copper mining revolution
The relatively sudden spike in demand for high-quality raw materials during the Industrial Revolution had a big impact on copper, and set in motion major changes in the production of copper and its alloys. Specialised methods for the speedier removal of copper ore’s impurities helped to increase the output from around the 1600s onwards. South Wales’ Swansea district became a major copper ore smelting centres because of its ready supply of good quality coal. Swansea also had a substantial port where ships could deliver ore from mines around the world.
By 1794, one of the major mines – the Mines Royal at Neath Abbey – was producing 18 tonnes of copper a week from 230 tonnes of copper ore. Thirty-eight furnaces required 315 tonnes of coal to achieve this. But by modern standards, British copper output was insignificant, totalling around 100 tonnes per annum in the 1700s. The metal was also far more costly, with unrefined cake copper selling for 100 British pounds a tonne.
4.The United States was once the world’s largest producer of copper
Large-scale copper mining was another new chapter in copper’s history. It began in the late 1800’s, primarily in the Western United States. Whereas smaller mines around the country had previously only been able to extract copper from high-grade ore, the development of floatation processes and open-pit mining techniques specifically for low-grade porphyry ore deposits became game-changers at the end of the century in states like Utah, Arizona, and Montana. Soon, the United States was the world’s largest producer of copper.
5.Meanwhile, back in Zambia, mining was nothing new
Long before David Livingstone visited Zambia in 1851, small-scale subsistence mining of surface copper deposits was taking place in various parts of the country. Locals melted and moulded the metal into tools, weapons and bracelets, and used them as currency when long distance trade began thriving in the 12th century.
The beginning of Britain’s indirect rule in 1889 is largely believed to have been motivated by the country’s copper deposits. Soon afterwards, the first major mineral exploration activities by foreigners began in the region. Sure enough, more and more copper was discovered and, by 1924, Zambia had become a formal British protectorate.
Long before David Livingstone visited Zambia in 1851, small-scale subsistence mining of surface copper deposits was taking place in various parts of the country.
Fast-forward to Zambia’s independence in 1964, by which time the country’s economy was driven by the mining industry. Copper production peaked to 720,000 tonnes in 1969, which was also the year that discussions about nationalising the mines started gaining momentum. By 1973, when nationalisation was completed, production had dropped to 700,000 tonnes. The slight drop was mostly attributed to lack of investor confidence. It wasn’t until 2000 that the mines’ re-privatization was officially complete, and the current-day chapter began.
Zambia’s mining future
The last decade has been something of a rollercoaster in the copper mining industry, with frequent changes to the Mineral Royalty Taxation regime, and yet another amendment on the cards. Copper may have a 10,000-year-long history, but approximately 75% of all copper ever used or reused was produced after World War II. Zambia has tremendous geological potential. With the right conditions, the country will continue to reap the benefits of its rich mineral resources.