Digging for copper predates European settlers in the Keweenaw by 7,000 years

KEWEENAW PENINSULA – The 1913-14 Copper Strike began 100 years ago today, but copper was mined or quarried as long ago as 7,000 years before European Americans began digging for the metal.

Susan Martin, retired professor from the Michigan Technological University Department of Social Science, has written a book about the use of copper by ancient people in the Lake Superior region.

She said the title of the book, “Wonderful Power,” was a term used by a 19th century Ojibwa man to describe copper.

“It helped people stay healthy,” she said. “It helped people hunt animals.”

Although copper artifacts themselves can’t be carbon dated, Martin said pieces of a wood handle in a copper arrowhead found in the Lake Superior region was dated to about 7,000 years ago.

“There’s pretty good evidence,” she said. “This was an artifact that was fully fashioned.”

Exactly who the people were who lived in the Lake Superior region, including the Keweenaw Peninsula, is uncertain, but they predated the current Ojibwa people living here now by thousands of years. When the last glacier retreated northward about 10,000 years ago, people would follow the migration of prey animals along the edge of the ice sheet, including in the area which is now the Upper Peninsula.

Martin said the people who made copper artifacts during the period 7,000 years ago did so because the chert used by other people to make tools, arrowheads and spear points weren’t available in the Keweenaw.

When the glacier retreated, Martin said it left rounded clumps of material called cobbles, which were used by the ancient people.

“Some of that includes cobbles of copper,” she said.

The copper made into artifacts by the ancient people in the Keweenaw wasn’t smelted, but rather it was cold hammered, a method used around the world for thousands of years. Rather than mining the copper, they worked shallow quarries.

“They did free up copper from the traprock,” she said.

Copper artifacts found, which are thought to have been made by the ancient people, Martin said, include axes, gouges, adzes, projectile points, beads and other ornaments.

“There’s hundreds of different functions,” she said. “(Some of them are) tools to make another tool.”

Although copper wasn’t necessary for the existence of the ancient people in the Keweenaw, Martin said it probably made their lives easier.

“It’s a good thing they had copper,” she said. “It’s a great material.”

Jo Urion, Keweenaw National Historical Park historian, said park officials work with tribal members whenever work is planned on properties that are eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including archeological sites.

“We do want to incorporate and interpret more of the prehistory of the area, as well as American Indian history because this is not just a Euro-American history we’re talking about here,” she said.

Urion said the fact ancient people worked with copper for thousands of years is mentioned in the park’s enabling legislation in 1992.

“It’s a story we need to be telling,” she said.

Urion said KNHP has a funding request in for the creation of a traveling exhibit about Ojibwa use of copper, but it’s uncertain if that will happen.

“My fingers are crossed,” she said. “It’s definitely something we want to do.”

Jessica Koski, mining technical assistant for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, said copper has traditionally been an important part of Ojibway/Anishinaabe people of the Keweenaw, and it still is.

“I was taught by Anishinaabe elders that copper is an important element,” Koski said. “It was used to make tools, and serves as a conduit for energy and purifier of water. For instance, the Anishinaabe traditionally used copper for carrying water and we still use it today for water ceremonies and other ceremonies.”