Indium Blog

Malachite: The Copper Ore that Started Civilization

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  • Folks,

    I was recently asked, to be the host professor on a Dartmouth Alumni Cruise to the Adriatic Sea. Someone has to be willing to take these tough assignments! It was a great experience. We flew to Venice and then took the cruise ship to Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece. The two highlights were seeing Diocletian’s Palace and The Oracle of Delphi.

    I was also asked to give two lectures during the trip. The first one was Malachite: The Copper Ore that Started Civilization. I don’t think in today’s world, we appreciate how important the smelting of copper was to the development of civilization. Historian’s do appreciate the importance of metals as the ages of civilization are named after copper, bronze and iron.

    But it all started with copper and it is a miracle it ever began, as the smelting of copper is very difficult. The smelter has to first pound copper ore into a powder, then mix it with carbon (charcoal) and heat it two hours at 1085°C (1985°F). To give a reference point, your propane grill only goes up to about 600°F.

    A video shows how difficult this is. How did our ancestors have the endurance to keep working on it, without know the amazing end result? Fortunately they did. This discover led to trade in copper ore and copper, driving the need for writing and arithmetic to keep track of trade transactions, and developed experimental curiosity that led to the much more difficult smelting and smithing of iron.

    As a result, I believe the smelting of copper was the beginning of modern civilization.


    Dr. Ron