History of Copper


Copper is one of the few metals to naturally occur as an uncompounded mineral. Copper was known to some of the oldest civilizations on record, and has a history of use that is at least 10,000 years old. A copper pendant was found in what is now northern Iraq that dates to 8700 BC.

By 5000 BC, there are signs of copper smelting, the refining of copper from simple copper compounds such as malachite or azurite. Among archaeological sites in Anatolia, Çatal Höyük (~6000 BC) features native copper artefacts and smelted lead beads, but no smelted copper. But Can Hasan (~5000 BC) had access to smelted copper; this site has yielded the oldest known cast copper artefact, a copper mace head.

Copper smelting appears to have been developed independently in several parts of the world. In addition to its development in Anatolia by 5000 BC, it was developed in China before 2800 BC, in Central America around 600 AD, and in West Africa around 900 AD.

The Egyptians found that adding a small amount of tin made copper easier to cast, so bronze alloys were found in Egypt almost as soon as copper was discovered. In one pyramid, a copper plumbing system was found that is 5000 years old. There are copper and bronze artefacts from Sumerian cities that date to 3000 BC. Use of copper in ancient China dates to at least 2000 BC. By 1200 BC excellent bronzes were being made in China. In Europe, Oetzi the Iceman, a well-preserved male dated to 3200 BC, was found with a copper-tipped axe whose metal was 99.7% pure. High levels of arsenic in his hair suggest he was involved in copper smelting.

The use of bronze was so pervasive in a certain era of civilization that it has been named the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age is taken as 2500 BC to 600 BC.  The transitional period in certain regions between the preceding Neolithic period and the Bronze Age is termed the Chalcolithic, with some high-purity copper tools being used alongside stone tools.

Ancient Copper ingot from Zakros, Crete is shaped in the form of an animal skin typical for that era.

Ancient Copper ingot from Zakros, Crete is shaped in the form of an animal skin typical for that era.

In Greek times, copper was known by the name chalkos (χαλκός). Copper was a very important resource for both the Romans and Greeks. In Roman times, it became known as aes Cyprium (aes being the generic Latin term for copper alloys such as bronze and other metals, and Cyprium because so much of it was mined in Cyprus). From this, the phrase was simplified to cuprum and then eventually Anglicized into the English copper. Copper was associated with the goddess Aphrodite/Venus in mythology and alchemy, owing to its lustrous beauty, its ancient use in producing mirrors, and its association with Cyprus, which was sacred to the goddess. In alchemy the symbol for copper was also the symbol for the planet Venus. Brass, an alloy of zinc and copper, was also known to the Greeks but first used extensively by the Romans.

Copper the metal of civilization


Click on the image to view the larger version.

Copper Mining

Copper has been mined for many centuries. During the Bronze age, copper was mined in the British Isles , with carbon dates establishing mining at around 2280 – 1890 BC (at 95% probability).

Copper mining in United States began with marginal workings by Native Americans and some development by early Spaniards. Europeans were mining copper in the USA as early as 1709.

Copper Mining in South Africa

Some two billion years ago, a series of violent volcanic eruptions, which took place over a period of millions of years, gave rise to a rich body of minerals, which became known as the Palabora Igneous Complex. The unique ore body outcropping at a small saddleback hill, later to be called Loolekop, contains a unique variety of minerals – copper, phosphates, magnetite, uranium, zirconium, nickel, gold, silver, platinum, and palladium. Smelting of copper iron occurred in the district prior to the discovery. We know from the artefacts found in the area that copper of remarkable purity was produced in the Phalaborwa area as early as the 8th century.


Development of modern mining activity for copper started at the beginning of the 20th century when several geologists noted the occurrence of the phosphate bearing mineral, apatite, in the vicinity of Loolekop.

Copper Pricing

The Intergovernmental Council of Copper Exporting Countries (CIPEC), defunct since 1992, once tried to play a similar role for copper as OPEC does for oil, but never achieved the same influence, not least because the second-largest producer, the United States, was never a member. Formed in 1967, its principal members were Chile, Peru, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and Zambia.

The copper price has quintupled since 1999, rising from $0.60 per pound in June 1999 to $3.75 per pound in May 2006.