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Low Hanging Fruit and the Bronze Age

I think I answered a question almost correctly a couple of weeks back – it was what kept the American Indians from developing industry that could rival 16th Century Europe . . . and I keep coming back to Bronze.  In Iraq (Mesopotamia) and the Indus Valley, the Bronze age began about 3300 years BCE.  At the same time (or even earlier), evidence around the Great Lakes shows that Native Americans were also working metal, in what archaeologists term the Copper Complex.

The different development fits in with what was available – the copper deposits around the Great Lakes were pure, or nearly pure large nuggets.  They didn’t require smelting to purify the ore – a pair of flat stones was enough for the early American coppersmith.  The second aspect of development is tin – while the Greeks, Levants and Mesopotamians found potential tin mines within 40 miles of their copper mines, their counterparts near the Great Lakes would have had to travel to El Paso to find an equally accessible source of tin. 

On the other hand, the copper available in South America had sulfur contaminants, required some level of smelting, and tin was available in Peru, Chile and Bolivia.  The native population there did develop bronze – there is a century-old article on the topic.  Still, the iron resources that would have been the next step into industry were abundant . . . by the Great Lakes.

If I recall correctly, our nation’s first oil well – in Pennsylvania – was not quite 70 feet deep.  Low hanging fruit – the resources you can exploit without much investment.  The time was 1859, and whale oil was getting to be more costly.  Now, 160 years later, the low hanging fruit has been harvested, and continuing a culture based on fossil fuels requires considerably more complexity.

The problem with looking at natural resources in terms of low hanging fruit is exactly as it sounds – the easy stuff has already been harvested.  In 150 years, we’ve gone from 70 foot oil wells to fracking.  By the end of the bronze age, tin was coming to Greece from Britain.  We have to be culturally ready to take advantage of those resources – and looking at the copper of the Great Lakes, sometimes the lowest hanging fruit can’t lead to the next step.

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