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Copper Age History

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  • 0:04 The Chalcolithic Period
  • 0:57 Starting the Copper Age
  • 2:08 Social Changes in the…
  • 3:24 The End of the Copper Age
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

At some point, many human societies began using metal tools. How did this happen? In this lesson, we're going to explore the Copper Age and see what impact this had on world history.

The Chalcolithic Period

At one point, all human societies relied on stone tool technology. Eventually, some of these cultures started the process of developing agriculture, still with stone tools, which we call the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age. Then, many societies discovered bronze, which kicked off what historians call the Bronze Age. The transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age took experimentation, failure, and innovation, creating a society that actually relied on bronze tools.

The period between the late Neolithic and the early Bronze Age, during which human societies started experimenting with metal tools and slowly reorganizing their societies, is called the Chalcolithic period. Like the Stone Ages and the Bronze Age, it's also named after the material that changed everything. Welcome to the Copper Age.

Starting the Copper Age

The Copper Age was a time of profound social and cultural change. It should be noted that not all societies started this process at the same time, or in the same way. Some never adopted metal at all. However, many of these changes first occurred around the eastern Mediterranean. The story begins around the end of the 5th millennium BCE. The climate, which had been great for agriculture, became drier, and many societies returned to hunter-gatherer lifestyles. With the domestication of animals that had occurred, many also resorted to pastoral ranching rather than crop farming. All of this brought people into fiercer competition for resources and encouraged experimentation with new materials for more efficient tools.

Two metals suddenly became attractive candidates. One was gold. Gold is pretty and easy to work with, but is extremely soft and isn't great for tools; so, people used it for jewelry. However, gold is often found alongside another mineral: copper. Copper is relatively easy to heat and work into various shapes, but is much stronger than gold once cooled. Ancient craftspeople had their new material.

The distribution of copper technology, with darkest being the oldest
Map

Social Changes in the Copper Age

The true Copper Age is considered to have lasted from around 3500 to 2300 BCE. During this time, human societies began widely utilizing copper for a variety of reasons. They used it to make metal tools for agriculture, construction, and other aspects of daily life. They were still using stone tools as well, but metal was becoming pretty appealing. They also used copper for weapons, to defend their resources in this era of competition. Warriors quickly rose to the top of society as elite and respected protectors of the village.

Copper-tipped axe found on the famous Copper Age mummy named Otzi
Copper axe

However, with some people spending literally all of their time either fighting or training, you needed other people whose jobs were to make enough food everyone. With some people farming more, other people are responsible for other chores, and everyone develops specific skills. To organize them all you need a stronger government. The creation of social hierarchies and divisions of labor were part of the Neolithic, but it was intensified during the Copper Age. The new metal also redefined trade opportunities since a great number of people wanted it, and thus, copper quickly became a prized trade commodity. Copper mined in the Middle East could end up as far as Northwest Europe or Central Africa, and so some of the world's first substantial international economies appeared.

Copper spear points
Copper spear points

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