Copper Age: Definition, People & Facts

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll take a journey to the Copper Age, a period between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. You'll discover how copper tools came about, who used them, and what ended the Copper Age.

Reddish Gold, What's the Use?

Imagine yourself at the beginning of the Copper Age. While still in the late Neolithic period, a time of stone tool used to in hunting and fighting must most importantly in agriculture, you're about to discover something that will change the world, but what could it be? What could be so revolutionary that it will usher in a new age?

Thanks to agriculture, your people can settle into permanent villages and raise your food on site. This provides you with ample free time to learn new skills and trades. Your friend, one of the best villagers for stone knapping, the process of making sharp edges from stone by striking it with another object to break off pieces, brings you an interesting new rock to look at. It's a shiny stone similar to gold but looks more red than yellow. People in your region already make jewelry from the soft rocks of gold. Your friend explains that he found this rock when picking out good stones for tools. It's like gold but seems to be a little harder than the soft metal you are both used to working with for jewelry.

Copper Mineral Crystals
copper crystals

You agree to work with the rock for a bit and see if you can find a use for it. After some experimentation, you decide it's no good for knapping and while shaping it with force was possible, it certainly took more effort than gold. After setting it by the fire while you think about the problem, you notice it's starting to glow with the heat. You tap the hot rock with one of your stone hammers and notice you can easily shape it now. Well, this is a lucky discover! You carefully nudge the hot, glowing rock into one of your stone cooking bowls and set it in the hottest part of the fire to see if it gets even softer. It seems to work so you stoke the fire even more to see how soft it can get.

Copper Close to Its Melting Point
melting copper

Eventually, you realize it's melting like a chunk of ice in the warm sun. Well, you don't want it to melt away to nothing like ice so you pull it out of the fire where it begins to cool and harden. When it's cool enough to touch, you slide it out of the bowl to find it kept the shape of the vessel it was melted in and produced a negative of the impression. Now you have something to work it! Over the next few days, you chip out a hollow in a bigger stone in the shape of a curved blade you use to harvest grain. When your friend returns to see what you've come up with, you show him how you can heat the rock until it melts and pour it into the mold. When it cools, you have a hard blade with a sharper edge than any of the stone tools you've used until now. You've just developed the first metal tool and ushered in the Chalcolithic Age, also known as the copper age.

Copper Tools and Spear Points
copper spear points

The Chalcolithic Age and Peoples

The Chalcolithic Age was the shortest of the periods defined by innovation in tool use. After a remarkably long time in the Stone Age, where stone tools grew in complexity with the birth of agriculture toward the end of the age, the age of copper only lasted a few centuries depending on the location. Sometimes seen as a middle period between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, the Chalcolithic Age introduced the smelting and casting of metal ores, raw metals in the form mined from the earth. While the example above simplifies what was a centuries-long process of experimentation by many innovators, it reflects the basic information that stone tools came first, that gold was already being used for jewelry because it was soft and easy to shape, and that copper could be melted and caste.

Timna Copper Mine in Israel
Timna Copper Mine in Israel

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