Chilean scientists discover the Americas’ oldest mine near Talta.

Prehistoric miners extracted huge quantities of iron oxide pigment in northern Chile some 10,000 years ago, forcing anthropologists to reconsider view of society.


Archaeologists stand in wonder at the discovery of an ancient mine in northern Chile, which dates back thousands of years, before the apogee of ancient Egypt and around the time that humans began using pottery.

In 2008, Diego Salazar and a group of investigators at the Universidad de Chile came upon the ancient mine in a valley in San Ramón near Taltal, in northern Chile. Last year, analysis of the remains determined the site’s age: between 10,000 and 12,000 years old.

The findings have now been confirmed by U.S. archaeology magazine, Current Archaeology, which definitively established that the mine is the oldest ever discovered in the Americas.

The mine is attributed to the Huentelauqén society, who lived between Los Vilos and Antofogasta some 9,000 to 12,000 years ago. The Huentelauqéns were previously understood as hunter-gatherers who that lived along the coast in northern Chile, in a migratory lifestyle that lacked higher organization.

However, the designated use of iron ore pigment and the sheer quantity extracted has led anthropologists to reconsider their ideas about a simple hunter-gatherer society. The pigment was used as body dye in religious rituals: “The fact that they excavated a mine shows the importance that religion occupied in their lifestyle, because they neither ate, sold or bought iron oxide,” Salazar told Chilean daily El Mercurio.

“We have established that during the time the mine was in use, they mined about 700 cubic meters of rock, which is equivalent to some 2,000 tons. This indicates that there was surplus production, which in turn means the economy was more complex than what we had previously thought,” Salazar added in a different interview.

Ancient miners extracted the mineral during a period ranging between 1,000 and 2,000 years, as shown by radiocarbon measurements, and the tools were limited to simple rock hammers and tools fashioned from sea shells.

“This discovery is revolutionary, because until now we considered that such ancient hunter-gatherer groups only stocked raw materials occasionally and when chance arose,” explains Juan Vicent, a well-known Spanish archaeologist, who travelled to Taltal to see the marvel with his own eyes.

In Vicent’s opinion, archaeologists are looking at proof of intensive and planned labor. Though destined for local use by the Huentelauqén, it also produced surplus for trade. This marks a difference from the textbook case of ancient nomadic cultures.

“If so, we will probably have to revise some of the most fundamental ideas we share on hunter-gatherer societies,” he concludes.

Before this find, a North American copper mine dated to between 4,500 and 2,600 years ago was the oldest known in the Americas.