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3,000-year-old copper mask is found in Argentina

Leticia Inés Cortés/María Cristina Scattolin/Antiquity Front and back of anthropomorphic metal artifact that suggests an ancient center of metallurgy existed in the Argentine AndesLeticia Inés Cortés/María Cristina Scattolin/Antiquity

A 3,000-year-old rectangular copper mask in a shape resembling a human face, found in 2015 in northwestern Argentina, could reshape the history of metallurgy in the Americas. This anthropomorphic artifact, found alongside bones from 14 human bodies in a pit near the Bordo Marcial archeological site in Catamarca Province in the southern Andes, is the oldest copper object from the continent that was intentionally shaped by human hands, according to a paper by archeologists from the Museum of Ethnography at the University of Buenos Aires (Antiquity, June 2017). The discovery provides a new perspective on the emergence of metallurgy in the Andes, the region from which techniques for molding metals using fire are thought to have spread throughout the Americas. The area that is now Peru, north of the great South American desert, is generally cited as the birthplace of pre-Columbian metallurgy. The mask measures 18 by 15 centimeters, and it came from a region located close to copper reserves. This context suggests that metallurgy may have developed in more than one point of origin in the Andes, according to Leticia Inés Cortés and María Cristina Scattolin, authors of the paper. The advanced age of the artifact suggests that it was made during a transition period, when ancient nomadic hunter-gatherers began living in agro-pastoral villages and established themselves in specific places. The artifact also drew attention for its chemical composition because of the fact that it was made entirely of copper.