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The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Natural Resources (November 2018): Mineral Resources

By Brian Shmaefsky

Mineral Resources

Mineral resources are classified into metallic and non-metallic minerals, according to W. J. Rankin in Minerals, Metals and Sustainability. The most commonly used metallic minerals include aluminum, copper, iron, lead, tin, and zinc. Commonly used non-metallic minerals include dimension stone feldspar, granite, gypsum, halite, limestone, and uranium, as mentioned by George Merrill in The Non-Metallic Minerals. To avoid confusion, this essay will refer to metallic minerals as metals and non-metallic minerals as minerals.

As discussed in Metallurgical Design and Industry edited by Brett Kaufman and Clyde Briant, archeological evidence shows that ancient civilizations used slightly refined local mineral resources to create roughly carved stones, tools, weapons, and spiritual objects. Crudely prepared clay was sundried for use as pottery and figurines. Naturally occurring pure metals were rare and used mostly for weapons and ornaments. According to Jack Weatherford in The History of Money, the advent of trade between groups starting in 6000 BCE led to the use of mineral resources as currency. Despite the lack of sophistication in processing minerals and metals into useable materials, evidence suggests there existed well-established methods of shallow surface mining for these materials in prehistoric times, according to editors Margaret Brewer-LaPorta, Adrian Burke, and David Field in Ancient Mines and Quarries.

In Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past, Paul Bahn provides detailed accounts of the earliest evidence of mineral usage. During the aptly named Stone Age, stones were fashioned into crudely chipped stone tools. Small settlements started forming during the Mesolithic era. In History of Mankind, Jacquetta Hawkes explains that life in the settlements necessitated more effective, durable tools. Mesolithic people created finely trimmed tools and weapons using a more refined chipping process; by the end of the Mesolithic era, humans had learned to make polished tools that were less susceptible to breakage.

 In The History of Silver, Claude Blair explains that Stone Age people sought alternatives to durable minerals that, unlike stones, could be molded. Evidence shows that surface deposits of silver were collected, hammered, and sculptured into various items. Silver proved ideal for fashioning delicate trinkets, sharp tools, and lightweight vessels. Success with silver led to experimentation with similarly malleable metals. Copper, gold, lead, and tin demonstrated properties similar to silver and were soon exploited as well.

Metals found greater demand when early humans learned open fire forging methods, according to Jonathan Golden in Dawn of the Metal Age. The softened metal was easier to mold. Ultimately, people began melting the metals and shaping them in casts. Melting also permitted the mixing of different metals to produce alloys, as is evident in the Bronze Age.

Iron gained popularity later as high temperature smelting was developed using ovens around 2000 BC (see Fernando Coimbra et al.’s discussion in Late Prehistory and Protohistory). The Iron Age set in motion a future that demanded large amounts of metals. In their article “Discovery, Supply and Demand,” John Sykes, J.P. Wright, and A. Trench consider how the growing demand drained many areas of metal resources, which in turn led to the search for new resources in occupied and uncharted regions.

In The History of Mining, Michael Coulson describes how improvements in mining techniques further encouraged the exploitation of mineral resources. Ancient surface mining practices yielded only small amounts of mineral. According to Robert Shepherd in Ancient Mining, subsurface mining using short shallow tunnels significantly enhanced the yield of local mineral resource deposits.

Subsurface mining did not quell the post–Iron Age desire to seek out mineral resources far from home. In Trade in the Ancient Economy, editors Peter Garnsey, Keith Hopkins, and C. R. Whittaker explain that early global trade introduced both new minerals and new sources of known minerals. Subsurface mining made it more profitable to extract distantly located natural resources. The boundless yields of material collected by subsurface mining were well worth the cost of transporting them over great distances.

In Mining and Metallurgy in the Greek and Roman World, J. F. Healy describes another factor that streamlined the unquenchable search for mineral resources: the advent of mineral resource surveying techniques. The ancient Greeks and Romans incorporated geological analyses into land survey methods originally developed by the Egyptians around 3,000 years prior. The mathematics and science of Egyptian mining is explained by Rosemarie Klemm and Dietrich Klemm in Gold and Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia.

 These improved mining methods not only increased the use of mineral resources for many nonessential uses. They also compelled society to seek out uses for almost every obtainable type of mineral, as Michael Klare discusses in The Race for What’s Left. The handful of minerals used in antiquity has since grown to include most of the elements on the periodic table. Many of the recently mined mineral resources are components of electronic devices, as described in Eugene Irene’s Electronic Materials Science. Even dyes and pigments now make use of a host of the newer mineral resources, as Klaus Hunger explains in Industrial Dyes. 

Works Cited