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In the ancient past, metals were unknown. When they were discovered and man learned how to work them, people's lives changed. The history of metals can be traced back to almost nine thousand years ago, in the Near East. The first metal to be used was copper, when the ancient inhabitants of Palestine and Anatolia hammered pieces of natural copper to make tools. Over the following centuries, man learned to extract copper from ores and to mix it with tin to make bronze. Bronze enabled ancient empires to produce weapons for their conquering armies. Strong tools were used in agriculture and the manufacture of handicrafts, and production increased. Metals have been used for many purposes since those times. Gold and silver adorned great figures and accompanied them to their graves. They were used in religious worship for making ornaments and symbols.
New technical processes made it possible for other metals to be used: the result was stronger tools and weapons, buildings reinforced with hooks, and doors with locks and iron fittings. Iron gave the nations that produced it a great advantage, for the rulers of those kingdoms demanded more and better ornaments. Bronze and iron metallurgy and gold and silver metalwork thus grew side by side.
By 1000 B.C., almost all the peoples of the Old World had metals; from the Mediterranean and right across Persia to India, weapons, instruments and a wide range of ornaments were made of bronze and gold. Metallurgy spread from China to Japan, where the samurais were armed, and also to south-east Asia, where temples were given golden domes.
By the time the Roman Empire fell, metal implements were part of everyday life. Trade was impossible without coins, as were daily activities without metal tools. The religions of the ancient world in Asia, Africa and Europe turned to gold and silver for making sacred objects. In the upheavals of the medieval world, metals of the West clashed in war with those of the East. West African states south of the Sahara began to use bronze around 1300 to decorate their royal cities. Convoys crossed the desert in order to supply blacksmiths with the raw materials they needed and to distribute their products. African metal-smiths mastered the art of smelting, and ornaments and delicate miniatures convey a profound symbology.
Ancient South Americans began to work copper and gold around 1500 B.C. About a thousand years later, various Andean cultures adorned their leaders with sumptuous costumes. Gold and silver were reserved for leaders and religion; ritual and symbolic objects conveyed a view of the world that was shared by the whole society.
By 500 A.D., metallurgy had become a common activity from central Mexico to northern Chile and Argentina. Individual styles developed in each region: sheet figures in Mexico, small gold ornaments in Central America, gilded tumbaga ornaments in Colombia and Ecuador, colorful gilded copper and silver attire in Peru, and bronze plates in the southern Andes.
Metallurgy in pre-Hispanic Colombia was, above all else, gold work. Over a period of two thousand years, many different styles developed and thousands of objects were made for rituals and offerings. The Indians mastered gold, copper, tumbaga and platinum. The European conquest in 1500 cut this development short and resulted in gold work production ceasing.
The production of metals has progressed by leaps and bounds over the last 300 years. The vast industry uses millions of tons of metal every year, with even non-industrial societies using ever more metals for the most varied of purposes. The history of mankind in the last nine thousand years has been the history of metals, as it is with these that we have built the world we live in.