Michigan’s Ancient Copper Culture: An Essay on Speculative History

copper-culture-lost-cities-2Truth and Lies. Facts and frauds. The history of this planet is filled with both objective and subjective accounts of the events that have transpired throughout the millennia. The subjectivity comes from lone sources, perhaps a single person’s record of an event or conclusions drawn from incomplete evidence; whereas objectivity comes from the synthesis of an array of sources. It is to objectivity that we must turn for our final answer. But often, just as in any other situation, the objectivity and the subjectivity, the accepted and the radical, are in conflict with each other. In the realm of speculative history, this rings all too true as the conventions are shaken, or at least attempted to, by those who have alternate ideas of how history unfolded. One such example is unfolding right in our own backyard, as the idea of outside influence on Native American development is proliferating.

As accepted theory currently maintains, cultures of the New World developed independently and isolated from the rest of the world.  New publications are pointing to evidence which they believe could overturn this longstanding idea and prove that Native America was indeed in contact with the outside world. For as long as Europeans have been exploring the New World and documenting the inhabitants of the Americas, conjecture arose about their origins, which in fact was simply an earlier incarnation of the speculative history genre. At times of first contact, they were indeed thought to be Indians, a term which still sticks to this day. Throughout the passing years, hypotheses came and went, such as they were survivors of the lost continent of Atlantis, migrants from the besieged Carthage, or descendants of the lost tries of Israel (Fagan 2005:31, Feder 1996:77).

More time passed, and more hypotheses sprung up, some more ridiculous and some more plausible. But, it was not until Jose de Acosta wrote his Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias in 1589 that the most logical and, quite simply, correct solution began to emerge (Fagan 2005:31). After de Acosta’s suggestion that the inhabitants came to the continent on a land source between America and Asia as other animals did, later researchers began to elaborate on the idea (Fagan 2005:31). After Vitus Bering actually sailed the distance between the Russian and Alaskan coasts in 1741, the world became aware of just how close the New and Old Worlds were (Feder 1996:82). Using linguistic studies, a better understanding of geology, and much more recently, genetic testing, we now know that the vast majority, if not all, of Native American populations are descended from immigrants from northeastern Asia.

Though it is obvious that the Native Americans developed a vast influence over the two American continents, some people are beginning to cite evidence that they may not have been the first or only ones here. They say this evidence suggests that explorers, traders, and perhaps even settlers came from many different parts of the globe (Feder 1996:72). Places such as Europe, China, Africa, and Oceania have all been hypothesized as points of origin for these peoples (Feder 1996:72).

One of these hypotheses that seems to have gained a substantial following is that copper miners came from the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age. Most of these advocates point to the Minoans and Egyptians as likely candidates for these traders (Joseph 2002:35). They propose that as a sea-faring culture had its influence spread well throughout the Mediterranean Sea, the Minoans had both the means and the desire to reach North America (Joseph 2002:35). They point out that the Minoans were a culture that heavily embraced the alloy, bronze, of which copper is a primary ingredient. The only source of the quality copper that they needed was in Cyprus, and that was a limited supply (Joseph 2002:37). In order to maintain their position as an economic superpower within the Mediterranean, they needed an abundant supply of copper, which is exactly what the Great Lakes region of North America would have provided them (Joseph 2002:37).

But, in order to make these proposals, these advocates need some sort of evidence. Enter the first piece of circumstantial evidence used by the revisionists: the time frame. Oddly enough, in most other cases the time frame is completely overlooked and revisionists with try to place their events hundreds or thousands of years out of sync with history. This is not in the case of the Minoans, who were at the height of their Bronze Age civilization between 3000 and 1500 BCE with their decline between 1450 and 1200 BCE (Jewell 2004:79). They point out that this almost perfectly coincides with the bulk of the mining done in the Lake Superior region between 2400 and 1200 BCE (Jewell 2004:21).

There are also artifacts that these revisionists use to justify their claims. One of the much more intriguing artifacts was found in Maine in 1975 while a man named Michael Rose dug the foundation to a house along the Penobscot River (Joseph 2002:21). The item found less than twelve feet of earth was a small silver-nickel alloy object that bore a figure which is almost unmistakably the same as the Minoan Earth Goddess (Joseph 2002:34). The object itself is about the area of a nickel and the thickness of a dime (Joseph 2002:34). It appeared to be a piece of a moving type press, exactly like what would have been used to create the identical images all along the infamous Phaestos Disk (Joseph 2002:34).

Other artifacts that are nearly identical to Minoan design have been found along the supposed route that they would have taken. Many labrys, double axes sacred to the Minoans, have been found in Ohio as well as in Wisconsin (Joseph 2002:36). There is also a striking resemblance between copper ingots shaped as ox hide found in Minoan territory to ox hide shaped copper ornaments used by the Woodland peoples of North America from 1000 BCE to CE 1500 (Joseph 2002:34).

One of the most famous artifacts in these circles is known generally as the Newberry Tablet. The Newberry Tablet was a 19 by 26 inch tablet discovered with three statues outside of Newberry, Michigan in 1896. It has what appeared to be a Minoan-Hittite language inscribed on it that is very similar to the Linear A script that was used on Crete (Joseph 2002:36, Jewell 2004:36). Photos of the tablet and statues were submitted to the Smithsonian Institute by a Charles Brebner, where it was brushed off as a hoax (Jewell 2004:41).

The advocates of the authenticity of the tablet are quick to respond that it has never actually been thoroughly studied and given that our current knowledge of the linguistic history of that area of the Eastern Mediterranean, new insights may be yielded to connections in the tablets scripts (Jewell 2004:139-141). This is understandable, given that when the tablet was discovered, the Minoans had only just been discovered by Minos Kailokairinos in 1876, and it was not excavated by Sir Arthur Evans until 1900, four years after the Newberry Tablet had been found.

Another site in Wisconsin has expanded the following this hypothesis had already gained. Rock Lake, a body of water in the town of Lake Mills, and only a few miles away from the Mississippian site of Aztalan, has beneath its waters what are clearly artificial edifices (Rock Lake Research Society 2007). According to the Rock Lake Research Society, an organization of amateur archaeologists that dives in the lake and records their findings, local oral traditions “deny any affiliation to the prehistoric mining operations; rather they cite ‘ancient maritime foreigners’ who mined the ‘Red Rock’” and constructed “Rock Teepees” that now lay submerged in Rock Lake (Rock Lake Research Society 2007). The Society has also put together a timeline of events which they believe took place at the site over the past five thousand years that roughly follows the ideas of the European copper mining hypothesis, but their timeline is based mostly on speculation with almost no evidence to support it at all (Rock Lake Research Society 2007).

Regardless of what beliefs the Society may have about the history of the area, the fact remains that there are structures submerged under the lake. The Society has done many dives at Rock Lake and taken photos of many of the structures. Among those photographed are a triangular-shaped mound, a ridge-topped structure made of stone, and a circular, well structure made of stone (Rock Lake Research Society 2007). There is an obvious symmetry to each of these in the photographs, and given the nature of their location, it is highly doubtful that these have been hoaxed by the modern inhabitants.

While the Rock Lake Research Society has done an excellent job of documenting the structures and raising awareness of them, given that there has been almost no work done to excavate them, it is highly presumptuous of them to draw any kind of solid conclusions from the submerged structures. And while they are not attempting to create a fraud to the archaeological community, their results and timeline for the site are a prime example of the subjective conclusions that can be formed off of incomplete evidence.

The same can also be said about the hypothesis of Bronze Age European traders in the Great Lakes region five thousand years ago. Even though there are shreds of evidence here and there that may hint at that conclusion, there are still many factors left unanswered. If these traders were indeed Minoans, who were an urban, commercial culture, why are there no traces of attempts at building any kind of outpost anywhere along the St. Lawrence Seaway? And perhaps more importantly, how would the Minoans have discovered a copper source in such a far distant land in the first place? Questions such as these are necessary, but if Minoan exploration was occurring, they should not be unanswerable.

There is always the possibility that people like the Minoans were making regular trips back and forth between the continents. If any prehistoric culture would be capable, it certainly would be them. They might very well have been just one of many cultures traversing the oceans before Columbus. But the fact remains that, even if they were, they left little to no impact on the Native American population that they would have interacted with. Their arrival did not spark of any kind of sudden jump in technology. Nor did it introduce any kind of written language. In fact, there almost seems to have been a technological regression after the fall of the Old Copper Complex back to Stone Age type subsistence when the modern European explorers arrived (Jewell 2004:75). And even if the artifacts mentioned are validated as original and authentic, they simply remained buried in the earth and ignored by the Native Americans.

It was not until the fully documented and generally accepted arrival of the Vikings in northeastern North America that effects were felt. The tales of the journeys to North America were fully recorded in their Sagas (Feder 1996:111). And unlike the hypothetical copper traders, the Vikings left clearly distinct settlements behind at sites such as L’Anse aux Meadows (Feder 1996:115). They also had noticeable influences on the natures themselves, such as the Norse penny found at a site in Maine, or a Thule figurine that was wearing European clothing (Feder 1996:115)

So, among the truth and lies, the facts and frauds, therein lies one of the milder, more conceivable stories of the genre of speculative history. So many people have tried to rewrite history in a subjective manner that it can become hard to uncover the objective truth. We cannot always accept things as we see them or we will fall victim to frauds. But, if we simply dismiss everything that does not fit into the accepted paradigm as a fraud, we could very well be cheating ourselves of our own past, our own truth.

Works Cited

Fagan, Brian.  2005 Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent. Thames & Hudson. New York.

Feder, Kevin L.  1996 Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Psuedoscience in Archaeology. Mayfield. Mountainview, CA.

Jewell, Robert L.  2004 Ancient Mines of Kitch-Gummi: Cypriot/Minoan Traders in North America. Jewell Histories. Fairfield, PA.

Joseph, Frank. And Wayne May.  2002 Minoans in America. Ancient American, 43(7): 34-37.

Rock Lake Research Society.  2007 History: A Rock Lake Historic Interpretational Overview. Electronic Document, http://www.rocklakeresearch.com/history.htm, accessed 9 April, 2008.

14 thoughts on “Michigan’s Ancient Copper Culture: An Essay on Speculative History

  1. Pingback: America’s Stonehenge: Megalithic Ruins, Ancient Sailors, and Alpacas | Slightly Removed

  2. how are you? i am totally covinced the michigan relics are real=sumerians=jews =vikings seem to have been in the copper country=the jews used cuniiform and hebrew square to write about god and then christians used these scripts==it is impossible for the men who found them to have shaped the copper plates,done the artwork of anceint nations and known how to write coded runes and sumerian cuniform==michigan was truely a great nation from sumeria,the greeks,nordics and jews===its odd how so many educated people have disbeleived==it seems to be an organized effort to suppress the michigan relics and thier message

  3. Steve, thanks for the comment, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to you.

    I know the artifacts you are referring to and saw them when on exhibit a few years ago in Lansing. I agree that it seems immensely unlikely for the people who found most of them to have also perpetrated the hoax on their own. However, just having looked at the majority of the slate tablets in person (something I unfortunately have not been able to do with the Newberry Tablet) I do not believe them to be authentically of Old World origin. Or, for that matter, to be done by ancient sailors from the Old World.

    I’m not currently in Michigan, so I cannot pull out my own photographs of the slate tablets to give you exact examples. However, I have pulled up some on internet searches to jog my memory.

    Firstly, after seeing them in person, I was immediately struck that they look almost cartoony. Yes, the script does look like authentic cuneiform, and I’m uncertain as to whether or not any of them have ever been attempted to be translated. However, the pictures on them depict things as varied as sailors to Bible scenes to Egyptian headdresses to Jesus to portraits of stereotypical Native Americans with feathers. And all of them are drawn in a style that looks nothing like what Old World relics by any of these cultures looked like. The only similar one I’ve ever seen is this one from Iraq found in 1902.

    Something to keep in mind about cuneiform is that people have been familiar with it in the Mesopotamian region all these past 2000 years since its discontinued use. However, it wasn’t until the early 1800′s that a nearly complete translation of it was possible.

    Another thing that doesn’t quite add up practically is the wide range of these and the time frame. The last recorded use of cuneiform anywhere in the Old World is in around 75 CE. This is after the time that Jesus is supposed to have lived, but barely. Meanwhile, the Late (last period) Copper Complex is usually dated to ending around 1000 BCE. Though, that is open for some debate.

    These artifacts depict things happening up until, what would essentially be, the last possible years that they were coming and mining/trading for the copper, if the portraits of Jesus, etc. are to be believed. Yet they also depict things and people and cultures going back several thousand years.

    These cultures were not all homogenous. They had relationships and traded with each other, an even drew from each other culturally. But they weren’t (and I don’t mean this sarcastically) getting together for sailing parties in the Mediterranean, much less across the world.

    These tablets found in Michigan depict headdresses and that are clearly meant to be Egyptian in style. Egyptians didn’t use cuneiform, and had their own highly developed writing system almost concurrently with the Mesopotamian/Sumerian powers. Likewise, the Hebrew script was used from the late 1000′s BCE onward. There would not likely be cuneiform script about Jesus, given its date of decline.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that most influential cultures are lucky to get a window of 500-1000 years of true prominence. These Michigan slate tablets depict events over at least 2000 years and hardly vary in style at all. If they were from that length of time AND the product of a blending of many cultures, they would most certainly visually vary much more than they do.

    And sorry, but even if these are, each and every one, authentic, they would have nothing to do with the Vikings/Norse. Despite the fact that they are proven to have made trans-Atlantic journeys, they came nearly 1000 years after the decline of these Near Eastern civilization and had no relation to them culturally, linguistically, or geographically.

    My thoughts on them, and I freely admit have absolutely no evidence to back this up, is that these may be the product of (a branch of) the Church of Latter Day Saints. In the middle 1800s, before the tablets began being unearthed, the Mormons had a significant presence in Michigan. After the death of Joseph Smith, while most of the church followed Brigham Young westward, others followed James Strang to Wisconsin and then to Beaver Island Michigan.

    In an odd chapter in the state’s history, the Church members outnumbered the non-Mormon residents. Strang declared himself King of the church, and this effectively made him King of the Island. His position lasted for 6 years relatively isolated and unnoticed by the rest of the state, until he was murdered in 1856, and his killers were brought aboard the USS Michigan and dropped off on Mackinac Island without charges.

    One of the fundamental beliefs of the Latter Day Saints is that Jesus continued his ministry in North America. I hate to say this seriously, but the South Park episode “All About Mormons” actually does a good job of explaining it semi-objectively. Ancient tablets surfacing in buried mounds that depicted evidence of everything they were suddenly teaching may certainly advance their cause, if taken seriously.

    As I said, that is merely a hypothetical conjecture. However, the time and circumstances fit. Cuneiform was just beginning to be understood. The Mormons under Strang had a motive, manpower and relative isolation and resources. And the 1850-1856 (Strang’s rule) was before the tablets began to be discovered.

    • A few points on that:

      1) Lake Superior is among the largest freshwater seas in the world. It covers a vast area that is not entirely able to be surveyed.
      2) That is assuming there is something to find. Assuming that Europeans were making these trips and then assuming a ship sank at some point. No excavation would ever be funded on those premises.
      3) The record maximum scuba depth is about 1000 feet. The usual recommended diving depth is only 130 feet. Lake Superior’s average depth is 483 feet. Its maximum depth is 1332 feet. Add to that the temperatures there. Diving for wrecks is not advisable through much of it.
      4) Lake Superior has been slowly losing water over the last few thousand years. There’s no way that any above-water settlements would have been swallowed by the Lake.

  4. It would seem the majority of those who believe in the copper culture peoples who ever they may be forget one important thing. Geography. The geography we see in Northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan today is not the same as 5000 or 10,000 years ago. Most of what is written about the this copper mining history is not correct because they do not account for the who, what, and where, because things were very different from what we see today and what it really was like back in historical time. As to the evidence of unknown ancients. It is more than there. And it was not the natives that where mining it. The opps artifacts seem to tell us that many different peoples from all over the world were there and at many different time periods.

    • have a short book written about the mich relics==trying to get it going==the symbols,the cuneform,the religion= all solved===presto=i sent a story to ancient american and wayne may told me rewrite it but i havent===oh well

      • Steve LaPoint, Thanks for writing and I’d be curious to hear some of the ideas you’ve got.

        However, if they are telling you to re-visit some ideas or formatting, you might want to take it to heart. You’ve posted this message before and I skipped over it because of the formatting you used in the comment. It could use some editing help.

        Still, I hope it works out for you.

        Regards,
        Ben

      • Thanks Ben for noticing. I have been exploring and discovering the mysteries we have here in the Great Lakes.for a very long time. We are in the process of publishing these new discoveries. They will also be shown on TV in the near future. It turns out many different peoples over the years discovered the copper country going all the way back to when the ice was here. We have located the places where they lived, hunted, their copper and iron mines, their light houses, their harbors etc. The oldest location discovered to date is 11,250 years of age. Most are in the 9 to 10 thousand year time frame. It frustrates us a little when people talk of the copper culture in Upper Michigan as the place where it all started when this is not the case. It started in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota then much later developed in Michigan. But for some reason you never here this. Thanks again. Dave

      • Sorry Dave, I addressed that last comment to the wrong person. It was meant for Steve.

        I’d be curious to see some of the information on these structures like lighthouse and harbours if you have links to them.

  5. R Jewell Here: I like your site. one comment, The copper traders did make an impact on the native cultures. when they first came the natives were archaic, by the time the trade ended, The woodland culture was being formed. The Bow and Arrow, fish nets, food storage and probable many more. sorry if that was not clear in my book. but like one of your other commenters. My English could be much improved. PS I like your ideas. If you would like to add a link to my site it is: jewellhistories.com

    • Mr. Jewell,

      Thanks for writing. Your book is certainly full of a lot of good and interesting information. However, the hypothesis that these copper miners were in fact European of some sort is still immensely conjectural. Much more evidence and study needs to be done before this can be stated as a certainty.

      The copper mining took place over a fair amount of time. I think it’s entirely possible that these changes in the culture you speak of could have been their on natural cultural development or simply influence from yet another Native American group.

      It’s a fascinating topic and I love reading new insights into it. Again, thanks for coming by.

      Ben

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