Mining and Refining Metals: Indigenous and Creole Traditions

The establishment of large-scale mining in the Americas was a product of Iberian colonization. Mining and metallurgy, however, formed an important part of many pre-Columbian cultures, and indigenous mining knowledge and technologies continued into the colonial era. Over the centuries, distinctive colonial mining cultures took shape that drew on European, indigenous, and also African practices.

1. José de Acosta. Historia natural y moral de las Indias (Seville, 1590).  

2. Garcilaso de la Vega. Primera parte de los commentarios reales (Lisbon, 1609).

Andean silver refining techniques involved the use of a huayra, or wind oven. Huayras continued to be used in the colonial period for smelting high-grade ore. José de Acosta and Garcilaso de la Vega describe how Potosí's silver mountain was illuminated at night by thousands of operating wind ovens.


3. Alcide Dessalines d'Orbigny, Voyage dans l'Amérique méridionale (Paris, 1844).

This French naturalist suggested that Samaipata, an archaeological site in the Bolivian Andes, had functioned as a gold-washing site in Inka times. Current scholarship suggests that d'Orbigny's interpretation of Samaipata was mistaken. Nonetheless, gold was mined and worked extensively in the Pre-Columbian Andes.


4. Joseph Coquette, Indice de algunas voces usadas en el Peru para designar las substancias fosiles, y servir de interpretacion á la mineralogía de Kirwan (Lima, [1792]).

This late eighteenth century text compares the mineralogical terms used in Richard Kirwan's Elements of Mineralogy (1784) with those commonly used in Peru. Some of the latter—for example, umpi (inflammable gas)—were Quechua words. Chapopote (tar), meanwhile, is a word of Nahuatl origin that was adopted in Peru.


5. Alvaro Alonso Barba, Arte de los metales (Madrid, [1729]).

First published in 1640, this famous treatise describes an innovative amalgamation process for refining silver developed in Potosí by its author, a Spanish-born priest. The text reflects the emergence of distinctive colonial knowledges and of the idea of New World difference: at Potosí, Barba wrote, the richest silver veins run north-south, in contrast to Europe, where they run east-west.

  the Exhibition may be seen in the reading room from April 2015 through august 2015.